Would you know how to hatch chicks naturally if the SHTF?
There’s no doubt about it, hatching chicks naturally is so much easier than hatching chicks in an incubator. There’s no worrying about regulating a thermostat, monitoring humidity, turning eggs, or the power going out in the middle of a hatching, or brooder boxes and all that stuff. As a matter of fact, you really don’t have to put much effort at all into the task because that mama hen knows exactly what needs to be done. Not only do you save a lot of time and worry when hatching naturally, you’ll almost always have a much higher hatch rate and healthier chicks.
Although there really isn’t a whole lot you need to do when a hen is brooding, there are a few ways you can help ensure a happy, healthy hatch. Let’s go over some things you need to know to hatch chicks naturally…
Two Things You Need To Get Started Hatching Naturally
First, you need fertile eggs. To ensure the eggs you want to hatch are fertile, your hens must have had constant exposure to a rooster. He must be healthy and not too old (2-5 years is ideal).
Examine the eggs to make sure there are no chips or hairline cracks in the shell. A damaged shell will introduce bacteria to the embryo and the chick will not survive. You also want to select eggs of normal shape and size. Double-yolkers are tempting to try to hatch, but even if one of the chicks survive until hatching it will likely be weak after birth.
You’ll also need a broody hen. This can be a little trickier to secure and can’t always be counted on. Some breeds are more broody than others. Some hens make wonderful mothers and some are completely clueless. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot you can do to influence the hen to go broody or to take good care of her chicks. But there are a few things you can try for a better chance at success.
By the way, for those who have never heard it, the term “broody” refers to a hen who instinctively wants to sit on a clutch of eggs. We’ll talk more about the signs of a hen being broody in a moment.
How To Get A Broody Hen
Choosing The Right Breed
Although the instinct to go broody has been bred out of many modern chicken breeds, there are a few still known for easily going broody. Aseels, Bantams, Australorps, Cochins, Jersey Giants, Game Hens, and Silkies are among the best breeds for broodiness. I’ve also have good luck with Buff Orpingtons brooding every year. Once you have a hen who goes broody and sticks with it throughout the duration of the hatching period, you can usually expect her to continue being reliable year after year.
The instinct to brood is actually triggered by hormones being released in the hen. This typically happens in Spring when the days are beginning to get longer, and the hen is eating more greens than grains.
Creating a dark, quiet place for the hens to lay their eggs is a great way to encourage brooding. Naturally, when a hen gets it in her mind to lay a clutch of eggs to hatch, she’ll hide away somewhere private, such as underneath bushes or in a dark corner of the barn, so that she may sit in her trance undisturbed. It is best to create a special brooding area which can easily be blocked off from the rest of the flock to protect a sitting hen and her eggs, and to keep other hens from laying fresh eggs in an established nest. A doghouse, pet crate, or even a box can serve this purpose.
I have found that if we leave a bunch of eggs in a nest for several days in the Spring, inevitably a hen will take notice and decide she’s going to hatch the clutch. Collecting the eggs every couple of days, and swapping the old for the new will keep the nest fresh and will avoid wasting good eggs while you hope for a broody to come along. If you allow eggs to accumulate in a nest, mark the date on them with a pencil so you can keep track of the oldest and newest. You might also purchase wooden eggs or even use golf balls to trick a hen into thinking there’s a nest that needs to be hatched. Once you have a broody to claim the clutch, you can swap the fake eggs out for fresh ones laid by the other hens in your flock.
How To Know If She’s Broody
The first time you encounter a broody hen, you might wonder what has gotten into her! She’ll be sitting in the nesting box (usually already on a clutch of eggs), and when you reach into the nest to pet her or retrieve an egg– watch out! She’ll fluff herself up as big as she can get, threaten you with growling noises, and may even strike out to bite your hand. When you have a hen defending her nest in this way, congratulations! You have a broody!
Once you’ve identified one of your flock as being broody and she’s sitting on a nest, mark it on your calendar and count forward 21 days to Hatching Day!
Moving A Broody and Her Nest
If you can at all avoid moving a broody and her eggs, it is best to leave her undisturbed. Especially if this is her first time brooding. I have tried moving hens in the past for various reasons (namely for the safety of the hen and chicks) with disastrous results. When a hen is moved from her nest, sometimes she will refuse to sit in the new location and will be determined to return to the original nesting site, eggs or no eggs. Sometimes she will become distraught and begin pecking (and eating) her eggs. Sometimes she will simply up and abandon the nest halfway through incubation. If there’s any way to protect your hen where she is, it’s best to build a make-shift shelter around her than move her and the eggs.
