Surrogate Mother Hens

The iconic image of a mother hen, clucking gently to a clutch of adorable chicks, following her all around.  This is the stuff of homesteading dreams.

So you’ve got hens and a rooster.  Now what?  Do you just leave them to their own devices, and sooner or later there will be chicks?  Some people do just that.  Sometimes it works out.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Whether there will be a good outcome depends on a lot of variables, but there are some things you can do to increase the odds.

Make sure you have a broody type of chicken to begin with.  Poultry catalogs usually include this information in the descriptions of the breeds.  If the description says they are good mothers, or good brooders, or maybe just says “broody” somewhere in the description, that is probably one that will set for you.  Some of the best are Australorp, Brahma, Orpington, Cornish, and Buckeye, but there are many others that are good brooders.  If it says “non-broody”, or mentions the breed being terrific layers, with no mention at all of broodiness or motherly inclination, they probably don’t brood, or do very seldom.  Breeds unlikely to brood include Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, production layer breeds, and hybrids, such as Leghorns, sex-link layer breeds, and many others.  Bear in mind these are general tendencies, not absolutes.  There will be a few here and there that go outside the norm.  What you want are breeds that are the most likely to go broody, and therefore, make good surrogate mother hens down the road.

Once you have broody-type hens, you have to wait for one to get in the mood to brood.  There are many ideas about what will “make” a hen go broody.  A hormonal shift triggers broodiness.  Part of this is related to the weather.  Hens usually don’t brood in cold weather.  This makes perfect sense, because it is easier to keep chicks alive when the weather is warm, and food is abundant, and the water’s not frozen.  There are some hens who will brood any time of year, but they are, mercifully, an exception.

Some will go broody at the mere sight of a nest full of eggs.  Others go broody whether there are eggs in the nest or not.  You might want to try leaving a number of artificial eggs in a few nests, and see what happens.  They don’t have to be the beautiful, (and expensive) perfect ceramic eggs you can find in some farm supply stores or craft shops.  Craft supply stores often carry less expensive wooden eggs.  My dad used ping pong balls.  Golf balls work fine.  Plastic Easter eggs will work, too, but you may need to glue them shut so they don’t come apart in the nest.  I’ve seen hens try to hatch all manner of things that have even the slightest resemblance to an egg, and a few things that don’t.  Rocks.  Light bulbs.  I heard about a surrogate mother hen that tried to hatch a plastic dinosaur and a child’s action figure.

How do you know when a hen’s broody?  Observe, and she’ll tell you.  If she’s running around with the other hens, acting just like the rest, she is not broody; leave eggs in the nest, and more likely than not, they’ll be ignored.  But if you go to the coop late in the day, and a hen is still on the nest when everybody else has gone to roost, odds are good that she is broody.  Reach under her to check for eggs.  Did she growl at you?  Peck you?  Make dreadful distressed noises?  Fluff up and try to look fierce?  Leave her be and check the next day.  Still on the nest?  Does she go right back if you take her off the nest? Congratulations, you have a broody hen!  Time to get her some eggs; save up a clutch and place them under her all at one time.  This part is important.

Once a hen has gone broody, she will cease laying eggs.  She’s now in hatching mode.  Since they don’t tell you in advance that they’re going to get broody, you’ll have to get eggs from the other hens, or some other source, unless you already have a bunch saved up for her.  Gather eggs from the other hens.  Save the cleanest, best-looking eggs.  Look them over in normal light, and select eggs with clean, strong-looking shells.  Avoid odd shaped eggs, such as any that may be abnormally long and pointy, or those with lumpy, irregular shells.  Avoid very large or very small eggs, unless those are the norm for that breed.

egg candling
A home-made candler, consisting of a plastic coffee can lid with a hole cut in it, placed over an upward-pointing goose-neck lamp.  The bulb is a compact fluorescent, so the heat won’t damage the egg.

Many people candle eggs when selecting them for hatching.  Candling is simply shining a light through the egg, so that you can see what’s inside, and check the condition of the shell.  It allows one to see that the air cell is in the center top of the big end, the shell is undamaged and good quality.  Shells that are too porous, cracked, or have thin spots, will show up easily.  Eggs with weak shells are likely to break under a hen.  You can buy an egg candling light, or make a candler, but a small flashlight will work just fine for this.

egg candlingThe egg on the left has a good, strong shell.  The shell is a fairly even thickness, no mottled or thin patches, no cracks.  In this photo the top appears darker because of the placement of the light.  When turned other end up, the color shading looked the same.  A little variation is ok, just avoid obvious weak areas, as seen in the next photo.

The egg on the left has a weak shell.  The thin, overly porous shell is apparent by the amount of light that goes though, and the uneven, mottled looking areas near the top of the egg.

