by Julia Frisbie
posted March 25, 2021
Here’s how it happens to most chicken people: you go to the feed store for a 40lb bag of layer pellets. You forget that it’s March. You walk in the door and hear CHEEPING. Oh. My. God. You decide to peek at the day-old-chicks just for fun. An hour later you find yourself back home hauling the brooder out of the garage, rigging it up in your guest room, and wondering how to tell your spouse that you bought more chicks. Within two days, the guest room smells like a barn. Back out to the garage you go with the brooder. Within a week you are sick of fiddling with that ridiculous tiny waterer and scooping up that nasty bedding, but now you’re committed. You have one to two more months of twice-daily care to perform for an increasingly disgruntled and cramped group of teenage mutant ninja chickens.
There is an easier way: giving day-old chicks to a broody hen. All you provide is water, a little food, and a safe outdoor foraging area. The hen provides warmth, comfort, protection, sanitation, and an education. The chicks develop healthier immune systems and communication, and have lots of fun bouncing through the garden.
If you want to try this, do not go into the feed store this month or next. DON’T DO IT. Get curbside pickup. It’s still too cold outside for babies, and your hens know it: they’re not broody yet. Bide your time. Wait for a hen to go broody.
You’ll know she’s serious when:
- She sits on the nest instead of roosting at night.
- She doubles in volume and makes scary dinosaur noises every time you look at her.
- She poops only once a day, and it’s ENORMOUS and EXTRA STINKY.
Broodiness can be encouraged by lackadaisical egg collection on your part. There’s nothing more tempting than a nice pile of eggs. However, if you keep only the modern egg-laying breeds, the mothering instinct may have been selected against for so many generations that it doesn’t happen anymore. Never fear. If nobody in your coop has gone broody by late June, check Craigslist. Ask around. Some people get fed up with their broody hens and practically give them away. Other people– like me!– see a broody hen as a gift not to be wasted, and will gladly loan one out and help you through the process.
If you’ve got a choice between several broody hens, put chicks under the friendliest one who’s closest to the top of the pecking order. A friendly mother hen will teach her chicks to literally eat out of your hand, and they’ll grow into friendly adults. A dominant mother hen will beat up any flock mate who looks at her babies the wrong way, so the chicks will feel safe and grow up to be confident. On the other hand, chicks raised by a hen at the bottom of the pecking order will get picked on more, so they’re more likely to grow up flighty and nervous.
Once you have a broody hen, count forward twenty-one days, and then start calling feed stores. Ask them when they’ll get their next batch of day-old chicks. If breed matters to you, ask about that, too. What you’re looking for is a delivery of day-old chicks that’s due somewhere around your hen’s twenty-first day of sitting (she can’t count, so you can fudge up to a week in either direction).
In the meantime, set up your nursery. I use a big dog crate filled with straw and nestled under the thornless blackberry vines. This area is adjacent to, but outside of, my normal chicken run. You can use anything that might feel cozy to a chicken. Put the chick waterer and feeder nearby. Then one night after dark, traipse outside and carry your broody hen from the coop to the nursery. Put as many eggs back under her as you plan to purchase chicks. (I’ve never done more than five, but I’ve heard that a standard size hen can take up to twelve.) She may protest, but chickens are out-of-it at night, so she won’t be able to put up much of a fight. If in the morning she’s still sitting on the new nest, you’re in the clear.
Around day 21, you can finally go buy chicks. You want them as young as possible– that’s why you call ahead and plan to arrive right after they’re delivered to the store by the post office. You want them 24-36 hours old. I’ve been known to drive as far south as Seattle to get chicks the right age for a broody hen! If you have a long drive home, you’ll need to either crank up the heat in the car, or stick them under your shirt to keep them warm. There’s no cozier way to travel.
Once you’re home, make sure every chick eats and drinks, and then enjoy them! They’re so soft at first, aren’t they? Let them climb all over you, watch them sleep, keep them in a cardboard box in the kitchen, et cetera. You only get them until nightfall.
