by Christine M
If you have ever raised day-old chicks from the feed store or by mail order you know that it is a hassle. You have to monitor them all the time, check the temperature of the brooder and in general be their mommy until they are old enough to go in with the adult birds. Not to mention heat lamps are notorious for starting fires!
In contrast, a mother hen does all that and more! She keeps the chicks at a perfect temperature all the time, babysits them to perfection, teaches them how to find food and what to eat, and defends them aggressively against any threat, including other chickens!
But what if you want to order certain chicken breeds without the hassle of having to raise the chicks. Is there another way?
Yes, there is! You can have one of your broody hens adopt the store-bought chicks as her own and raise them with her own hatched out eggs.
It’s not a guarantee that it will work every time but I have had great success with this method and had broody hens take over as mommy to day-old chicks from the store. This method takes a little work at first but cuts down on me having to raise chicks for months apart from the adult flock.
Preplanning is key here. And be prepared that you may have to take the chicks back and raise them yourself if they are rejected. First, you will need a broody hen from your own flock that has been happily sitting on her eggs for at least 10 days.
The 10 days will show you if she is serious about it. Try not to bother her or move her. It will upset her setting. Also, the best breeds I have found for adopting chicks are the calmer, less nervous breeds. So if you have several broody hens sitting pick the ones that you have noticed are the calmest.
Note: If you want a hen to adopt chicks that are not her own she HAS to have gone broody first. If you put chicks into a coop with a bunch of adult chickens they will be killed or harassed all the time.
First I do recommend that you try to get your broody hen into her own pen away from other chickens. Yes I know I just said not to move her, and rarely does a broody hen choose a good spot. The best way I have found to move a broody hen without causing her to give up her nest is to wait the 10 days and then move her at night with all her eggs and some of the bedding material from her nest to a secure place.
Having a good little area for her that is away from her flock sisters keeps the other hens from coming in and pestering her (they will come in and lay eggs in her nest thus mixing half-developed chicks with newly laid eggs) and also once her chicks are with her they will be safe from attack from adult chickens. She will get up from the nest once a day to eat, drink, and defecate and then hurry back to her nest, so provide food and water near her.
So here is how you get a broody hen to take other chicks:
First, the chicks you want to have adopted must be just hatched or very close to only a few days old. Not only does this make the hen more likely to take them, but when the chicks are too old won’t bond as easily with the hen and stay close to her protective body.
If you are ordering chicks for this purpose it is best to get a delivery date as close to your hen’s eggs hatching date as possible. This is entirely doable with most hatcheries as they have the ability to ship chicks all the time from spring through fall.
The first method and most effective:
Wait until her own chicks have hatched or at least a few have hatched out, it can take sometimes 3 days for all chicks to hatch from a clutch of eggs. So if she already has hatched out at least one chick wait till well after dark before you approach her. She still might fuss but will be much more likely to calm down right away.
Approach the hen as quietly as possible and try not to use any lights. Slip the chicks one at a time under the hen, If she starts getting too upset stop for a while, move away, and leave her be. Then try putting the rest under her after about an hour. Once you have got all the chicks under her leave her be. She should be clucking to them softly and getting them under her body for warmth.
Note: If a setting hen has a bunch of chicks that have hatched (or she has adopted) running around she may abandon the rest of the eggs in the nest yet to hatch to follow and protect them. If that happens you can brood them under another setting hen the rest of the way, or if you have an incubator use that to hatch them out.
Let your hen sit on eggs until she is very close to the hatch time and don’t worry if she abandons the eggs she has been sitting on once she has live chicks to look after. Use the same method as above. The only difference is that once she has accepted the new chicks take out the eggs she has been brooding and throw them away. I personally don’t like this method because I don’t like killing something that can live.
You can graft chicks onto a broody hen that has only been setting a few weeks, but it’s not as sure as letting her go the full 21 days. Follow the second method if you need to do this, such as your delivery date wasn’t as close as needed or the broody hen you intended to use gave up sitting and you have to use a different girl who hasn’t been setting as long.
Check on the mom and chicks the next morning at dawn. You will know if she has adopted them because she won’t be attacking them and they will either be under her for warmth or close by scratching around for food. Make sure to have a chicken waterer and food available for them.
Check on your little family as frequently as possible without upsetting the hen too much for the first few days. You need to watch for rejected chicks. They will be often hiding in a corner so the hen won’t peck them.
If she rejects some or all of the chicks you will have to take them out and rear them yourself with a heat lamp. If you see the hen actively attacking the chicks then get them out immediately!
Chicks that are raised by a hen have many advantages over those raised in a brooder. They learn how to find food, when to run for cover, can be put in with the adult flock much sooner, and are more likely to become good mothers themselves.