The Broody Hen

Those of us with only a few backyard hens appreciate each and every egg that our girls lay. As daylight lengthens and the weather warms, our younger hens lay an egg a day. For a while we bask in the riches. And then it stops. One hen, or two, or more go broody. They huff up, they sit in their nesting boxes, in bad temper and they stop laying eggs. Instead of having cartons of eggs in the fridge, and the resulting “problem” of what to do with them, (will it be a custard? bread pudding? frittata?) there is an egg shortage. On top of that, the pleasant, chuck-chuckling hen that you enjoy being around has turned into henzilla.

Chickens bred for modern production facilities don’t go broody. I’ve never had a hybrid go broody. However, at one time, before modern hatcheries, farmers needed a few broody hens in order to get chicks. A farmer could even sell a broody hen to her neighbor for a premium. If you keep heritage breeds of chickens, you’ll probably have at least one broody hen in the lot. And you’ll wish that she’d snap out of it.

You’ll know when your hen is broody. She claims a nesting box and keeps everyone else out. She stops laying eggs. She’ll fluff up her feathers and look twice her size. She’ll pull out some of her breast feathers – if she had a clutch of eggs to hatch, her bare skin would keep them warm.

Here is Twinkydink, showing broody behavior. Notice how she is hunkered down and her feathers are strewn about.

Typically, a hen will stay broody for almost a month. If she had fertile eggs to hatch, she’d be on the nest for 21 days. But chickens don’t count and the time they spend broody is variable. Some persistent hens will stay broody all summer, which makes the chicken keeper mutter things like “useless bird!” when doing coop chores.

Some people give in to their hen’s hormonal drives and put fertile eggs under her. Some people don’t mind having fewer eggs and just leave her alone until one day she pops out of the nesting box and resumes her normal daily routine. Other chicken keepers try to break the broody cycle.

I’ve heard of people who put a bags of frozen peas under their hens. This brings down the body temperature and supposedly stops the broodiness. I haven’t tried that. I have tried isolating a broody hen in a wire crate, in a cool, shady place. After two or three days of this, her body temperature falls back to normal and she forgets about the nesting box. I did this when Coco went broody. As soon as she got in the crate (notice there’s food and water) she looked like a normal, laying hen. She was active, sleek and cheerful.

Three days later, I put her back in the coop and she immediately became broody again.

I would give up, except she’s so intimidated the Polish hens, that they’ve started laying their eggs on the coop floor. I found one broken, and one here:

So, today I have put the two broody hens, Coco and Lulu, out in the goat paddock. They’ll pace the fence to get back to their nests, but I’m going to ignore them until the other hens have had a chance to lay their eggs in the boxes. I’m hoping to get five eggs today. I’d like to make chocolate pudding.

Nesting Boxes

Chickens lay eggs in nesting boxes. At least they should. Some hens lay eggs on the ground. Some, especially free-ranged birds, hide their eggs in all sorts of odd places, but most hens simply want a safe cubbyhole to lay their egg in, and then go back to their day’s work of eating, bathing, and scratching.

Nesting boxes can be homemade or store-bought, made of sheet metal, plastic or wood. As a rule of thumb, you need a nesting box for every three hens. This is in theory. I have six nesting boxes for the seven hens that live in the HenCam coop. They are the right size – about a foot square. They have roosts in front so the chickens can get easily in and out. They are all bedded with the same shavings. But, this is what happens:

Lulu and Coco are broody. They are huffy. They are in bad moods. They both want the same real estate.

This is what happens when I take Lulu out and try to get her to think about going in different nesting box.

Notice the dramatic body language. She is making staccato clucking sounds. She is trying to stare down little Betsy. (Betsy will win this round. In the coop, it’s not always size that matters. Sometimes it’s attitude.)

Meanwhile, Tina would like to lay her egg. She didn’t lay one yesterday – I think she was too intimidated by the angry broody girls. There’s an empty nesting box on the left, and three down below. But she wants the middle one. She’s thinking through whether it’s worth going for. She ultimately, and with great resignation, decides to sit in the left box.

Tina doesn’t even consider laying an egg in the bottom boxes. It’s too sunny. A nesting box should be slightly dark and safe. Only the clueless hens lay in the blue boxes.

Getting back to that rule of thumb about one box for every three hens – if you have only three hens, and two are broody, and you have only one nest, well, you can see how that won’t work. So, the revised suggestion is one box for three hens IF you have a large flock. But, if you have only a few birds, and those are heritage breeds which are likely to go broody, then have three nesting boxes per five hens. And don’t site the boxes in the morning sun.

It’s Greek To Me

note: this post has been updated with a translation!

