Ran into neighbors the other day who were lamenting their dwindling flock of chickens. When you have just a handful of hens and no rooster and you live in an area where hawks patrol daily and coyotes prowl by night, flock attrition is an ongoing concern.
Our neighbors had had a broody hen but didn’t know she was the solution to their quandary. They spent days “breaking” her broodiness – intervening to re-set her hormones essentially by lowering her body temperature – when it turns out they could have put her to work building their flock. A broody hen is to a flock what sourdough starter is to bread – a small, homely miracle!
How to know if your hen is broody? Oh, you’ll know. She hunkers down on the nest, looking a bit bedraggled, refusing to leave or even eat. She tears out her breast feathers and is especially warm to the touch there – in other words, she is preparing to be an incubator. And she is crabby! Her vocalization changes to strings of low muttering clucks and she’ll growl and curse all day long at anyone who approaches.
The “professionals” – i.e. the lady at our feed store – advise waiting a full three weeks before giving chicks to a broody. We’ve fudged that to two weeks in the past because our Bella is a proven broody. So proven, in fact, that we gave it barely a thought this time around. All we needed was a couple of chicks, a small cardboard box and a heat lamp for a few hours, a bag of starter-grower feed (chicks can’t take the calcium in layer feed) and we were set. Slip the chicks under the broody during the night and voila! By next mid-morning, they were bonded enough to start using Bella as a jungle gym. And see how Bella has already perked up from her broody malaise here, looking proud and content:
The technical term is “grafting” baby chicks onto a broody hen. But it’s not technical at all, really. We were just making a hopeful mama happy. The next day we moved the little trio from the nesting counter to the ground, where Bella could start showing them the ropes of coop life. She patiently demonstrated the rudiments of pecking and scratching:
And two days later, she confidently marched them out of the coop to the real world!
What about the other hens? Are they a threat to the babies? Not with battle-ax Bella as the mom. All it takes is a little side-eye from Bella and they give her and her chicks a wide berth. Harmony reigns.
A mama hen who knows what she’s doing is vastly superior to a pair of inept humans trying to hand-raise chicks for weeks indoors in a brooder with a blazing heat lamp. No comparison. These babies are happy and healthy and out and about at less than a week old!
Other than “baby proofing” the pen – tiny chicks can almost literally slip through the cracks – and revising our mental hen “head count” from five to seven, there’s nothing for us to do but watch the fun. My favorite part of the day is going in to check on everyone at dusk and listening to the soft peeps of the chicks as they nestle beneath Bella to go to sleep for the night. Life is good, and life with chickens is even better.