The best way for anyone with a backyard flock to hatch chickens is using a broody hen, and most bantam and heavy breeds, particularly the Australorps, go broody very easily, usually in late spring or summer.
You can tell when a hen is broody because she sits continually in the nest box. She will ruffle her feathers when you come close and will squawk loudly, warning you away.
Broodiness seems to be contagious! If a hen goes broody in the hen-house with other hens, the other hens may become broody too, and they may kill the young chicks when they hatch. It is best to leave the broody hen with other hens for only one or two days then, after dark, move both the hen and if possible the nest box to another prepared house.
If you don’t want the hen to be broody, move her as soon as you think she is getting broody to a henhouse with no inviting nesting spots.
On the other hand, if you want to encourage a hen to go broody, try this, preferably in summer. Put the hen in a house on her own with a dark comfortable nest box, and leave some eggs in the nest. It may take a week or two, but if the hen is a broody type, this should do the trick.
Some hens go broody later in the summer, and this is when fertile eggs are not generally readily available because egg-laying is slowing, some hens are starting to moult and roosters are becoming less interested in mating. However, it might still be possible to get some fertile eggs from any young pullets that are laying at this time and running with a young rooster.
It’s important that any hen raising chicks in an extensive or 'natural' system has a clean dry quiet sheltered spot for her nest.
Note that eggs for hatching need to be clean, and if they are not they could be scuffed clean with a rough clean dry pad. Dirty eggs will not hatch well.
If the eggs have to be stored before they are put under the broody hen, they can be stored in a cool place (45-55°F or 7-10°C). Don’t put them in the fridge because the cold will kill the embryos. During the first few days of storage, turning isn’t important, but after that, you should turn or tilt them twice a day to prevent the microscopic embryo from sticking to the shell.
If the broody hen is sitting on eggs other than those you wish to hatch, leave her for several days until she is sitting tight then remove the eggs from under her and replace them with fertile eggs.
Check broody hens for lice and give them a dusting of louse powder if necessary.
A broody hen will sit on any eggs - bantam, turkey, duck, pheasant, guinea fowl - but watch her closely when eggs of a different type hatch to make sure she accepts the chicks. They will also sit on anything that looks vaguely like an egg, such as round stones, so check for these and remove them!
How many eggs?
The number of eggs that a hen will sit on depends on her size and the type of egg. For example, a bantam may cover 10 bantam eggs, but only three turkey eggs. It’s important not to put too many eggs under the hen because she has to be able to cover them all effectively. Also, she moves them around in the nest so that each egg takes its turn on the outside, and if there are too many eggs, the ones on the outside will become cold and the embryos will die. It is better to have too few eggs than too many.
The incubation periods from the time the hen starts to sit to hatching are:
- Hens 21 days
- Bantams 19 days.
- Ducks 26-28 days
- Muscovy ducks 33-35 days
- Geese 30-33 days
- Guinea fowl and turkeys 26-28 days
- Pheasants and quail 21-28 days
Caring for hens with chicks
After hatching, keep the hen and chickens in a protected coop and run for about 2 weeks to protect the chickens from cold wet conditions and from predators including other hens. The hen will keep them warm all this time, by nestling over them. She will cluck gently to them, calling them for warmth or food, or to keep them safe when she senses danger.
Newborn chicks have an internal yolk sac that provides their food needs for up to 72 hours. After they hatch you can offer them special chick starter feed, i.e. tiny crumbles of a high protein mix. The hens will need their own feed too of course. If the hens are stealing the chicks’ feed, it can be provided in a screened-off area of the coop that only the chicks can access.
Chicks and hens should have a good supply of fresh easily accessible drinking water at all times, but take care to use only shallow straight-sided dishes, because the chicks can drown very easily.
The chicks are normally left with their mother until they are about 6 weeks old, but they can be taken away for about 3 weeks as long as they are kept safe and warm. From 6 weeks of age, the chicks should be fed growers’ meal that has slightly less protein than the starter meal.
O'Byrne, Glenys. Backyard Poultry. Fraser Books. 2002. ISBN 0-4774105540.
Thear, Katie. Free-Range Poultry. Farming Press Books, Ipswich. 1990. ISBN-0-85236-190-4
The author thanks Gordon Baird for his good advice.