Backyard Chickens, Part 6

In previous postings, I’ve explained how you can start your flock by purchasing a ready-made one of “pullets at the point of lay” and also how you can purchase “day-olds” and raise them from chicks. Now I would like to address the first of two ways you can start with eggs- hatching them with a hen.

The Biology of Egg Laying

(Pardon this first part if it seems remedial, but you’d be surprised how many people do not understand the relationship between chickens and eggs, and I’m not even talking about which came first. *Wink*).

When a young female chicken (a pullet) reaches about 5 months old, her body is ready to start producing eggs. She will do this whether there is a rooster or not, so it is possible to have a small flock of chickens and get eggs even without a noisy cockerel in the yard. The resulting eggs will be infertile.

If you want a self-sustaining flock, you will need a couple of additional things: a rooster and a broody hen or incubator. An alternate possibility would be a source of eggs from a flock with a rooster.

Cockerels (young male chickens) reach their maturity at roughly the same age as the pullets. As long as there aren’t too many ladies for the young man to “court,” then you can be relatively sure that the resulting eggs will be fertile by the time they reach about 7 or 8 months old.

The Broody Hen

As I mentioned in a previous posting, some breeds of chickens are more prone to broodiness than others. Our bantam hens have volunteered to set eggs more often than our standard size hens and have been good devoted mothers also.

You can identify “broodiness” by observing the hen.

  • Does she spend most of her day sitting on the egg(s) in a nest? Maybe even given up eating?
  • Does she puff up, squawk a warning, or peck you when you try to remove the eggs?
  • Has she stopped laying eggs herself?

You most likely have a broody hen if the answer to these is yes.

When a hen’s broody instinct is triggered, she will often try to create a stash of eggs over a period of several days and then when she feels there are enough, she will spread herself as wide as possible and settle in to hatch them. I have even seen broody hens take other hens’ eggs from nearby nests and roll them to her own with her beak.

Hatching Eggs

Chicken eggs take 3 weeks to hatch and the mother-to-be usually leaves them only once every day or two long enough to relieve herself, get water, maybe a bite of food, and turn her eggs. You don’t want to let a hen sit on unhatched eggs too long since her health will decline. If she is sitting on infertile eggs that never hatch, she could eventually starve herself to death.

Letting a hen do what God programmed them to do is my favorite way to increase the flock. Far less work for me and then there is an actual mama to teach them what greens to eat, how to scratch for bugs, what is dangerous, etc.

Another wonderful thing about broody hens is that they will generally set and raise any kind of egg you give them. My best banty hen had a family of turkey babies last year. It was so comical seeing her try to spread her protective wings over babies that had surpassed her in size!

Tracking The Eggs

An important note- be sure to mark the eggs she is setting so they can be easily identified! You do not want to take her half-set eggs for a couple of reasons. First, the point was to get chicks and if you remove the eggs from her and put them in the fridge, the developing embryo will die.

Possibly more importantly though is that you do NOT want to crack into those eggs! It is amazing how quickly they develop- within a few days, there is a noticeable circulatory system.

I will spare you any further description, but suffice it to say, it has happened to us more than once. If you find an egg of unknown age or freshness, put it in water. If it sinks, it’s probably still good. If it floats, toss it out.

The simplest way to indicate that they are “setting eggs” is to just put a big pencil mark X on them. When we collect eggs, we date them so we can use them in order for freshness. If I find one in the collecting basket with an X, I know it needs to be returned immediately. If you have more than one hen setting, you could even write the name of the hen on them.

It’s a good idea to jot down the date a hen began setting her eggs on your calendar too. This way, if the eggs are a week past their “due date,” you know to take them away and shut her out of her nest so she will get back to eating again.

Using an electric incubator will be the topic of the next installment.

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