Anyone who keeps chickens will know that they can be very individual characters. What works for one of your girls won’t necessarily work for another. Trying to break a broody hen is one of those occasions when their quirks and character can really come to the fore. Some, as you will discover, are far more stubborn than others.
We’ve had rescue hens for a number of years. We don’t have a rooster, and never have done. But even without the opportunity for viable breeding, we’ve still had a hen go broody every once in a while.
When a hen goes broody, we might not always consider this a problem. It can simply show good maternal instincts. But what about when hens go broody when they don’t have eggs to hatch?
How to Break a Broody Hen
When your hen goes broody, we need to find humane ways to break them out of their broodiness. Here are five options to help you (and your hen):
- Removal and distraction
- Removing nesting material
- Cold water bathing
- Coop and nesting box exclusion
- Isolation and confinement
We’ve never had to resort to number five – though you may have to. Working your way through this list of options, one at a time, should help you to break a broody bird and get things back on an even keel.
We’ll delve a little deeper into each of these options below.
Why Do Hens Get Broody?
Before we look at the various options for breaking a broody hen, however, it might be helpful to take a quick look at what it means for a hen to get broody, and why this occurs.
A ‘broody’ hen is simply a hen following her natural instincts to sit on and protect her eggs until they hatch. Whether she is sitting on a viable brood or not, her hormones will have kicked in, and she will often be extremely tenacious in her efforts to nest.
Hens will get broody in the natural course of things when they lay viable eggs. But sometimes, a hen may get broody even when eggs have not been fertilized, and sometimes even where there are not even any eggs at all due to her hormone levels.
We have found that this can sometimes occur among the more elderly ‘ladies’ in our flock. Hormones can change as the hens age.
Fascinatingly, in our female-only flock, we’ve also had a couple over the years stop laying, crow like roosters, and take on some male characteristics. This is not uncommon in all-female flocks and is often a sign of hormonal imbalances in older age.
We’ve also certainly had a couple of broody girls – including one particularly stubborn hen indeed.
How Do You Break a Broody Chicken Humanely?
Of course, no one wants to do anything to hurt or distress their hens. Unfortunately, I’ve heard of all sorts of cruel methods used to break a broody bird.
It can also, however, often be inhumane to leave a broody bird to do her thing. So here are five more humane methods to try:
1. Removal and Distraction
The first method to try takes some time, but can often work if you are determined and consistent enough.
This method simply involves gently but firmly removing the bird from the nesting box every time she tries to sit.
Be warned – a broody hen can get quite aggressive – pecking, even making a growling noise. You might be astonished by the sudden turn in the character of even a previously friendly bird.
But gently picking up the hen and moving her away from the nest each time she tries to sit can often break the broody behavior.
At first, you might pluck her from the nest only to have her get right back on. Try to carry her to a different part of your yard, and aim to distract her with plenty of treats and stimulation.
It might not always work right away, but you may often find that over time, the distraction will encourage different behaviors to kick in.
2. Removing Nesting Material
Another thing to try is removing the nesting material from nesting boxes where the broody hen is trying to sit. Of course, if you are not trying to hatch eggs, you should remove any eggs promptly. But a broody hen may sit even when there are not even any eggs present at all.
The hen that believes she is trying to brood her eggs may sometimes give up and move on if you take this step. However, some stubborn hens may carry on regardless.
3. Cold Water Bathing
When a hen goes broody, her chest and vent become warmer. This is beneficial where you want her to be able to provide body heat to the eggs in a nest. However, where the broodiness is not wanted, cooling the hen’s lower portions down can help to break her out of the mindset.
I definitely would not recommend heartlessly dunking or plunging a broody hen into cold water. But a gentle bathe in tepid water won’t be too unpleasant for her as long as the weather is not too cold.
Take a shallow container and fill it with cool (but not freezing cold) water. Then gently place the hen into the water, so that her vent and chest are submerged. Holding her gently, keep her there for a few minutes.
Afterward, on a sunny day, you might let her dry out naturally. But be sure to dry her off a little if there is a chill in the air. Make sure a dust bath is available should she be broken out of the broodiness sufficiently to consider this.
This certainly helped break one of our broody hens. She went from constantly sitting on an empty nest to sunning herself and returning to normal scratching and dust bathing behaviors within an hour or so of her bath.
4. Coop and Nesting Box Exclusion
If a hen is adamant in her refusal to leave a nesting box area, and will consistently return to a nesting box time and time again, no matter how many times you remove her from it, excluding her from the area where she wants to raise her brood is another option to consider.
Sometimes, you might let the chickens access the nesting boxes only during morning laying, then lock off the nesting box section, or the entire coop, after the eggs have been laid by the other members of your flock.
Sometimes, you may have to make sure that the coop is out of bounds to the broody hen all of the time.
If you exclude a broody hen from her nesting area, she may eventually give up and move on.
However, we had one girl that was particularly stubborn. After we excluded her from the coop and nesting area, our free-range girl simply moved her focus to a new nesting site, under a bush.
But we returned to step one, and simply removed her from this new site over a few more days, and, with plenty of distraction, she eventually moved out of the broody phase and returned to normal.
5. Isolation and Confinement
Not everyone has found that the above methods work. Some hens may be even more stubborn.
So, while it should be considered as a last resort, in some cases you may need to send the hen to ‘chicken jail’ – and cage her for a period of time. In an environment where she is confined and isolated all the time, she will not be able to sit in a nest.
Each day, you should let her out briefly to see what she does. If she continues to exhibit broody behavior, is aggressive, and tries to nest, you should return her to her confinement.
If, however, she scratches, feeds, and shows other normal behavior – problem solved – she can return to the flock.
Just make sure you take good care of your broody hen. Her behavior is not her fault and it is only natural. She’s going through a lot.
As her caretaker, your job is just to help her get through it as helpfully and humanely as possible, as quickly as you can where there are no eggs to hatch.
Do you have great tips on breaking a broody hen? Strange chicken behavior, or a particularly stubborn hen? Let us know in the comments below!