Our Buff Orpington Goldie was broody. Really broody.
I’ve had hens go broody before and they always seem to just get over it within about a week. Because I don’t rely on eggs for my income and the broodiness I’ve seen has been short-lived, I’ve never bothered to “break” a broody hen with a broody box or anything.
But Goldie was super broody. I nicked her eggs, she found others. More aggressive hens crawled all over her to get to the nest box – even kicking her out – and she sat serenely.
She’s always been our big girl, but her feathers seemed to get fluffier and more puffed out by the day. Eventually it occurred to me that she had been doing this for a couple weeks and had demonstrated a real dedication to becoming a mom.
Only one problem. We live in suburbia. It’s a No Rooster Zone, and so there was no way short of immaculate conception that any of the eggs Goldie was patiently brooding were ever going to hatch into chicks.
Since we were planning on getting new chicks anyway this year, it occurred to me that her broodiness could be a real win-win. We could make Goldie a mama, rewarding her broodiness, and she could do the work of rearing this year’s little fluffballs for us.
First I looked into buying fertilized eggs. Those things are not cheap, and besides, eggs don’t come sexed, so I’d need more eggs than I wanted final layers and I’d be responsible for slaughtering or re-homing any roosters. That option didn’t appeal.
Next I thought it might be possible to get really little chicks from the feed store and pull a swap-a-roo on Goldie. If I could make her think her eggs had hatched…well…maybe she’d adopt the little feed store peepers as her own.
As it turned out, my local feed store was getting in the breed of chicks I wanted, Red and Black Sex Links, in two days. I had a plan. If worst came to worst, I figured, I would raise the chicks myself.
Mission: Chick Adoption
Spoiler alert: Mission: Chick Adoption worked, and has been the most rewarding, incredible, awesome thing I have ever participated in as a chicken keeper. But for several hours it was also the most terrifying, nerve-wrecking, stressful thing I’d ever participated in as a chicken-keeper.
I did a lot of things wrong when I introduced Goldie to her new chicks, and those mistakes could have cost the chicks their lives. I’ll go through my mistakes and tell you how to do it better.
Extremely eager to get the youngest possible chicks, I went at the feed store on the day the Black and Red Sex Links were scheduled to come in. I was there just a bit after opening, and unfortunately that was two hours before the chicks came in from the post office.
Later that day, Homebrew Husband scooted out of work a bit early and stopped by the feed store to pick up Goldie’s new babies on the way home.
It was late afternoon at this point, and I was feeling a lot of pressure to get the day-old chicks under Goldie as soon as possible. I didn’t want to miss whatever bonding window there is between broody hens and baby chicks. I was also due at my part-time, evening job in a little over an hour, which increased the feeling of urgency to get this done. (Mistake #1)
We slipped the babies under Goldie from behind, swapping chicks for the eggs she was warming, and then watched.
Everything seemed ok for a bit. Goldie didn’t seem to notice the little fluffy additions under her bum, but she wasn’t attacking them, which was my big fear. The chicks themselves stopped their nervous peeping and went quiet and calm as soon as they had a warm bundle of feathers to snuggle under.
“Was that all it took?” I wondered?
The rest of the flock sensed something was up. The nesting box Goldie was in was open to the rest of the coop (Mistake #2) and one of the Ameraucanas bull-rushed that nesting box, literally climbing up and over Goldie’s back. I grabbed the Ameraucana and tossed her back out into the run. Within minutes she was back, charging right past my observation point and clawing back towards the chicks again. Again, I threw her back into the run.
This was when I really started to panic. Goldie wasn’t protecting the chicks as I’d expected and I was sure that if I left her and the new babies to go to work, I’d come back to find four dead chicks.
I needed mama hen to understand that she had babies to protect, so I pulled the chicks out from under her and tried to make introductions. (Mistake #3). Goldie tolerated the chicks and I thought things were ok until she half-heartedly pecked toward one of them and I realized face-to-face bonding was a huge mistake.
“This isn’t working,” I told my husband, “I think we have to move them.” He went into Go-Mode, pulling together a makeshift brooder from a large rubbermaid tote and setting it up in the laundry room.
In the meantime, I was essentially live-commenting this experience on my Facebook page, and I said Goldie wasn’t keeping the chicks safe from the rest of the flock.
“Separate them! A mama with babies should be separate so that the babies aren’t attacked,” reader Allison commented, correctly.
When we built our current coop a few years ago, we converted our old small run into an isolation and brooder coop, and it was available for Goldie and the chicks. I attempted to move everyone over there. (Mistake #4) This was very distressing to Goldie, who tried desperately to get back to her nesting box.
“It can take a while for her to get into mama mode from broody mode,” came another great piece of advice from Stacy on my Facebook page.
I had to move Goldie back to the nest box. She was pacing like crazy and wouldn’t settle in the brooder coop. She’s a very mellow hen, but I think she was trying to get back to the clutch of eggs I’d already taken.
Meanwhile, the chicks were peeping (I was so worried they’d get too cold!), so I shoved two down my sports bra and held two in one hand, got Goldie in the other arm and we made the move back to the original nesting box. Back in the expected place, Goldie settled right down. I placed the chicks back under her wings and breast and started pulling together a divider that would keep mama and babies safe from the other hens.
Luckily, I have all kinds of garden crap hanging around my yard, so it barely took any time to find a suitable scrap of hardware cloth to section off Goldie’s nest box from the rest of the flock. I bent it into a U-shape and stapled it to the edges of her nesting box so there was just enough room outside the nest for a chick feeder, a dish of water, and a teeny, chick-sized exploration area.
Free from the molestations of other hens or – ahem – me, Goldie relaxed into contented little clucking pretty quickly. She seemed more-or-less unaware of the chicks.