If you absolutely must move a broody hen, here are some suggestions for best results:
- Move her at night when she’ll be less likely to try to return to the first nesting place.
- Move her and the eggs at the same time. Get a box and gently fill it with the eggs, then place her on top of them, allowing her to settle back down so she doesn’t walk on and crush the eggs. Then transport her to the new location.
- Be as quick as possible about getting her from point A to point B.
- Put her somewhere blocked off from other hens. If she decides to get off the nest for a time, you don’t want another broody to come along and sit on her nest, forcing her to find another clutch to begin incubating.
- Don’t move her until she’s been brooding for several days.
- Do not move her if she’s been sitting for more than 15 days.
- Don’t disturb or handle her after she has been moved.
Manage The Size of The Clutch
The amount of eggs you can hatch naturally is relative to the size of the hen. A smaller game hen won’t be able to cover as many eggs with her body as a larger breed. It is recommended that smaller hens have a clutch size no more than 8-10 eggs, and larger breeds a dozen. If the hen cannot fully cover the eggs she is sitting on, they will not get adequate heat and humidity and the chicks will not survive.
If you find a broody hen sitting on a nest with room for a few more eggs underneath her, and you know she hasn’t been sitting for more than three days, you can add eggs to the clutch from your other hens. The broody won’t know which eggs she’s laid from those of other hens. You do want to make sure that you catch it in that three day period, though. Once the chicks begin hatching after a 21 day incubation period, the hen will only stay on the nest for 3 more days. After this time she will leave the nest so that she can help the chicks find food. Any remaining eggs which are close to hatching but still require incubation will die unless you are fortunate enough to have another broody hen to slip them underneath or an incubator to finish the process.
If you find a broody sitting on a nest with way too many eggs in it (like the one pictured above), you’ll need to remove all of the extra eggs, preferably the ones already out from under her body. If you leave too many eggs, she will try to gather them all underneath her, and in the process will kick out a warm egg (which might already have a forming chick in it) and collect a cold egg to sit on instead, thus killing the already forming chick.
If you don’t know how long the hen has been sitting on the nest, it’s a good idea to candle the eggs before removing the extras. If there is already a chick forming in the egg, you don’t want to kill it by taking it out of the nest. You’ll also want to candle the extra eggs before you decide to eat them. Heaven forbid you grab a partially incubated egg from the nest and crack it into a hot breakfast skillet! Bleh!
Feeding A Broody Hen
In the first few days of brooding, a hen may leave her nest for food and water. But soon she will fall into a trance-like state and may eat very little to nothing at all for quite some time. Always make sure to have fresh food and water available to her while she’s “setting”, just in case she wants or needs it. Feed her scratch grain instead of laying mash to help her keep her body fat maintained.
What To Do After The Chicks Have Hatched
Watch your calendar and begin checking on the hen around days 20-21. The chicks will hatch underneath her, so chances are you won’t see it happening. But you will hear their little peeps coming from beneath her fluffed up body. And once their feathers have dried off and they’ve become stable on their feet, you can expect to see little baby chicks peeking out from underneath their mama’s wings and crowding around her warm body.
After three days, the chicks will need food. Set out starter rations for the mother and the babies to eat and plenty of fresh, clean water for them to drink. She will teach them how to peck the grains and dip their beaks into the water by clucking and demonstrating what to do. Unlike day old chicks from a hatchery, you don’t have to do anything at all but sit back and enjoy watching nature do her thing. If you can provide them a place to scratch in grass or in the woods, the chicks will learn how to hunt for their own food- a valuable skill to have as they get older.
Keep the rest of the flock separated from the mama and her chicks during this time to protect them from attack. The other hens will sometimes peck the little babies and can even kill them if the mama is unable to defend them adequately. Once a chick is bleeding the rest of the flock will be drawn to the blood and will ruthlessly go after the injured one. Some mother hens are extremely aggressive and will defend their babies to the death, and some are only mildly protective. It is best to separate the mother and babies for several weeks while the chicks grow and get big enough to handle themselves.
You Can’t Force Nature
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you simply will not get a broody hen. Maybe she’s too young still. Maybe she’s genetically predispositioned to not want to set. Maybe it’s the wrong time of year. If you’ve done everything you can to try to encourage a broody and it just doesn’t happen, then perhaps consider getting a different breed or trying again next year.
Worst case, there’s always the option of using an incubator to hatch more chicks.