From flock reject to mother-to-be

By catalyst

Eggs are piling up on our shelves. Dozens of chicken eggs and duck eggs. More eggs than we can even sell at times. Goose eggs are piling up in the goose nest, but our goose has so far failed to pile herself on top of them for any longer than a couple hours. Hope was beginning to fade on the Windsor Farm that any of our birds would go broody and help us increase our flock size – because it seems like that’s what we need, right?

One goodly hen fulfilled our hope last week. Dorothy is a black-and-white speckled hen of an unknown breed – maybe Speckled Sussex? But I kind of doubt it – unloaded on us last fall by Catalyst Managing Editor Pax Rasmussen. She wasn’t producing eggs and she and a partner had busted out of the Rasmussen Family coop, earning their owners a citation by Animal Services. We took her in with plans to harvest her for meat, but every new hen on our farm gets a chance to prove herself, and that can be achieved a few ways: egg production (as was the case with a persnickety Rhode Island Red given us by my mother), entertainment (e.g. Zoshka, our crazy Polish hen)  and/or adorableness (e.g. The Missy, a blue-ribbon winning black Silkie) or mothering ability. For all we could tell, Dorothy wasn’t much of an egg producer. Nor was she adorable or entertaining. Her time was running out.

In an effort to encourage one of our birds to go broody, I had left a large clutch of duck eggs in one of our coop’s laying nests. The eggs sat there a couple weeks until Mother Nature finally took over and flipped a hormonal switch in Dorothy last week. We left her on the nest for a couple days as we collected more fresh duck eggs, then, under cover of night, we moved her and her nest into a stand-alone chicken hutch. She was not pleased with my intrusion and pecked at my hand as I pulled the old eggs from underneath her and replaced them with fresher ones.

A couple hints about dealing with broody hens:

  • Only move them at night. Chickens enter a strange trancelike state at night that seems to border the lands of sleep and alertness. They are more susceptible to significant changes, such as relocation or the introduction of new members to the flock, while they’re in that trancelike state. Disrupting a broody hen during the day and/or introducing them to a new flock or environment is a good way to break up her broody mood.
  • It’s best to collect fresh eggs and keep them on hand to replace old eggs under a setting hen all at once. Introducing eggs on different days throws off the incubation calendar for the whole clutch. You’ll have eggs hatching at different times, in which case you’ll lose viable eggs late in their development or risk a hen ignoring hatched chicks to remain on unhatched eggs. That’s bad news.
  • Broody hens should be kept apart from the rest of the flock.
  • Set a waterer and feeder within a short distance of the broody hen. She’ll need to get off the eggs periodically to eat and drink, and encouraging her to move around, however little, will help her maintain her strength. She’ll also need to have space to make waste off of the nest.

Much of what we’ve learned about breeding poultry comes from Harvey Ussery’s indispensable and invaluable book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. If you’re interested in keeping birds for any reason, get his book and refer to it often.

Dorothy will set on the clutch for 29 to 31 days before they hatch. Tonight, we’ll have to disrupt her to candle the eggs and determine their viability and development. At this point, they should show significant vein development. Here’s a great forum post illustrating chicken egg/embryo development.

Katherine has expressed some concern that she hasn’t seen the ducks mating. I’ve only caught them in the act once. Duck sperm remain viable in a hen’s sperm storage tubules for up to 14 days. So we have our fingers crossed. We would be overjoyed to hear the peep-peeping of new ducklings this spring.

This article was originally published on April 11, 2013.