It’s rare to find old postcards with pictures of nice goats. There’s joke cards with butting billies, and tourist snaps of mountain goats. But, rarely do you see anything with dairy goats. That’s not surprising since there wasn’t much of a market for goat milk or cheese in this country until recently. So, when I saw this card at last month’s Brimfield Flea Market, I didn’t hesitate to buy it.

Look at those gorgeous bucks and their shepherds! No doubt this is the “Greatest Goat Farm in New England.” I couldn’t read it, but my friend, Karen L, has a friend who speaks Greek. This is what it says:

Dear Sir

I received the letter and I thank you.

I will send the cheese tomorrow be patient.


Nick I Nasikas

There’s a story here. Does anyone know it?

Marge’s Postmortem

Marge’s death was not expected. She was an older hen (hatched in October 2004) but she was loud, vigorous and looked healthy. Then, one day she walked with a bit of discomfort. The next she was gasping for breath, and a thin brown liquid poured out of her throat. Then she died.

I decided to to a postmortem, which was difficult for me, as this was a beloved chicken that I was cutting up. But I wanted to know something about what happened to her. I had taken a postmortem workshop at the Poultry Congress in January. Unfortunately, they only brought healthy birds – they rightly didn’t want to open up diseased chickens around all of the show birds. The birds we did the post-mortems on were mostly young cocks, so I didn’t get to see any interior eggs, either. But, I now know what a healthy bird looks like. Marge was not.

I don’t know what is normal for an older hen, but I am sure they should not have discolored fluid, egg whites and yolks in their body cavity, which is what I found. Chickens can become internal layers. Instead of the eggs making it down the proper tubes, they get misplaced. Usually, a hen reabsorbs the material, but, sometimes, it’s too much. It builds up and becomes infected. I believe that this happened to Marge.

There were other things that didn’t look right. An ovary should be the size of a walnut, with tiny orange yolks forming on it. Marge’s was the size of my hand, it was chalk-colored, dense and rubbery, and had some yellow yolks on it, but also some that looked like small, dark grey water balloons.

The best references I have for doing postmortems are two old books, Lippincott’s Farm Manuals:  Productive Poultry Husbandry (1921) and Poultry Sanitation and Disease Control (1939.) Both have illustrations of healthy and diseased birds (inside and out) and were written at a time when people kept chickens on pasture, and marketed older hens for the table. If you have a good resource for postmortems, please let me know.

I’ve a feeling that Petunia, Marge’s sister, also has an enlarged ovary, as she hasn’t been moving as spryly as she used to. Edwina and Eleanor are even older. I joke that they are going through henopause. They are retired, and once in a great long while lay an egg. They look fine, and appear to have a good life. Even Eleanor, who limps around (she’s been doing that for two years) takes sunbaths and has a hearty appetite and seems, well, just old. I’m hoping that they’ll all have a good summer.

Taking Care of Business

You might have noticed a couple of new links at the bottom of the HenCam homepage. If you haven’t yet checked out the ringtones by the Little Pond Farm Animal Choir, please do! I’ve no idea how many people have purchased ringtones by Marge and the other vocal enthusiasts here, because iTunes charges for that info (and it’d probably cost me more to find out than I made – we’re not exactly music moguls here.) It’d help if you left a review on the iTunes site.

I’ve also opened up a store at I came up with this logo:

Right now, just bumper stickers are listed (perfect for cubicles, too!) If you’d like one of the other products with this logo, let me know and we’ll set it up for you. I’m not thrilled with the quality of the clothing on cafepress, but the bumper stickers look great, and I listed it at the best price I could (we’re not bumper sticker moguls here, either!)

A few updates:

1. The fine oil spray did a number on the sawfly larvae. I’ll be trying it on my veg patch this summer and let you know if it puts a dent in my scourge of cucumber beetles. When I run out, I’ll try some of your suggestions.

2. Candy’s ears are looking good. Fur is growing back in. I’ve a feeling that I’ll be treating her for fungus again – it’s something that will likely return, but at least I know how to deal with it now and make her comfortable.

3. Despite the bone chip in Caper’s knee, and his obvious, ouchy-gimpyness, he continues to have a robust appetite AND do silly goat things that certainly can’t help the healing. He’s the goat that, in the blink of an eye, jumps onto an empty trash can and knocks it over, then leaps to another can and spills all of Candy’s treats, and then sees if he can dislodge the rakes hanging in the barn. At this point (4 seconds later?) I manage to stop the chaos and get him back where he belongs. Perhaps this is why he’s the one with the bone chip? Pip never gets in such trouble.

Caper denies everything. Except eating my flowers. See the iris leaf in his mouth? Proof!