After dark, you’ll give them to your hen while she is drowsy and only partially aware, creating a new family via minor deception. You’ll fill your coat pockets with those sweet little baby chicks and traipse back out to the nursery. Put the palm of your hand against one chick’s back and gently close your fingers so it can’t squirm away. Slide that closed hand under your broody hen among the eggs. Open your fingers. The chick will scramble out. Now close your fingers around an egg, slide it out from under the hen, and put it in your pocket.
Wait and listen. Fierce dinosaur noises are a bad sign. Silence or very soft clucking is a good sign. In the worst case scenario, if a hen attacks the chicks, you may have to raise them inside after all… but this has never happened to me. By doing the switch at night, and using very young chicks, you’re stacking the odds in favor of a successful adoption. If after a few minutes there are no signs of violence, repeat the process with the other chicks, until your pockets are full of eggs and all the chicks are under the broody hen. The chicks and the hen will talk softly with each other in their sleep, and begin to learn each other’s voices, before they’re even fully aware that they’ve become a family.
In the morning, your hen will be holding quite still. If you sit quietly and watch, tiny faces will begin to appear and disappear from between her feathers. Chicks will emerge, eat and drink, explore, climb all over the hen, and burrow back under her when they get chilly. They’re ready for action! But her hormones are telling her to sit tight, because not all eggs hatch at the same time. She’ll wait about 24 more hours before leaving the nest. And it’s a good thing, because those 24 hours come right at the end of the chicks’ brief window for imprinting. While she’s sitting, they’re learning: “this creature is big and warm and doesn’t hurt me. She must be my mom.”
On the second day, she’ll be ready to stretch her legs, and she’ll start parading the chicks around the yard. If they’ve imprinted successfully, they’ll follow. She’ll show them how to scratch up bugs, pointing them out with her beak and saying, “took took took!” That’s chicken lingo for “good stuff over here!” Every few minutes she’ll squat down and warm them up. She won’t let you near the chicks, but she will appreciate it if you remark on their health and vigor, and on the impressive number of them she has managed to hatch.
A hen’s mothering ability depends both on her breed and her individual personality. I’ve had Welsummers and Dominiques play at broodiness, but the only ones in my flock who’ve been serious enough about it to raise chicks have been Speckled Sussex. Of those, the worst mother lost half her chicks in the backyard just from not keeping them close enough. The best one was so protective that she fought off an owl who tried to raid the nest one night! By the time I got out there in my bathrobe, she literally had it cornered and was making every attempt to kill it, despite being unable to see in the dark. She didn’t lose a single chick.
The more a hen proves herself as a reliable mother, the more you can bend the rules by giving her older chicks, daytime switcheroos, or even different species. Once my hen Blue got so broody that she stole her sister’s three-week-old chicks out from under her and raised them as her own! I now switch Blue’s eggs for chicks in broad daylight; deceiving her seems unnecessary and disrespectful, since I trust that she’ll accept them. As soon as I bring chicks home from the feed store, I say, “Look, Blue, it’s your babies!” and stick them under her, and she’s satisfied. Maybe she thinks this is how all babies are born… or maybe she understands that, in the absence of a rooster, this is the best either of us can do.
Another time, I brought home three adolescent ducklings and told Blue, “listen, I know it’s not what you’ve been hoping for, but these little things need a mom. Can you help?” She gave me a serious side-eye, but rose to the occasion. That brood always had communication issues. The ducklings never figured out what “took took took” meant, and Blue was alarmed every time they went into the water. They were too old to totally imprint on her, but they still learned to rely on her for warmth and protection.
Once the new family is established, there’s little to do but sit back and appreciate the miracle. Think about it: your mama hen was probably hatched in an incubator, shipped in a box, unpacked under fluorescent lights in a feed store, and then raised under a heat lamp. She didn’t have a mother. She didn’t hear “took took took.” But she still knows how to say it. She knows how to squat down and fluff her feathers to make it easier for babies to warm themselves under her. She knows how to get into that bizarre protective posture with her wings hovering over the chicks, her tail fanned, and her neck feathers puffed out. She carries the intergenerational trauma of an extractive system that treated her ancestors like commodities; but she also carries the genetic memory for how to build a family. Next time she poops on the porch or scratches up a freshly-sown raised bed, remember all that.
Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.