I felt sure that the hardware cloth would protect the chicks from other hens, what I didn’t know was if Goldie would take care of the chicks. I didn’t know if they would freeze to death under her. I didn’t know if she would notice them all-of-a-sudden and decide to peck them to death. I didn’t know if I was dooming four chicks because of some hare-brained romantic notion about giving a broody chicken some babies.
“Keep an eye on them?” I asked my daughter, the chicken whisperer. She agreed to watch for signs of aggression and pull the chicks away to the indoor brooder if she had too.
And then I went to work.
The Next Day
We weren’t sure what we’d find in the morning.
I think Goldie woke up and said, “Hey look, my eggs hatched!” because after a very stressful (to me at least) beginning, she has been a model mama. I don’t quite know how to express this without seeming like I’m drawing inappropriate parallels, but I feel a sort of grandma pride in how good she is with the chicks.
Here’s a quick video that shows just how patient she is with her adopted babies. This was taken the day after the initial rough introduction and you can see she’s willing to put up with a lot from her chicks.
It was incredible to see Goldie care for her adopted babies. Chicken TV to the nth power. Even my high-energy son stood rapt, watching the maternal avian instinct on display.
At one point my daughter reached out to give Goldie a handful of the layer feed we feed our hens. She had access to the chick feed but my daughter wanted to hand feed her because she was concerned Goldie wasn’t eating enough.
Mama hen carefully picked out pieces of field peas and cracked grain from the proffered feed but didn’t eat them – she used her beak to chomp them down into smaller pieces then dropped those in front of the chicks for them to eat.
After a couple days, the chicks were exploring the full reach of their teeny screened off nest box arena and doing their best duck impressions. We decided everyone needed a little more space.
We moved Goldie and the chicks to the brooder coop and they settled right down. Sometimes Goldie looks around and I swear she’s counting babies to make sure they are all there. I mean, I know chickens can’t count…but maybe they can count baby chicks, ya know?
We covered the top of the brooder coop with black plastic to keep out the rain and slipped heavy cardboard along the exposed side for insulation and windbreak. It’s not a lot to look at, but everyone seems to like their spacious new digs.
When the chicks are a bit older, we’ll let them run with the rest of the flock, supervised until we determine how good Goldie is at protecting them. For now, they get all the pine shavings they can kick and all the care a mama hen can give.
Want another adorable video of the ladies in their new home? Of course you do:
How To Introduce Chicks To A Broody Hen (The Right Way)
I made a lot of mistakes introducing our four new little peepers to Goldie, so I asked the chicken experts at Scratch and Peck Feed how to get a broody hen to adopt chicks – and do it the right way.
Matthew Aamot was kind enough to answer my question:
First, I’d preface this with a blanket disclaimer – all hens are different. Even the best of breeds will sometimes not accept chicks. I had one particularly frustrating Silky hen that never did accept the chicks that I tried to have her foster, and Silkies are one of the best! But – here goes:
- Before you introduce the chicks, get the broody comfortable in a pen that can be enclosed to protect the chicks from other hens and to prevent any chicks from wandering away that first night.
- Timing is important – it’s best to use 5-day old or less chicks for the fostering – the younger the better – and introduce them towards the evening. Evening hours are important because the hen is more relaxed.
- Hold the chick in your hand, cupped up, and reach under the hen like you are going to steal an egg away. Instead, you deposit the little bundle of fun, and repeat. I always place chicks under the hen, never in front of her.
- It’s very important to only do this with a hen who has exhibited a clear desire to hatch her chicks – to be safe, she should be broody for at least a week if not a little longer.
Like I said, success in not guaranteed, but if you follow these steps you have a great chance. Thanks and good luck!
Scratch and Peck, the company Matthew works for, sells the best chicken feed, and is an ethical, organic company run by really nice people. They also help make this blog possible through direct sponsorship, so if you keep hens, please keep Scratch and Peck in mind!
For more info on working with a broody hen and how to set her up for success raising chicks, I recommend the Mother Earth News article Raise Your Best Flock Using Broody Hens. It’s by Harvey Ussery, author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. Although the article focuses on hens hatching out fertilized eggs, not fostering of hatched chicks, it has a ton of valuable advice. Had I read it before I attempted Mission: Chick Adoption a lot of stress would have been avoided.
Was It Worth It?
So, happy ending and happy peeping chicks, but was that initial scary set-up session worth the outcome? Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat. Of course, I’d do it right next time, making the chick swap at night, and proving a secure, dedicated space for mama and babies before the chicks were here.
I’ve already found that there are many advantages to letting an appropriate hen rear chicks.
- It’s adorable. Yes, I know this isn’t the most practical thing, but I am a person almost totally devoid of sentimentality, and seeing this hen with these chicks has been one of the most heartwarming things ever. If you are already an ooey-gooey type, you might completely melt into a big pile of awwwwwwe, cute!. Consider yourself warned.
- It’s cleaner. Raising chicks indoors with a heat lamp isn’t hard, but as they get older there’s a lot of dust, and eventually it gets pretty stinky even with dedicated brooder maintenance. While we enjoy holding and cuddling with baby chicks, by the time they have feathered out and are big enough to go outside, we are usually happy to move them along to that next stage.
- It’s less work. All we are doing is managing food and water, as we do for all our chickens. Goldie is taking care of keeping them warm and their location outside means the poop management is mostly taken care of by soil microbes.
- It may be healthier for the chicks. Yes, there are risks. But chicks raised by a broody hen within a healthy, thriving flock pick up immunities and are exposed to a healthy diverse diet of bugs and grass far earlier than chicks kept inside in a brooder.
Have you ever had a broody hen adopt day-old chicks? How did it go? I’d love to64