You would think having a hen raise chicks would be a simple thing; just put the cute little babies in the nest with her and let the mommy magic begin, right? Well, not usually. Unless you happen to have a very special hen, you’ll need to plot and plan carefully to create a happy feathered mixed family.
Start with a good mom
Don’t ever give chicks to a hen that has never raised a brood before. First time chicken moms frequently make a lot of mistakes while learning how to care for the youngsters. Chicks need to be kept warm and protected, and first-time broody hens will often ditch the kids in favor of a good dust bath or that great piece of clover in the corner of the yard. If you’ve brought in chicks, chances are that you’ve chosen them for a specific reason and you don’t want to lose them to an inexperienced mom.
Even experienced hens can be poor mothers. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve read about hens that will throw their own chicks out of the nest, or peck them to death for no clear reason. Maybe the brooding instinct isn’t strong enough to last after the eggs hatch, or maybe the only thing she wants to do is sit on eggs, not raise chicks. Watch your hens through a couple broods to see who is a good candidate for a foster mother.
Your broody must be committed
Make sure your hen is deeply into broodiness. This is not a trivial consideration as most breeds of chicken have the broody instinct bred out of them. It makes sense from a production standpoint since a broody hen will spend several months not laying any eggs; an egg farmer wants laying hens, not freeloaders. Some breeds are still good brooders, while others can be hit or miss. Silkies are known for their broodiness, and mine is no exception. The half-silkies are a different story. These girls will spend a few days sitting on a nest, then suddenly change their minds and never look back. You need to be sure that your hen is committed to the process.
Once you have a broody hen that you are confident is a good mother, give her some plastic Easter eggs or golf balls to sit on for a couple weeks. She should be firmly planted on those things with nothing more than a quick break once a day to grab something to eat and take a potty break. A good broody will sit on those “eggs” until they hatch, or until she feels the chicks.
Be tricky about putting the chicks in
After your girl has been nesting for at least two weeks (can be longer if the chicks take a while to get) you can plan to introduce her to the chicks. You want the babies to be only a day or so old or there won’t be any chance of her accepting them. The younger the better. Even if you know your girl and you’re sure there won’t be any problems, I still recommend the sneak attack.
Wait until it’s dark, then go quietly out to the coop with your warm, sleeping chicks. Using a red light will help to keep everyone asleep while you work. One at a time, gently cup each chick in your hand and slide them underneath your broody’s belly. If you can take out the fake eggs easily at the same time, go ahead and do this, but it isn’t critical. After the babies are tucked underneath, do a last quick check to make sure all their parts are underneath her feathers. They would probably scoot under more if they were cold, but you’re here anyway, and why take chances? Let everyone go back to sleep.
You’ll need to be out early the next morning to make sure everything is ok. Chickens are up at dawn, and that’s what time you need to head out to the coop to check on the new family. Watch for a while to get a better idea of what’s going on. If she kicked them out during the night, there probably isn’t much you can do, but if the chick is cold, but still alive, take it inside to get it warm. You could also try just putting it back underneath her if you’ll be hanging out for a long time. What you want to see is mom making the happy clucking noises as she talks to her babies, and she should be really flattened out to keep them warm. Put a bit of treat in front of her. She’ll either ignore it, or do this clucking, clacking thing to call the babies out to taste some.
I check every few hours for the first three days, just to make sure, but then I’m a little paranoid. After three days, mom will start to take the babies outside. If she’s adopted them as her own she’ll be protective as well as instructive and the chicks should be fine. I don’t know if it’s the way my coop is set up, or all youngsters have this problem, but my chicks need some instruction about getting up the ramp and back into the nesting box. The broodies put the kids to bed early, so check for panicked chicks well before sunset. I leave a window open and listen for the loud frantic peeping in addition to going out to the pen.
Once the chicks start leaving the nest, mom should give up on any “eggs” that haven’t hatched. This means that the hen should follow the chicks outside, not stay on the nest. If you see the chicks alone, and you haven’t removed your fake eggs, shoo the broody out of the nest and take them now. If she still doesn’t follow the chicks you might either want to lock them all in the nesting box for another day, or take the chicks inside and raise them yourself.
After a week, everybody has figured out how to get back to the house and I stop being so worried about them. Well, I still leave the window open and listen before I go to bed. OK, I sneak out to the coop, too, and stand there with my ear against the side, just in case somebody’s out of the nest and is lost in the dark. But mostly I stop worrying.