It is always exciting when your first hen decides she wants to start a family. Chicks hatched and raised by a mother hen are generally hardier, healthier, and smarter than their hatchery or incubator counterparts. They don’t suffer stress as hatchery chicks do in transportation and they learn early to eat and find food.
A Mother Hen and her Brood
Chickens raised by mother hens in your home flock are also generally less aggressive than those you raise yourself.
How Do You Know if your Hen is Ready to Set?
You’ll know your hen is ready to set on eggs, or broody, when she sits on a nest all day, puffs up, and makes a sort of growling sound at you when you bother her.
But should you let her set?
Believe it or not, all hens do not make good mothers. And some breeds are better than others. We’ve found the Speckled Sussex hens we purchased from the hatchery only care for their chicks for a short time. Then the majority of the chicks are gobbled up by predators. We even had a hawk lift a chick following its Speckled Sussex mother hen around the yard.
We keep a small flock of Belgian Bearded D’uccles around. These are bantam, or miniature chickens. They are good, protective mother hens. Generally, bantam hens of all breeds are extremely protective mothers. So it is a good idea to keep a few in your flock if you want to reliably hatch off and raise your own chicks.
We also have a game hen that reliably raises a large brood each year. The chickens from her brood always survive and are smart as adults. We rarely lose them to predators.
What makes a good mother hen?
- A good mother hen does not decide she doesn’t want to be broody before she hatches the chicks, thereby leaving you with a bunch of rotten eggs.
- A good mother hen does not peck and kill her chicks as they hatch.
- A good mother hen takes care of her chicks until they are at least 8 weeks old.
- A good mother hen trains her chicks to hide from predators within the first few days of life.
- A good mother hen never allows predators to get her chicks, not any.
Of course, you can’t know all this about a hen before you actually set her. So go ahead and see how she does. But if she doesn’t meet the criteria listed above, you may not want to bother with letting her set the next time she decides it is time. You are better off with the eggs she would have laid for you.
What Should You Do with your Setting Hen?
We prefer to move our broody hens to individual cages. When hens are brooding, they get off their nest once a day to eat and relieve themselves. We’ve found that other hens will hop into the broody hen’s nest and lay fresh eggs. And when the broody hen returns to find her nest occupied, she’ll find another. So the eggs she’s been setting are not kept continuously warm. This is how you end up cracking rotted eggs in your frying pan. To avoid this entire problem, we move the hen to private quarters. Just be certain to provide food and water.
How Do You Manage a Mama Hen & Her Hatched Chicks?
Along about the time a setting hen is expected to hatch, we check the brooding cage multiple times a day. Hatching can take 24 to 48 hours for all viable eggs. If a chick hops out of the nest box, we carefully move it back in with the hen so it stay warm and the mother hen doesn’t have to choose between the hatch chick and those that are still hatching.
After 2 or 3 days, when we are sure no other egg will hatch and the mother and chicks are trying to scratch around, we release the hen with her chicks. Our flock free ranges so there are never issues with more aggressive birds attacking the hen or her chicks. But if you confine your birds, it is best to keep them separate until the chicks are old enough to fend for themselves. Then you must introduce the chicks to the flock at night and keep a close eye on them to prevent fights.
The mother hen knows where food and water can be find and quickly teaches the chicks where to find it. We used to make special Chick Cornbread for our home hatched chicks but find it unnecessary these days.
Hatching your own chicks with a setting hen is generally easy and makes for healthy chicks. And the cost is minimal: just the price of 10 to 12 weeks worth of the hen’s eggs.