How to successfully move a broody hen sitting on eggs outside the Hen House

Hatching chicks is an amazing experience and without fail, planned or not, is an event which seems the harbinger of every Spring in our little smallholding/homestead. UPDATED This year 2014 has been no exception we have had five such outdoor hatches and four of them with 10 - 12 chicks!

Luckily I heard these cheeping when I went to the back door just before midnight and we quickly found a cardboard box and brought them inside.

Clementina is such a intelligent hen, I am quite sure she planned her nest under the acanthus at the back door, just because she knew \i would be there if anything went wrong. It is actually not even part of theterritory of the hen house to which she belongs.

Cute attack - the last of Fluffer's chicks hatched is camera shy

On Monday (20th of May), I finally found where little Fluffers had been hiding for the last three weeks. I’d known she was safe and well because I’d seen her and/or evidence of her, a large broody poo, every morning but had only glimpsed her at a distance. When I’d tried to follow her she’d headed off in a different direction each time. She reminded me of a ringed plover, who feigns a broken wing to lead predators away from her nest. 

Hardly out of the egg herself. An early, youthful and rather  naive attempt by Fluffers to sit on eggs in the garden last year. This Spring she has obviously honed her craft and grown in guile!

The Back Story

My birds are constantly outwitting Andy and I with their creative stratagems to hatch chicks and it doesn’t matter what we do or how often we check, one of them at least, per year, will always get the better of us. I remember Andy once accused me of letting them "get away with it" and so that year I replied: “you do it then”. Dutifully every morning he counted everyone into the hen houses and then carefully every evening he frisked every hen for eggs. One morning, as I looked out of the kitchen window, I saw three mother hens with one three day old chick. They had obviously been passing the egg between the three of them as he frisked the others and just for good measure, had eaten the evidence aka the shell. Thus they avoided having to leave the nest until the weather improved and their little precious charge could be taken out into the big World.

The hen in the foreground, Molly, was the chick raised by three mothers, they were actually in the hen house and even outwitted us there!

Determination - Chickles and Spot, a happy event started on its way by a pair of pigeons and later taken on by Chickles. The poor pigeons were no match for a broody intent on hatching, even though it was their nest and they were sitting patiently by the door when I arrived to remove the offender.

The Perils of Laying Away

Last year I lost two hens, who had been sitting on eggs somewhere in the garden. Judging from the evidence, purely a few broken but hatched shells, they had both been taken at the point of hatching when the chicks are at their most vociferous and the hen her most vulnerable. We have a walled and thickly hedged garden but this will not stop the stone martens and the occasional cat. This year therefore I have been very careful, even to the point of removing Chickles (film below) and her part-pigeon hatched chick, from the dovecote. It’s so much easier to remove a chick and the mother rather than eggs and a mother. The mother may reject the eggs once they have been removed and/or insist on going back to the original nest and sitting there despondently waiting for them to return. I can always usually get my hen to sit  back on the eggs but it takes determination and trust. Even on the one occasion I didn’t, I’ve had another broody ready but the angst it puts us both through is worth avoiding if possible. So at the first cheap of the first chick, we’re out there with our cardboard box, ready made nest and warm welcome. 

One time I didn’t even have to wait, my mother hen alerted me, she was shouting red alert from the stone planter she had been sitting in. There waiting patiently I found a large, opportunist hedgehog crunching through her unhatched eggs. We managed to save the five chicks and some eggs before he made a complete pig of himself.

A forest garden offers a great opportunity for laying away. The only enclosures we have, other than the perimeter walls and hedges is this wired arbor to the left of the photo, which keeps us safe from marauders during lunch!

Back to Fluffers

So I heard cheeping last Tuesday coming from the nettle patch under the fig tree and knew I’d located her. She was sitting on fourteen eggs, laid directly on the soil with no attempt at a nest. I think actually, witnessed by her broken feather, she may have had a nest somewhere near but had managed to move the lot under brambles and nettles to avoid the attentions of one of my young Cochin cockerels. There were two chicks already hatched out, one pipping and two ‘talking’ eggs. The whole clutch consisted of twelve eggs under her and two to the side.

Suspect No 1 Hastings, silly, youthful and very loveable, a Cochin cockerel born last year.

How to move a laying-away broody

This is so much easier to accomplish if at least one of the eggs is cheeping or has hatched. It is, of course, much, much easier if your hen is reasonably tame and trusting that you are not going to take her eggs away for good. If you find an nest and believe your hen is in danger and the eggs have not hatched, then the best solution is to move her at nightfall. If you prefer not to wait and do this in daylight, you should move her as quickly as possible to a darkened room/space .Transport the eggs in the box you are going to use for a nest., with the nest ready made and using if possible, some of the old nesting material. The box should have a closeable lid (cardboard boxes are excellent). She should see you transfer the eggs into the box and you should show her the nest but not place her directly in the box but carry her and them to safety together. Once in the dark, reintroduce her to the eggs. She may or may not sit immediately this may depend on several factors, these are in my experience:

  1. Period of sitting: how forward are the eggs are to hatching, i.e. she is less likely to desert if she can either hear the chicks  cheeping in the eggs, or has an innate knowledge of the imminent hatch.
  2. Personality: - certain birds, even when tame with very strong recalcitrant personalities can give you a very hard time at this juncture and it really is a war of wills. 
  3. Broodiness of hen: - a very broody hen, is much more serious about sitting and/or hatching eggs and therefore much less likely to sit when you move her. 
  4. Relationship with you: this includes the knowledge your hen has of you and her trust in your reasoning in moving her.  Hens are quite logical and if she trusts you, she will readily take your word for it that she is better off in a nice warm nest in the back bedroom with some great food (hint, hint) than under a nettle bed in the rain and in daily danger of being jumped on by a cockerel and nightly of being eaten by a stone marten.  

With regards to No 2 above, I have even had to gently hold a bird down on her eggs to get her to sit. To avoid this happening, as it can be stressful to both parties, have another broody at hand to pop the eggs under whilst you get her to sit on a dummy nest. This way you will avoid the eggs cooling off. I always have several broodies at once and I think in most flocks broodiness is observed as something that is ‘catching’. It may seem hard on the temporary mother especially if the chicks are cheeping but I have several serial broodies who are not the slightest bit interested in chicks but love the opportunity for, peace, quiet and snacks in bed that broodiness offers!

Here’s a film I made on moving Chickles and Spot:

See you in Part Two.....

  © 2013 Sue Cross

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