I love broody hens! At one point, I kept an entire flock of Silkies whose sole purpose was to brood for me. I kept 10 hens and one rooster. Each hen would lay for about a month, go broody, raise her chicks and start laying again after her chicks were about a month old then start the whole cycle again! I loved it! I never had to worry about temperatures and humidity levels, or what to do when the power goes out - then when the chicks were born, I didn't need a heat lamp or put up with the dust and stink in the house. Now my broody flock consists of a variety of bantam breeds including Silkies, Cochins, Old English Game bantams, Seramas and Silkie crosses. I want to make clear, my experience with broodies is limited to chickens. I've never kept ducks, geese or turkeys.
I notice a lot of people post looking for help and advice with their broody girls, but get limited responses, so I'm creating this page in hopes of helping people enjoy their experiences with their broodies. If there's any questions you think I need to address, please PM me with suggestions.
Will my hen go broody?
It depends on the hen, it's possible for any hen to go broody, but it's more probable with some breeds than others. Production breeds like Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns are some of the least broody types of chickens. They were created for egg production, so broodiness was a trait that was specifically bred out of them. That's not to say it can't happen, but it's unlikely. The broodiest breeds are usually bantams. Silkies and Cochins are about tied for the Broodiest Breed Award, but Old English Games and Japanese are also very broody. My Silkies would go broody over and over and over all year long.
How can I make my hen go broody? What causes broodiness?
Broodiness is hormonal and there's nothing you can do to influence it. The hen will lay her egg every day or so until she's laid enough eggs to make a good clutch then her hormones tell her it's time to hatch those eggs. Leaving eggs in the nest to entice broodiness is generally a waste of good eggs. If they're serious about being broody, they'll sit on golf balls, rocks, or nothing at all. I've heard tales of forcing broodiness, but the means are cruel and I don't think it would make a very committed broody. The only way to entice a broody is to provide nice nesting spaces and proper nutrition.
How can I tell if my hen is broody?
Basically, she'll stay on the nest all the time. One day she'll be acting fine and hanging out with the other chickens, the next day she won't leave the nest and she's staring off into space. It can be a little worrisome at first - is she eggbound? did she have a stroke? Nope, just broody. If you try to reach under her, she growls at you or may peck your hand for messing with her nest. Sometimes they'll "practice" for a while before going broody for real. They'll spend all day on the nest, but roost with their buddies or spend a few hours outside - they're not truely broody at this point, so don't give them eggs yet. The biggest sign for me was if the hen was sleeping on the nest. I'd go down at night and check if she was on the nest or roosting with her friends. So if all the signs added up: staying on the nest day and night, fluffed up, staring into space, grumpy if disturbed and pecking my hand....broody.
Should I put her in a seperate pen or leave her where she is?
I prefer to move the hens to their own space for safety - a dog crate, rabbit cage, old brooder box, etc. Moving a broody is always risky because it may break them of their broodiness, so you have to weigh the risks. Sometimes they abandon the nest you set up or try to return to the old nest. It's always best to move them at night when they're sleeping, they're less likely to abandon the nest and try to make her space as close to what she had chosen as you can. I use empty cat litter buckets for nest boxes, so if the hen goes broody, I can pick up the entire bucket including the hen, eggs, hay and nest and move the whole thing to the dog crate without disturbing the hen. I've had hens choose to nest in the shavings in the corner of the coop. In that case, I set the dog crate over her, nest and all without moving her. I usually lay an empty feed bag over the crate to keep the other chickens from jumping on the crate and pooping on her. If you choose to move your hen, it would be best to move her, then wait and see if she handles the move before giving her fertile eggs to sit on.
I've had too many bad things happen to broody hens when left with the group. One little hen had chosen the favorite nest and kept getting dragged off her nest by the bigger hens and her comb was torn and bloody. Once I had a rooster keep trying to mate a hen who was brooding in the corner of the cage and his weight on her body crushed the eggs. Recently I noticed a broody was losing eggs, so I watched and when the broody would get up to eat/drink two big hens would go to her nest and peck her eggs until they broke them, then they ate the developing baby. Once I found my little Silkie hen dead. She had recently gone broody and when I found her she'd been badly attacked by the other hens. I've had hatched chicks disappear, too, when they've been left with the group.
If you have a small group of laid-back hens or if you don't have a lot of space, you may be more sucessful leaving her where she is. Make sure to mark the eggs that your hens is brooding so if the other hens lay eggs in her nest you can remove them promptly. I've found the only thing that stays on the egg when it's under a broody is Sharpie marker - pencil, crayon and water-based markers rub off from the constant contact with the broody's body. Watch the hen carefully to make sure the other hens are not bothering her.
I never see her eating or drinking, what should I do?
Broody hens only get off the nest once a day to get something to eat, something to drink and to poop - they're probably doing it when you're not around. Most of the time, my broodies would usually do this when I come down to feed and water because I would always bring the kitchen scraps and the whole flock would get excited which would snap the broodies out of their trances. On the other hand, I've never seen my anti-social Serama hen get off her nest, but there was always fresh poop in the crate and the level on the food dish would decrease every day, so I knew she was getting up.
I know a lot of people choose to pick up their broody hens to make them get up and eat, but I never do this. It disturbs her concentration. As a beginner, I tried it and the goofy hen would just head back to the nest. Brooding is hard on the hen's body, but I've never actually seen a hen starve themselves to death while brooding.
Do broodys lay eggs when they're broody?
No. If your hen is still laying eggs, she's not truly broody. My hens would stop laying eggs once they went broody and wouldn't generally start up again until their chicks were about a month old.
How long will she sit?
This depends on the hen. I've had some sit for months - they were determined to hatch some chicks! I've had others that go for about 3 weeks and that's it. You never know what kind of broody you'll have until you give her some eggs and let her try. In general, hens can't count and most will sit until their eggs hatch, so even if you delay getting fertile eggs for her, if she's a good broody, she'll sit until they hatch.
See here for more on broody hens: Old Fashioned Broody Hen Hatch A Long and Informational Thread. Enjoy your broody!