We all think we know what the term “broody” means. It rhymes with moody and is often used interchangeably with that word, or we use it to describe someone who is ruminating over melancholy thoughts. Webster’s defines it as “given or conducive to introspection”
But until you’ve kept chickens, you don’t know the half of it. The original meaning of the word “broody” refers to the behavior of a hen “brooding” on a clutch of eggs to be hatched. There is no finer incubator on the planet than a hen whose internal clock tells her to set on her eggs for the requisite twenty-one days. But good luck trying to reason with a broody hen when there is no rooster (meaning no fertilized eggs) and, in fact, there are not even any eggs!
I’ve talked about broodiness here before a few times, and when Hope went broody last year, she hit the jackpot when we bestowed some day-old chicks upon her. But then she went broody again this summer, and we had no room at the inn for more baby chicks.
Although commercial hatcheries have successfully “bred out” the instinct in many breeds, a few, like Buff Orpingtons and Silkies, are known for a predilection for going broody. And Hope is one stubborn mama when she goes broody!
You know you have a broody hen when she 1) stops laying and 2) refuses to leave the nest. She may even become aggressive when approached. The inexperienced chicken keeper may think, as we did the first time around, that the hen is ill. No, thankfully, she is only CRAZY. Completely BONKERS. She will sit on the nest night and day, refusing to eat or drink, far beyond the 21-day gestational period. And when Hope went broody this time, Tulip went into a sympathetic brood mode along with her, so we had two loony ladies.
Broodiness is all about heat for a hen. Her body temperature ramps up to incubate the eggs. Hope tore out all her breast feathers, creating what is known as a “brood patch” in anticipation of providing body heat to newly-hatched chicks. She was in it to win it and no matter how many times we took her off the nest and locked her out of the coop to try to bring her to her senses, all she cared about was getting back on that nest. Another characteristic of a broody hen is a change in vocalization. Both Hope and Tulip scolded us with a deep, low clucking noise that was completely different than the sounds they usually made.
With Tulip and Hope dominating the nesting counter, the other hens went into a tizzy. The two “mean girls” intimidated the others from laying their eggs in the designated spot.
After six weeks of this nonsense, something had to be done. I’d read that the most reliable way to “break a broody” is to isolate her in a fully ventilated cage. You need a cage without a floor because the key to breaking the broodiness is to cool down the hen’s body temperature. As long as she “sets” on a surface, she will maintain the high temperature that tells her she is preparing to mother baby chicks.
We decided that a rabbit cage was just the thing for Hope’s “holding cell”. The CE set it up in our Ft. Knox-secure chicken run, where Hope would be safe from predators, and gave her fortified food, fresh water and treats to help her recover from her depleted state. At night we covered the cage with a blanket to keep her calm in case any unwelcome critters came around to watch the show. The recommendation I saw was to leave the hen in the cage for a solid three or four days, but we deviated a bit by letting her out of the cage to walk around with the other hens. That’s probably why it took a bit longer to accomplish the mission: Hope was in her broody cage for almost a week before the low broody clucking ceased and she regained her interest in being part of the flock.
When we finally let Hope out of her cage and she didn’t make a bee-line for the nesting counter, we knew we had won! Tulip, the wannabe broody, laid her first egg in weeks that very day.
We flew the the coop the other day, but Polloplayer friend Lori has been monitoring the situation. When she saw Hope head for the nest this morning, she sent out this photo tagged with a skeptical “Hmmm…”
Good news! Hope is back in the laying biz and we have triumphed over Gallus gallus domesticus! Always a good day when you get to feel smarter than a chicken.