How to Tell if a Hen is Broody

There’s a chore around our house that has all the appearances of being performed a lot more often than it actually is: collecting eggs.

(Ok, most of the household chores are the same way, but that’s beside the point.)

The idea is that whoever lets the chickens out in the morning (usually myself) is supposed to check for eggs, and then the nesting boxes are to be checked periodically throughout the day and when the chickens are closed up at night.

There are multiple reasons for this. One, because in the winter the eggs can freeze in the boxes, and while it would make my old science teacher happy, it’s not fun to deal with; two, because the hens go through calcium-deficient stages where they take to eating the eggs and leaving yolk-y messes in the hay; and three, because the longer a hen is allowed to sit on a pile of eggs, the more likely she is to go broody.

For those of you not as familiar with barnyard lingo as I have unwittingly become, “broody” is what you call a hen who feels inclined to start a family, regardless of the season and the intentions of any human looking to make an omelet. (Side note: omelets from literally fresh eggs are delicious.)

Our hens have a particular tendency to feel broody at the slightest provocation. So far none of them have been inclined to remain broody for as long as it takes to hatch an egg, which makes me wonder how chickens survived before the days of man-made incubators. It’s not really a problem so much as a nuisance, especially to exposed skin and on occasion broken eggs. Broody hens can get so possessive that they will break eggs rather than let a person take them. Then they rediscover their love of raw eggs-in-shell and we’re back to breaking the entire flock of egg-snatching.

Here’s what a normal trip to the nest-boxes should look like: ideally, all of the boxes are empty except of eggs, which one could collect with no more trouble than stepping around the number of hens it takes to cluster at the sight of a stationary human.

If there is a hen in the box, she is not the least bit bothered by the arrival of a human and may even scoot out of the way so as to allow easier access to the eggs. If she’s feeling particularly friendly, she’ll purr softly while the collection is performed.

And here’s what an encounter with a broody hen looks like (and oh, how I wish I could draw comics):

I step into the coop and size up the nest boxes. One is empty, but there are only two eggs inside. Considering it’s 4:00 PM and no one has checked for eggs all day, I know there are more. Which means someone has started in early on the egg-hiding for Easter, or the rest of the eggs are under the hens in the other two boxes.

One of them has already seen me. Her feathers are rising higher than a hyena’s mane and she’s starting to growl. I approach cautiously, murmuring things like, “Move, you idiot,” in a soothing tone.

Now the second one sees me. She’s a White Leghorn, which means she’s a feather-brain with no sense of subtly. She immediately starts squawking at me.

Outside I hear deeper answering cries and in a moment the rooster is barging his way in to reprimand me. If I was lucky, the Leghorn would have already jumped out of the box to declare to the neighborhood this violation of her rights. Not so today.

I decide to tackle the other hen first. Months of pecks and scratches have taught me the best way to approach her. With one hand I cover her head and with the other I dig out the eggs, one by one. She works her head free and curls her beak around the eggs I couldn’t hold, rolling them back underneath her. And all the while she’s growling.

Meanwhile, the Leghorn has taken notice of my antics and her failed attempts to rout me. Still raising a brouhaha, she repeatedly strikes at my hand over the side of the box, drawing blood. I am no longer talking in a soothing murmur.

Hearing the rising cries within the coop, other hens have gathered. Not knowing better, they assume I brought food. Now they’re swarming around my feet, nearly tripping me as I shift to the Leghorn’s box.

She may be a feather-brain, but her maternal instinct in obnoxiously strong. She deftly avoids my attempts to hold back her head, so I grit my teeth and reach in with both hands to get the eggs out as quickly as possible. The first hen is now the one taking jabs at me.

Finding herself bested, the Leghorn launches herself from the box, hitting me with her wings in the process, and starts running laps around the coop shrieking her defiance and outrage. One of the eggs she left has a layer of half-dried yolk on it and I almost drop it.

The eggs finally safe in my bucket, I give the first hen a conciliatory stroke along her ruff. She growls at me but doesn’t attack, and I make my escape.

Presumably from here the offenders who dared to obey their instincts are reported to Mom, though I’m not really sure what this is supposed to accomplish. Over the summer, the only response my report got was, “They need to be dumped in a bucket of cold water.” Apparently this shocks their hormones back into a dormant state.

There are other ways to break a broody: either collect the eggs more regularly so they have nothing to brood over, or put them in solitary confinement to the same end. In short, don’t get chickens purely for a fun, low-maintenance hobby.

I never thought I would have so much experience with chickens. The plus side is that they provide plenty of fodder for anecdotes.

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