Snuggling down on a nest of eggs until they hatch is a hen’s way of making more chickens. A hen that has decided to become a mother is called a broody hen. Continuing our interview series with poultry expert and best-selling author, Gail Damerow, we ask her about broody hens.

How can you tell a hen is broody?

“The instinct to hatch eggs is triggered by increasing day length,” Ms. Damerow says. “So hens are most likely to become broody during spring.

“A broody hen puffs out her feathers and pecks, hisses, or growls when disturbed on the nest — for instance if you reach under her to retrieve eggs. She stays on the nest night and day, except for brief forays to grab a snack and release the enormous broody poop she’s been holding to avoid soiling the nest. While she’s off the nest she may sound the distinctive ‘cluck’ of a mother hen with chicks.”

Does every hen get broody?

“Not every hen is inclined to brood,” Ms. Damerow states. “Hens of some breeds, such as production Leghorns, rarely brood. Hens of some other breeds, notably Cochins and Silkies, seem to want to brood all the time. Most breeds lie somewhere in between, with some individuals tending toward broodiness and others having no interest at all in motherhood.

“As a general guideline, the more eggs you can expect from your chosen breed, the less likely your hens are to brood. Conversely, the fewer eggs you can expect from your hens, the more likely they are to brood. Some chicken keepers prefer breeds that are likely to brood, others avoid them.”

Why is that?

“Some people just enjoy watching chicks growing up in the yard,” Ms. Damerow says. “Others like the idea of letting their own hens produce more chickens to increase the flock. People who keep exotic or rare breeds often use reliable broody hens to hatch valuable eggs.

“On the other hand, when a hen gets broody, her pituitary gland releases the hormone prolactin, which tells her to stop laying. So people who rely on their chickens for fresh eggs want them to keep laying instead of brooding.

“Another reason for not wanting to hatch chicks is that approximately half will be roosters, so anyone who can’t have, or doesn’t want, roosters would have that to deal with. Also, if the flock doesn’t include a rooster, the eggs won’t be fertile and therefore won’t hatch. So the hen is wasting energy for no reason.”

Is brooding dangerous for the hen?

“Persistent broodiness can pose a health risk,” Ms. Damerow says. “A setting hen eats only about one-fifth the amount she usually eats, and some days she doesn’t eat anything. So she can lose as much as 20 percent of her normal weight.

“A persistent broody with a nest full of infertile eggs that never hatch, or one that hatches clutch after clutch without a break, could eventually starve to death. That’s rare, but does happen. Chicken keepers who value their broody hens discourage them from brooding more than once a year.”

How can a hen be discouraged from brooding?

“Broodiness is encouraged by the sight of eggs accumulating in a nest. So a general way to discourage broodiness is to collect eggs frequently,” Ms. Damerow advises. “If a hen appears to want to brood anyway, repeatedly remove her from the nest.

“A hen that persists in brooding may need to be moved into a brightly lit pen with no dark corners, such as would be provided by a cage with a hardware cloth floor. Include feed and water, but no nest. Most hens in that situation will give up brooding within three days.

Assuming you want your hens to brood, how many eggs can one hen handle?

“Most hens can cover 12 to 18 eggs of the size they lay,” Ms. Damerow asserts. “On the other hand, a bantam can cover only 8 to 10 eggs laid by a large hen, while a large hen might cover as many as two dozen bantam eggs.”

How long does it take for eggs to hatch?

“Most chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch,” Ms. Damerow says. “Large eggs from heavy breeds might take a day longer, while tiny eggs from the smallest bantams might hatch a day or two early.

“A broody hen, especially a first timer, won’t necessarily stick it out for the full 21 days. Some hens simply have a short attention span and lose interest midway.”

How can you tell that a hen will be reliably broody?

“You can’t tell for sure if a particular hen will make a good broody until she does,” Ms. Damerow explains.

“But you can get a pretty good idea based on the brooding reputation of the breed as a whole. And a hen that has once proven to be reliably broody is likely to continue to be reliable in future years.”

McMurray Hatchery | Blog | Interviews | Gail Damerow
Gail Damerow has been keeping chickens for nearly 50 years and has written several books about them including Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Health Handbook, The Chicken Encyclopedia, Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks, and What’s Killing My Chickens. For more about Ms. Damerow, visit her blog at GailDamerow.com.

Buff Orpington hen photo courtesy of Angela Napiwocki. Gail Damerow’s headshot by The Chicken Chick, Kathy Shea Mormino.

Gail Damerow Discusses How to Prevent Worms in Chickens

A familiar issue for flock owners is the possibility that their chickens have worms. Continuing...

Gail Damerow Discusses External Parasites in Chickens – Mites and Lice

When chickens scratch and peck at themselves excessively, you can be pretty sure they are being...

Gail Damerow Discusses Egg Eating in Chickens

A common but frustrating issue faced by many chicken flock owners is hens that eat their own eggs....

Gail Damerow Discusses Marek’s Disease

Marek’s disease is a common and contagious illness that affects domestic chickens worldwide....

Gail Damerow Discusses Health Considerations for Meat Chickens

Chicken breeds raised for meat often develop health issues that are less common among other...

Gail Damerow Discusses Poultry Predator Prevention

Anyone who keeps chickens or other poultry quickly discovers that all kinds of predators are...

Gail Damerow Discusses Bumblefoot in Chickens and Ducks

Bumblefoot is a fairly common condition causing lameness in chickens, ducks, and other birds....

Gail Damerow Discusses Treating a Wounded Chicken

No matter how careful you are about providing your chickens with a safe environment, sooner or...

Gail Damerow Discusses How to Tell When a Chicken Is Sick

As prey animals, chickens avoid any appearance of vulnerability by attempting to hide signs of...

Gail Damerow Discusses Coccidiosis in Chicks and Turkey Poults

Coccidiosis is the most common disease in baby chicks and turkey poults, and also the most common...

Shop These Best-Selling Books by Gail Damerow

McMurray Hatchery | Books | Storey's Guide To Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens

McMurray Hatchery | Books | The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow

The Chicken Health Handbook

McMurray Hatchery | Books | What's Killing My Chickens by Gail Damerow

What’s Killing My Chickens