Broody hens are easy to spot once they are fully into their brooding period. They sit in the nest box all day and night, getting up a few times a day to eat and groom themselves before heading back to their post. When their time is up (3 weeks? 6 weeks? Or somewhere in between…), they rejoin the flock as if nothing happened.
I let my hens go broody even when there aren’t any eggs to hatch, but not everyone does. A lot of people “break” their broody hens by making the first few days uncomfortable. This discourages the broody behavior. There are good reasons for both ways of handling broodies.
Either way, the onset of the brooding period can be confusing because you don’t know if your hen is feeling sick, has an impacted egg, or what. If you want to catch the broody behavior before it goes full swing, or if you want to ease your mind about having a sick hen, it helps to know the early signs.
Early Signs of a Broody Hen
Returning to the nest box often throughout the day
Broody hens start by scoping out the nest box scene. If you have more than one nest box, they’ll try out a few to see which one they like best. They’ll sit there for a few hours and they won’t lay an egg.
*This behavior can be mistaken for a impacted egg. If a hen has an egg stuck between her uterus and cloaca, she will return to the nest box frequently and try to pass it. In this case, she will also have a distinct waddle when she walks.
Sleeping in the nest box at night
She likes to hang out in the box during the day, so why not stay there at night, too? She’s feeling the urge to stay in one place round the clock.
*Sometimes chickens sleep in the nest box at night, but this behavior is unusual. I have had sick hens who chose to sleep in the nest box once or twice. I’m guessing it’s because they want to feel more secure, or because they don’t feel well enough to fly up to the roost.
Sick hens who sleep in the nest box will have other signs too. Check for these to see if your hen is ill:
- Droppings look unusual
- Stance may be different than normal (tail pointed down or waddling when they walk)
- Feathers may look dull
- Hen may looked hunched, with her head pulled in
- She closes her eyes during the day, looks listless
Grooming vigorously when they do come out of the nest box
Broody hens don’t spend the day dust-bathing, so when they do come out of the box, they groom their feathers with GUSTO! Their head moves quickly, and they tuck their beak into their feathers like they’re on a mission. Then they ruffle their feathers up and shake them out. It reminds me of a wet dog shaking off!
Comes out of the nest box to eat special treats, but returns to the box when the treat time is over
A fully broody hen won’t leave the nest box for anything. Nothing can get her up. Even if you show up with her favorite treat, she won’t budge. A hen that is just starting to go broody will still get up when you show her a plate of dinner scraps (or meal worms!). She doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.
She doesn’t ruffle her feathers when you touch her (yet)
A hen that has settled into her brooding period will ruffle her feathers when you pet her in the nest box. Early broody girls won’t do that.
Enjoy your broody hen!
If you have a hen who fits this description but is otherwise healthy, she may be going broody! If you let her go through it, it will last anywhere from 3-6 weeks.
Just when you think she’s never going to get up from the nest, she’ll be back out with the others.