You may safely save eggs for hatching as long as 10 days, keeping the eggs between 45-70F.  Beyond 10 days, the hatch rate will begin to decline, and the chicks may not be as vigorous as they might be from fresher eggs.  If you need to hold them a little longer for some reason, try to keep them in the lower end of the temperature range while waiting.  Best not to refrigerate, but better too cool than too warm.  Eggs that have been refrigerated may have a slightly lower hatch rate, but lots of previously refrigerated eggs have been hatched successfully, so it’s not a hard and fast rule.  If you do chose to refrigerate eggs, (if you are in a hot climate with no air conditioning, that may be the best thing to do) make sure you allow them to come to room temperature before placing them under a hen.

Full-size hens can cover between 8 and 12 eggs, depending on the size of the hen and the size of the eggs.  A bantam hen may only be able to cover 4-6 eggs.  If you can see eggs sticking out from under the hen, there are too many.

Some of the problems you may encounter with broody hens are broken eggs, new eggs being laid in the nest by other hens, roosters harassing the hen on the nest (and breaking the eggs), and the hen becoming confused and climbing into the wrong nest, leaving her eggs to get cold.

All of this can be greatly reduced or avoided, by creating a separate, closed-off area for broody hens.  They’ll be left alone by the other hens, and the rooster(s) can’t get to them.  Ideally, each hen would have her own area, but if you can’t manage that, a space shared by broodies only is the next best thing.  I often do that myself, because sometimes I have an absurd number of broodies all at once, and I just don’t have the space to separate them all.  Instead, I have what I call the maternity ward.  It’s a small section of the coop separated by a wall consisting mostly of 2×4 frame with chicken wire over it, and a door.

If you have a separate area for your broodies, you can cover the floor with a deep layer of straw or other bedding, form depressions in the straw, and nest them right on the floor.  I like to have the nests in a tub or box of some sort, but that’s just my preference.  I have several tubs like the one shown below, that I can add or remove as needed.  I like these because I can put deep bedding in them, so the hens can’t scratch it aside down to a hard surface where the eggs will get broken.  You can use any sort of container for a nest, as long as it’s big enough for the hen to comfortably move around, deep enough to keep her from scratching to the bottom when re-arranging the bedding.  Any nest should be anchored or supported in some way that will prevent it being tipped over.  In this case, I drilled holes in the rim to put rope handles in, knotted on the underside of the rim, and attached it to that two-by-four with a bungee cord.  A couple of well-placed nails in the walls to anchor to would work just as well.

The floor nest experiment.  It worked out pretty well!  These two ended up co-parenting, the chicks just went to whoever was nearest when they wanted a mom.

It’s best not to allow other hens to lay eggs in the broody nests.  They can step on eggs and break them.  The more hens there are squabbling over the nest, the more likely that some of the eggs will be broken.  Hens do like to group up and lay eggs in the same nest.  Another problem is that if hens are constantly adding new eggs, they won’t hatch all at once.  Furthermore, the hen will quickly run out of space for eggs.  She can only cover so many, after that, there will be eggs out in the cold.  She’ll rotate them, but if she has more than about a dozen—a few more or less depending on how big she is—they will not be kept warm enough.  Crowded eggs also cause more eggs to break.  It can quickly become a foul, reeking, gooey mess, with eggs at many stages of development, and others that have died and begun to decompose.

There are ways to avoid this even if you can’t separate the broodies and have to leave them among the general population.  First, simply mark the eggs before you set them under the hen.  I use a non-toxic permanent marker.  I draw a line all the way around the center of the egg, so I can see the line however the egg is turned, and put the starting date on the eggs.  In the event of any kind of mix up, you can sort them back into the correct nests.

This blue tub once contained livestock minerals.   Among other things, they make terrific nest boxes.

I like to mark the eggs even if the hens are in the maternity ward.  Sometimes there’s a little swapping around.  I don’t know how on earth they manage it, but sometimes a hen will steal the eggs from another hen’s nest.  I’ve even mixed them up myself, for one reason or another.  The important thing is that if anything out of the ordinary occurs, and you’ve marked dates on the eggs, you can straighten it all out again.

Start each new broody hen’s eggs all at the same time; all of any one hen’s eggs should hatch as close to same time as possible.  That way the hen doesn’t have to leave unhatched eggs to die while she tends the new chicks.  If the eggs need more than about 24 hours to finish hatching, the stragglers will very likely be left behind.

If the hens are where others can lay eggs in the nest with them, you’ll need to pick up the broodies and check under them every day, and remove any new eggs that have been added.  They may peck you, but it’s seldom painful.  Most of them will get used to you picking them up to check the eggs, and stop fighting you once they figure out that you aren’t taking their eggs.

