How to cope with protracted hatching and large clutches, chickens, ducks and quail..

Welcome to part two...

When you find your broody, particularly on a large nest you should consider the possibility that  these are not all her own eggs and furthermore that they were not all laid at the same time.

Some thoughts on protracted hatching

Some broodies are both generous in accommodating other layers and/or voracious egg collectors, allowing other hens to continue to add to the clutch, even after they have started to sit. You will now need a strategy to deal with this. In a large hatch birds will sometimes cut their losses and leave unhatched eggs for the ‘common good’ as they see it of a mass of fluffy hungry chicks. This is not always the case, some birds are determined and thorough but then they run the risk of the young chicks venturing out on their own. This is the reason why you some times see hens pecking new chicks (with beak open) to push them back under the feathers. 

Ducking responsibilities - Protracted laying is not just the preserve of hens and neither are they the only poultry with a sense of urgency and immediacy when it comes to survival of a new hatch. Our neighbour has an incredibly violently maternal duck, who unfortunately left her nest with the first part of her brood, whilst two more slow coaches, the result of other ducks laying in the same nest, had only just started pipping.

We managed to hatch them both with the aid of damp paper tissues and the wood burning cooker, which luckily was still warm from breakfast. In fact, that part of the process, even including my attempt at encouraging quacking noises, was relatively easy. Finessing them back under her however, was dicing with death!! 

To avoid any of the above, you can make the nest in such a way as to allow the first chicks to eat with the mother in the nest. This will enable you to retain the whole family, eggs and chicks, together in the nest even for 3 to 4 days and if you extend the box to include a cardboard run for even longer. I once did this for a hen, who took over a week to hatch all her eggs. I constructed the run, which was like a chicken play pen, from a cut-down rectangular cardboard box and attached it to the nest simply by cutting a curve in the front of the nesting box. I held my breath as she then got off the eggs walked forward into the run and then stepped over the sides of the run, walked all around the perimeter and got back on her nest. It was a safety inspection pure and simple. After that the chicks would play and feed happily within the confines of the run, whilst the mother hen sat and hatched the rest. The key to all this though is to provide enough and varied food and to remove the mother at least twice a day for a poo, more if she is eating heartily.  

Warning:  be very careful when you lift her off, large broods of chicks can cause her feathers to stick together for obvious reasons and chicks can get almost strangled as they get caught up in the feathers. Furthermore, a chick attached to the hen when she stands up, can get kicked to death as she tries to rid herself of this unknown impediment. This can be a major problem when hatching quail with a hen as they tend to burrow right down into the feathers It is best to put out the food in the nest and get her to call out the chicks  before you take her out. This way you can count the chicks and make sure everyone is free of entanglements!

First outings

Polly the Ardenner and her quail chicks are not a protracted hatch but they are part of the same strategy. I use it in this case to maintain them in a secure environment until they are robust enough to go out.

Catching some rays This is Polly in the open doorway of the kitchen. It is also one of my favourite photographs! One of the most essential vitamins for your young chicks and in fact, for poultry in general, is Vitamin D3, a micronutrient which can not be made from ingested food. 

For this reason from the first day of hatch, I try to get chicks into some sunshine, even if this just means putting them at the doorway or before an open window in their cardboard box. 

Here's Hastings and his chums getting some sun and lettuce too, protected by their cardboard box.

When everyone is hatched, I like to get them outside as soon as possible. I live by the sea so even in sunny weather in Spring we can get some strong winds from the beach. In using the ubiquitous cardboard box, I fold back the bottom flaps and put the whole family and hen onto grass. Grass is best when chicks are young, this way the hen can not start scratching madly and end up sending some of last born flying. Being confined to the limits of the box, means she is in close proximity to and thus more receptive to any chick who starts to feel cold. I do have a Sebright mix in many of my chicks and this breed seems to feel the low temperature more acutely, possibly because of fine feathering or rather fine down when young. 

It is also a good strategy to bring chicks inside with their mother and put them in the dark, if necessary, for a little nap because the difference in ages is really telling in those first important days. Remember the feathers of the first born will be so much better formed than of those born last. You will also have to make sure that the smallest and last also get their share of the insect and other invertebrate protein, so important to their development. In a hatch like my recent one of twelve and with so many mouths to feed, this can be in short supply if left to the mother alone.


A protracted and/or large hatch is easy to deal with if you are prepared and even if you are not you can always improvise. Be warned though, laying away and hatching in unusual places and I have had everything from in the roof to up trees, seems to be genetic. 

The little chick in the photograph is Chickles, who found a laid-away nest in the dovecote and produced Spot in the opening picture. She's seen here with her own mother, Snow White, the supreme champion of laying and hatching on the wall plate, some 4 metres above ground level! We got her chicks and eggs down by ladder.

Now, if you'd like to, sit back and watch the film of our recent protracted hatch:


If you enjoyed this post and found it useful please think about sharing it using the icons below. Feel free to comment, ask questions and relate your own experiences of protracted and large hatches. Thanks for dropping by. All the best, Sue

© 2013 Sue Cross

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