Looking after the Brooding Hen and her Chicks

Submitted by Neil Armitage on Thu, 08/10/2017 - 20:31

Most  hens make excellent mothers but not all and for those that are it is an instinctive behaviour.

A good broody hen will  teach her chicks how to eat, drink and scratch for food, call them under her wings when danger approaches, and provide warmth ( brood them) at regular intervals during the day and all night and generally give her chicks the best start in life

However hard I try to organise them, I have several hens that disappear into the undergrowth every spring and then emerge 3 weeks later with a brood in tow. The hens are more than capable of raising her brood without any human help, but little chicks are very vulnerable to both predators and disease so a little human intervention can go a long way .

The dangers are great and many in number when you are so small, other adult hens may kill them by treading on them of tapping on their little heads, although there are several of the more docile breeds you could keep to minimise the chances of injury. Although the mother hen will try to protect her family, she can’t be everywhere all the time, especially with a large brood.

Try never to startle or bother the mother hen, if the chicks see her warning you off ot getting flustered by your presence it will make the job of taming them more difficult.

The Risks to chicks

Other broody hens, they may well fight with each other over the chicks and the loud peeping will only goad them on. Fighting broody hens is the most serious you are likely to see hens.

Apart from all the usual chicken predators (foxes, badgers, stoats, mink etc), chicks may also be taken by rats, cats, grey squirrels, birds of the crow family, birds of prey – in fact just about any meat-eating creature, and bear in mind if the hen is snatched during the night the chicks will all die of exposure.

Young birds have no resistance to diseases which may be carried by healthy adults who have built up immunity.

Ground that has been used by adult chickens is likely to contain parasites and disease.

Coccidiosis can lead to many fatalities in young birds – Vaccinations are especially worth considering if the breed is susceptible to a particular disease or if you are planning to sell the birds on. Consult the vet before the chicks hatch to discuss vaccinations, as many have to be given at a very early age to be effective. Although vaccines are generally sold in large quantities, most of them are relatively inexpensive.

Choosing a broody coop- To give a hen the best chance of raising her chicks successfully, she needs a sturdy, secure broody coop with food and drink available at low levels so the chicks can reach. It  should include sleeping-quarters and a grass run. The structure should be robust enough to keep out large predators, with no gaps to admit smaller ones. Wire mesh must be of a small gauge to stop rats getting in,  and tiny chicks from getting out. The best ones have a completely enclosed run.

The sleeping quarters should be easy for the smallest chicks to access safely – they won’t manage big steps or a  steep ramp.

Ideally the coop should have wheels or skids so it can regularly be moved to fresh ground like this one.

If a static coop is used, the base of the run can be lined with wire mesh, stapled up the sides. This makes it very secure, but you should cover the mesh with a scratching material, such as hardwood chips, to protect the chicks’ legs and feet.

Once the chicks hatch Mother Hen becomes very active, making up for the long weeks of inactivity by stretching and flapping and will benefit from a dust bath.

Chicks can easily be trodden on by their mother in a restricted space, so make sure the run is large enough. Some coops advertised as being suitable for a broody hen and chicks are barely big enough for a small guinea-pig. Watch for tunnels around the run – rats or other predators may try to dig their way in or the chicks might scratch their way out.

After hatching - Once she’s decided hatching is complete, Mother Hen will leave the nest with her chicks and will not return to sitting, she will lead her chicks out into the run and while they are busy exploring, clear out all the nesting material and replace it with fresh bedding.

If there are any eggs left in the nest they are unlikely to be viable and even if they hatch the smaller and weaker chicks are unlikely to survive. A chick that can’t escape the shell is likely to be weak or malformed and you should not help it out, it will need to much extra care.

Health and Safety - Make sure the coop has shade and shelter from prevailing weather. Whilst the hen is able to keep the chicks warm at night, if the weather is especially cold it may be necessary to put the broody coop inside an outbuilding or shed.

Always close the hen and chicks into their sleeping-quarters at night.

