Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Like an Old Mother Hen"

Many times since having my kids, I have been told I act like and old mother hen.  I only came to understand this comment after we started raising chickens.  My mother in law raised chickens so her family would have eggs and meat; therefore, my husband grew up accustomed to gathering eggs and dealing with the hens.  Although raised in the country, my family was more into cattle.  Both sets of grandparents raised cattle.  I was subjected to the neighbor's wandering chickens, but not in a good way (if you know what I mean).  They used our yard for a restroom and went home to lay their eggs.

When we started raising chickens, there was a lot to learn and a short time to learn it.  How many of you thought (BE HONEST) that you could just put some eggs in a nest and sit a hen on them to hatch them?  The hens get to decide when and where they will sit on a nest.  Once a hen FINALLY decides to brood (hatch eggs), even a beloved pet will turn on you in a heart beat!  She will peck you, ruffle her feathers in an attempt to intimidate you, and make you hurt yourself trying to avoid contact.  Yep, it's happened to me many times. I have sustained many minor injuries from getting too close to a hen that has suddenly decided to go broody.  I have to admit that most of the injuries came from the "knee jerk" reaction of jumping back into a door or cabinet to avoid the wrath of such a hen.   She also gives you "what for" in chicken speak and you WILL learn to speak chicken fluently and it's best not to waste time doing it.

A broody hen will sit faithfully on those eggs for 21 days and nights, only getting up to grab a bite to eat and a quick drink.  Brooding, you see, is serious business.  Often she will even pluck her under feathers to make better contact with the eggs.  She will turn the eggs a few times a day using her feet and beak.  We have learned from incubating eggs that we must turn them twice a day to prevent the yolk from attaching to the side of the egg (which in most cases will kill the chick).  We have also learned that a good temperature for our incubator is 99 degrees for hatching with a humidity of around 50%.  We also stop turning them three days out from the hatch date.  Our sweet little hens know instinctively how to do every bit of this and typically have a very high hatch rate.  If an egg is fertile, normally a good hen can hatch it.

Once her chicks begin to pip (break the shell to start the process of hatching), she will NOT leave them.  She stays until all that are going to hatch have hatched.  She gives ample time for the chicks to hatch always aware when there are still eggs under her that have not hatched.  Occasionally, if a chick goes away from the hen while others are hatching, the hen will leave the nest to care for the hatched chick(s), but normally the chicks stay there with her until she finishes.  She then takes them to find food and water.  She will find a piece of food, lay it down and call to the chicks and show it to them by touching it with her beak.  She teaches them to drink in much the same way.  This is truly and amazing process to watch.  She won't lay again until the chicks are old enough to take care of themselves.  She will protect them against all dangers including the hands that feed her!  If the chicks get cold, they call out and she will sit and let them under her to get them warm.  Chicks have to be kept at certain temperatures for the first few weeks of their life.  In the brooder we start out at 95-100 degrees for the first week and subtract 10 degrees for each week.  The mama hens listen to the chicks and warm them when necessary.

When the chicks are old enough, she instinctively starts laying again.  At this point (sometimes a little sooner), she stops "biting the hand that feeds her" and resumes normal behavior.  This process usually takes around three weeks.  The chicks are mostly feathered out by this time and know how to eat and drink on their own.

Some of our hens have even been known to double up and take turns sitting on a nest, and then share "mama" duty once the chicks hatch.  The chicks will go to either hen when she sits and be equally comfortable.  We have had this happen with several breeds.  There was one situation where a Phoenix hen hatched some chicks and we had to put her and the babies with an Orpington hen that had hurt her leg (for lack of space).  The Orpington hen soon "adopted" the chicks and helped raise them.  When the Phoenix hen was ready to leave the chicks, the Orpington took over "mama" responsibility until they could be mixed with the grown chickens.

The hens do a remarkable job of getting their babies ready for the world.  I am now honored to be referred to as "an old mother hen"!  These chicks know what they are doing!


  1. My wife has always exhibited broody behavior and now I have proof.

  2. So interesting, Renee! I will keep peeking at your blog - I hope you will continue to post reminders on FB.