For this week's Local Food Report, I talked with my friend Justine in Truro about hatching chicks. She's got a flock of seventeen chickens—give or take, depending on the raccoons—and last summer, one of her hens went broody. You can hear her story of becoming an accidental chicken breeder on the show.

When I was doing research for the piece, I pulled out my favorite book on raising chickens: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery.  It's an in-depth, practical book that covers every aspect of chicken husbandry from raising chicks to making and managing your own feed to dealing with aggressive roosters. There are several chapters toward the end on breeding and working with broody hens, and they've got all kinds of fascinating information.

First off, a hen that's gone broody is essentially a hen looking to start a family. She stops laying eggs and instead starts sitting on them and incubating them, and she won't get off until 15 days later, when they hatch. In wild birds of most species, this process is triggered when the female has found and mated with a male. Most birds only lay eggs that are fertile and will only incubate and hatch their own eggs. But after centuries of domesticity, chickens have had most of these natural tendencies suppressed. Most hens don't go broody—they simply lay an egg a day, fertilized or not, and then get up and leave the nest. This is good for egg production, because farmers mainly want to sell eggs, not hatch them. And unlike a wild bird, a broody hen will sit on any chicken's eggs—and even duck eggs!—not just her own. Which means farmers can isolate hens and roosters they want to breed, take these eggs, and set them under a different hen who goes broody and has good mothering instincts. 

According to Mr. Ussery, if you have between eight and twelve hens it only takes one rooster to guarantee virtually 100 percent of the eggs will be fertile. But even up to twenty five hens per rooster, most eggs will still be fertile. You can see why so many roosters hit the soup pot.

Certain breeds of hens are more and less likely to go broody—Old English Games, Nankin, and Silkies are three breeds favored as mothers. Hens are more likely to go broody in the spring or early summer, but it can happen anytime, and some hens will go broody multiple times a year. If a mother hen tries to sit on too many eggs—more than are comfortably covered by her body—all the eggs have a higher chance of mortality, as they need to be kept constantly at her body temperature to survive. Some farmers use a technique call "candling" to hold a light up to developing eggs at night. Broody hens can be aggressive, and the only time a broody hen will allow someone peacefully into the nest is at night, so farmers hold a light up to each egg to see if the chicks are developing inside. If not, they remove the eggs that are duds, because otherwise they can explode and the gunk can coat over and suffocate the remaining eggs, which need to be able to breathe through the membrane of the shell.

Once the babies are born, the mother won't make any effort to save a weak chick or an egg that doesn't hatch. She focuses all her energy on the healthy babies and protects them from the rest of the flock until they're big enough to fend on their own.

For now, we don't have any roosters. (Actually, for the foreseeable future—since our permit from the town very clearly says in all caps NO ROOSTERS!) But if a hen starts going broody, I could get some fertilized eggs from a friend to slip under her. At any rate, I find it all fascinating. Has anyone out there ever hatched their own chicks? Candled eggs? Raised chicken babies? Would love to hear more.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.