Warm, damp conditions are ideal for coccidicosis eggs (oocysts) to start developing. Oocysts can be transmitted on boots and clothing and are very resilient to normal disinfectants. They can survive in empty housing and in the ground for long periods. Prevention is better than cure:

Scrub the broody coop between hatches and use a specialist product (see DEFRA approved Disinfectants information below) to destroy coccidia eggs.

Make sure the nesting area of the coop stays dry – good ventilation helps avoid humidity – and change the bedding regularly.

Regularly move the coop, or clean and disinfect the scratching material in the run.

Food and drink - Chicks can survive for up to 72 hours after hatching ( this is how they get away with shipping day old chicks in the post in some countries) on the contents of their yolk-sacs, but you should provide food and water immediately within easy reach of the nest when hatching has begun. Place the drinker in the run and  not in the sleeping area where it may make the bedding damp or get contaminated with sawdust or shavings. Separate the feeder and drinker slightly and raise them up a little helps to keep the water clean, and prevents the surrounding ground from getting wet. Lifting the food up a bit stops the chicks scratching or spreading the food around. It’s important to choose feeders and a waterer that is specially designed for chicks as if they can they will get into it and scratch around in it adding droppings  The chicks quickly become very active and agile, climbing over and into everything. If they get wet it can lead to chills, and they can drown even in shallow water. A small feeder, preferably one with a partitioned trough, will save waste and mess. It may even be necessary to suspend the feeder and drinker slightly above ground level just make sure the chicks can easily reach them without having to stretch. Be prepared to refill  both regularly. If the hen and chicks aren’t on grass, you could hang up a few fresh greens for them. Provide some chick-sized grit ( flint ) to help the chicks’ digestive systems. You should not  feed soluble (oyster shell) grit to young birds, as it can cause developmental problems. Shell shouldn’t be given until 16 weeks of age

Feed good-quality chick crumbs. These can be bought either with or without the addition of a coccidiostat (to help to guard against coccidiosis). Keep medicated chick feed away from other animals, especially waterfowl. If it is eaten by laying hens there is usually an egg-withdrawal period (check with the manufacturer). The broody will share some of the chicks’ feed, so bear this in mind when she starts laying eggs again. Mother Hen should have been fed mixed corn while sitting, and will need to continue with this while she’s with the chicks. She’ll probably break some up for them to eat too. Don’t let the chicks have access to feeds for laying hens.

Growing chicks - When the chicks are about six to eight weeks old, the hen usually starts showing signs of being ready to return to the flock and may even begin to roost away from the chicks. Once she has decided enough is enough she should be put back with the flock and you will need to asses whether the chicks will need any further care or whether they can look after themselves. She may peck at the chicks, r tap them on the head and start laying again. The chicks should be fully feathered by now and no longer sleeping under Mum.

The hen can be allowed to rejoin the others (the pecking order may have changed in her absence so be ready for some squabbles), while the youngsters should continue to live in the broody coop. Continue to monitor them throughout their development. From around six ( I prefer 8 ) weeks, the chicks can gradually be changed over to a growers pellets. Always change the food gradually and at first just give a few pellets extra till they get used to it. I introduce my chicks to all the foods they are likely to encounter, like split maize, sprouted wheat as mum will show them how to eat it. Layers’ feeds are harmful to young birds who aren’t yet ready to produce eggs.

As the youngsters develop it may be possible to identify the cockerels, not a straightforward process and it’s even been known for a cockerel to end up in with caged hens in a battery farm. Faster growing, redder combs, pointed neck and shoulder hackles and different feathering rates can be a good early indicator, but sometimes the only way of knowing for sure is when the males begin to crow. Once you’ve picked out the cockerels, you might wish to separate any breeding stock you wish to keep and deal with the rest in your preferred way. There’s always likely to be a surplus of cockerels, and their eventual fate is something to be considered before putting eggs to hatch. It is difficult to find homes for unwanted males, and often the only answer is to despatch them.

Introduce the pullets to the rest of the flock when they are fully grown but haven’t yet started to lay (usually at 16 to 18 weeks). By this time their mother will have forgotten them, and the procedure will be the same as for adding any new birds to an established flock. They will have to adjust to their place in the pecking order and this is much better accomplished before they have started to lay.