This story was originally published in September 2019.
Anyone who has raised egg-laying chickens dreads noticing a hen sitting in the same place for days on end on a clutch of eggs, some small rocks or nothing at all. When this happens it means the chicken in question may have gone broody.
What are broody hens?
When a hen is broody, it means something — instinct or hormones — have triggered a response in the bird making her want to stop laying, hatch the eggs she already laid and raise chicks, regardless of whether those eggs have been fertilized by a rooster. In some cases, the hen stops laying and sits on anything remotely egg-shaped and tries to hatch it.
“It’s really part of their natural behavior,” said Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, an associate professor of animal and veterinary sciences and director of the University of Maine veterinary diagnostic laboratory. “Sitting on eggs is supposed to happen, of course, but you don’t want them to go all broody.”
I have seen hens owned by friends sit on and attempt to hatch a small pile of rocks in the coop. I once discovered one of my own hens had rolled an avocado pit into her nesting area and was faithfully sitting on it for days.
A fertilized hen normally will lay an egg a day until she has a clutch of 10 to 12 eggs. Then egg-laying stops and she sits on them for about three weeks until the chicks hatch.
In the case of eggs laid by unfertilized hens and gathered by people like me to eat, the hens never get a chance to amass that optimum clutch and just keep laying an egg a day and never hatching out a chick.
How do you know if you have a broody hen?
Like a lot of people, egg-laying hens have their favorite spots to sit during the day. So just because a hen has decided to relax in a specific corner of the coop, does not necessarily mean she has gone broody.
But there are some telltale signs to look for.
Typically, the broody hen will gravitate toward a dark corner of the coop, which is exactly what my avocado-sitting chicken did.
Luckily, she never did display the other signs of broodiness, but according to Kathy Shea Mormino, aka “The Chicken Chick,” who writes extensively about backyard chicken flocks based on her observations of her chickens and produces an award-winning blog devoted to the topic, brood chickens will pluck their own chest feathers until they have a bald spot. This bald spot allows her warm, moist breast to come directly in contact with the eggs. Or rocks. Or avocado pit.
Broody hens can also show a change in behavior and become aggressive when you try to collect any eggs on which they are sitting.
Lichtenwalner said she has never experienced an aggressive or growling broody chicken, but said it does make sense.
“Maternal behavior in many species can be aggressive,” she said. “So it’s a good idea to be cautious around brooding hens.”
Broody hens leave their nests only rarely to eat and drink and will poop directly from the nest, allowing an enormous pile of poo to accumulate. This I have seen first hand.
If the chicken is not allowed to, or does not have any eggs to hatch, she will go on like this for weeks, to the point her health suffers because she is not taking the time to eat or drink enough. So you want to step in and take care of this before the chicken begins to suffer.
What do you do if you have a broody hen?
Once you determine your hen has gone broody, you are going to want to break her of this, and the sooner the better. The longer a hen is allowed to go broody, the more difficult it becomes to break her of it.
Lichtenwalner said there are several tricks she has heard other farmers try to break the behavior.
For her part, she advocates creating a new and different environment for the entire flock.
“Sometimes as a chicken owner you can make things better by re-evaluating the coop situation,” she said. “Do you have enough square footage? Do your birds have enough to do other than pick on each other?”
Because boredom can lead to broodiness, Lichtenwalner suggests giving the hens fibrous vegetables or other interesting forage they can spend time pecking at, creating interesting perches and new nesting boxes.
In my case, I was able to break my broody hen by removing all the eggs from under her — and the avocado pit — and then shooing her and all of her coop-mates out of the coop.
I then gave the coop a thorough cleaning out, replaced all the straw and wood chips with fresh bedding and used a flat board to block access to the darker area the broody hen had been frequenting.
I was lucky, as this activity on my part, coupled with a day free ranging in fresh grass and scratching in my gravel driveway, was enough to break the broody cycle in my chicken.
According to Mormino, disrupting the comfort of the nesting routine is an important step to breaking broody behavior, and often requires the additional step of cooling off her belly.
To do this, Mormino has used with great success a “broody breaker.”
Putting a broody hen in a breaker is sort of like putting them in solitary confinement. Or time out. To do this, place the brooding chicken in a smaller, separate coop in a well lit area away from the other chickens. A rabbit hutch makes a great broody breaker, according to Mormino.
This temporary coop should have a wire mesh or cage bottom with no additional bedding. This allows the bird’s droppings fall through and deprives them of a comfy nest. A few days in solitary should break the behavior.
“I have heard people try to put uncomfortable things like ice cubes in the nest to discourage a broody hen,” Lichtenwalner said. “That’s a really bad idea, don’t go there.”
Can you prevent broody behavior?
When it comes to broody hens, Lichtenwalner, who has had her own broody hens in the past, feels the best defense is a good offense.
“There are two main components to keep a hen from going broody in the first place,” she said. “One is removing eggs every day on a regular basis and making sure their nesting areas are clean and roomy enough to accommodate all the chickens you have.”
Overcrowding, Lichtenwalner said, can lead to brooding behavior if a chicken feels overly confined and retreats to a dark corner of the coop to hide out.
“For me, it’s really very simple,” she said. “Check your coop at least once a day, remove the eggs and keep things clean and interesting for the hens.”