Natural incubation keeps a backyard flock going. The hen gets broody, the rooster does his job, she lays her eggs and sets on them, and 21 days later, she emerges with chirping chicks.
A hen is broody when she insists on setting on the nest. She won’t get up, even if you lift her out. She fluff her feathers out and yodel, she may peck at you. One observer described broodiness as “a state of continual bliss.” She doesn’t want to be disturbed.
That’s because she’s ready to set until she has chicks to lead out of the nest. The demands of monitoring an incubator may give you new respect for broody hens. Temperature and humidity need to be kept constant and eggs need to be turned a couple of times a day. A hen knows how to do this without being taught.
Hens may signal their intention to become broody by setting on the nest and refusing to move. You can stimulate them to become broody, for your convenience and timing to the eggs you are collecting, by starting them on a nest of artificial nest eggs made of wood, plastic
or glass. When she stays on the nest for at least 24 hours, she’s ready to get serious about it.
A clutch is the group of eggs hens want to collect before beginning to set. One of the marvelous things about hatching eggs is that although an individual hen will lay one egg a day, she will keep on laying until she gets a clutch before beginning to incubate them. Then they all hatch together. This seemed like a miracle to me until I understood how they arrange it.
Some hens move on and off the nest for a few days before getting serious. Give her time to get used to the idea. When a hen goes broody, she may even peck at other hens who try to enter the nest to lay their eggs.
Not all breeds are created equal when it comes to broodiness. Because hens stop laying eggs when they are brooding, breeders have selected hens that don’t get broody. Broodiness is a behavioral trait that doesn’t appear in the show ring, so unless breeders want it, they may select against it. It’s a traditional trait that allows flocks to replenish themselves, so heritage breeds should be good broody hens. Heritage breeds that brood well include Dorkings, Games, Javas, Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, Brahmas and Orpingtons. Many bantams are good broody hens, especially Silkies, Nankins, Dutch and Junglefowl.
Oriental breed hens are usually good brooders and mothers, including Phoenix, Yokohama and Cubalaya breeds. Game breeds have hard feathers, with narrow, short shafts and closely-knitted barbs making the feather stiff and shiny rather than fluffy. They cannot cover as many eggs as a fluffy breed like the Dorking or the Brahma.