If you have a hen that turns out to be a little psycho, who tries to take your hand off when you reach into the nest, you may want to wear leather gloves.  I’ve had a few psycho-hens.  I put up with it, because they’re usually excellent mothers, extremely good at protecting the chicks. They’re just being good moms.

A broody hen will take a break once or twice a day during the incubation.  She may be off the nest as little as 10 minutes, or as long as an hour.  Don’t worry about her being off the nest.  The eggs are not harmed by this brief cooling period.  If it worries you, wait about an hour, and go back to check on her.  In the event that she’s not back on the nest, look in other nests; odds are she’ll be in the wrong one.  Pick her up and take her back to the correct nest, (check for new eggs first) turn her so she can see the eggs (make sure she sees them) and gently set her down.  She’ll probably climb back in with the eggs.  If she returns immediately to the wrong nest, try moving the eggs to her new location.  That will usually resolve the problem.

Teaching the chicks to scratch up bugs.

Never attempt to provide feed and water in the nest.  She needs to get off the nest to exercise, and while brooding, she only poops while off the nest.  Huge, smelly, broody-hen poops.  Trust me, you do not want her pooping in the nest.

It’s a good idea to mark the calendar with expected hatch dates, and which hen, (Dark Cornish eggs due, Buckeye eggs due, etc.) to make it easier know when to check for babies.  This also allows a chance to get your chick-feeding and watering equipment in place shortly before the eggs are due to hatch.  Make sure the water source is something they can reach, but not get into and drown.  I use a 1-gallon waterer, the kind with a screw-on base.  If the chicks are very small, I put pebbles or marbles in the waterer’s tray so they can’t get wedged into it and drown, or die of hypothermia.  Don’t worry about the chicks finding everything.  The hen will show them what to do.  That’s her job.  They’ll figure it all out.

On the hatch date, I leave them alone.  I check the next day, so the eggs have all had time to hatch if they’re going to, and the chicks have had time to dry and fluff out.  Chicks have a little yolk left when they hatch, absorbed into the abdomen, that they can live on for 2 or 3 days, so this is perfectly safe.  It’s what allows hatcheries to safely ship day-old chicks.

With deep nests, sometimes the chicks can’t get out on their own.  In that case, you’ll need to take them out of the nest, probably while the hen is attacking you, squawking and pecking.  She’s just doing her job, protecting the babies, and she’s sure you’re a dangerous predator.  Just scoop up the chicks, set them down on the floor, and put the hen down with them, and get out of her space, as quickly as you can.  She’ll probably be very agitated until she’s left alone with her chicks, but once you leave, she’ll quickly settle down to the business of caring for her brood.

Surrogate mother hens
Sometimes hens will bond and nest together, even brood, hatch, and raise the chicks together.

If you don’t have a place to separate the broody from the rest of the flock, never fear.  It’s a bit riskier for the chicks, but it can still work out fine.  Hens have been raising chicks without our help ever since there have been hens and chicks.  There may have been a higher mortality rate, but enough made it for the species to survive.

The two biggest pitfalls of having the mom and new chicks out with all the other chickens, are chicks drowning in water pans or buckets; and chicks going outside with mom, and being unable to get back into the coop.  If there are steps that the new chicks can’t negotiate, a wide board you can place as a temporary ramp will solve the problem.  If you need a ramp or other aid to help chicks get back inside, be sure and check in the evenings to see that they made it back in.  Most of the time, if a chick is stuck outside, they’ll be cheeping in distress, making it easier to find and rescue the chicks.  You may have to do this daily for the first few days.

To prevent drowning, there are several waterers available for poultry that have a jug of some sort, upside down on an attached water tray.  Pebbles or marbles in the water tray will prevent chicks dying in it.  There are also nipple watering systems available, similar to what you would use for rabbits or other small animals.  You can also build your own, and save a few dollars.

surrogate mother Hen raising a turkey poult and a guinea keet.
A surrogate mother hen raised these turkey poults and a guinea keet.

The chicks need a higher protein feed than the adults, but it won’t hurt the adults to eat the same thing.  It is more expensive, however, which is another reason you may want to keep them separate at first.  The higher-protein chick-starter is fine for the mother hen.  The extra nutrition is good for her; it will help her gain back the weight she lost while brooding.

Surrogate mother hens are the best incubators you can get, and they are much better chick parents than humans can be.  Most hens will gladly hatch and parent other poultry species, too.  They don’t care, they mother them all.  While there are a few things that we need to do to help them out, for the most part, they’re pretty good at this.  Don’t be intimidated if you think your conditions are less than ideal.  You may have to use a little creativity to figure out what works best with your individual situation, but it’s really not all that difficult.  So go ahead, get some broody hens setting, and with some care and a little luck, you’ll soon have those satisfying, idyllic scenes to watch, in your very own yard.

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