You’ve probably seen a sparrow or other small bird bathing in a puddle or bird bath, splashing water all over itself. Chickens do the same thing, just with dirt. It’s called dust bathing, and it’s crucial to their health.
Dust bathing helps chickens keep pests like mites and lice off their skin naturally. This saves you having to treat them with medicines to prevent those pests.
Dust bathing is strange the first time you see it. First, they will dig a hole in a soft patch of bare ground a few inches deep. Then they lay down on their side in the hole and use their beak to scratch dirt toward them. Then the funny part.
The chicken will scratch with one leg and flap its wings to throw dirt in the air. The dirt falls on them and settles between their feathers. They do this repeatedly for a while, then stand up, shake the dirt off, and go on their way.
Here’s a video of some of my birds getting their bath on:
So if you see your chickens keeled over and flailing around, don’t be alarmed. She’s probably just taking a bath.
You’re going to open your nest box one day and find a hen who refuses to leave.
She will puff up and growl at you (and possibly peck) when you try to move her or retrieve eggs from under her. And she will stay there for days, even weeks if you let her. You have a broody bird.
The term “broody” means a hen who wants to hatch eggs. A switch has flipped in her brain and the only thing she wants to do is gather a clutch of eggs and set them. She won’t leave the box, she will barely eat or drink, and she will literally look like she is in a trance. Because she is.
Broodiness is nature’s way of turning your hen into an incubator. For chicken eggs to gestate chicks that hatch, the eggs must be brought to a temperature of precisely 95 degrees and be kept there for exactly 21 days. They must also be rotated several times a day.
If your hen gathered a clutch and then went on with her normal daily activities, the eggs would die. The only way to create the perfect conditions for hatching eggs is if that hen does nothing but focus on them. Hence the trance.
Now if you have some fertilized eggs you want to hatch when your hen goes broody, you’re in luck! She will do the job with shocking effectiveness. Just put the eggs under or near here and she will do the rest. It is truly something to see.
But what if you don’t want her to hatch eggs? What do you do with a broody hen then?
You have three options.
1. Give her false eggs and wait.
You can buy fake chicken eggs from McMurray Hatchery for just this purpose. Put a few under her, give her some space, and wait. It will take weeks, but she should eventually snap out of it and get on with her life. We’ve tried this and it works – sometimes. Some hens, after the 21-day “gestation” period is over, don’t hear the cheeping of babies and come out of the broody trance.
We’ve had many others, though, who would not. They would set indefinitely, barely eating, for eggs that will never hatch. That’s why we generally use the second options.
2. Put her in a “broody breaker.”
I know the term broody breaker sounds cruel, but it isn’t. A broody breaker is simply a part of your coop away from the nest boxes where you can lock the chicken until she breaks out of her broodiness. Make sure your broody box is plenty big so she can walk around. Give her food, water, fresh air, everything. Just don’t give her a nest or eggs. And because hens don’t lay eggs themselves once they go broody, she can’t lay any in the breaker.
My broody breaker. Plenty of comfort, just no eggs.
She will be pretty unsettled the first day, pacing the breaker box and griping you out. But she will break out of broodiness much, much faster. We have never had to keep a hen in the breaker box more than three days.
Some may not like the idea of a broody box, that it is unnatural, maybe even cruel. I disagree. To me, letting a chicken neglect herself for weeks when you know she will never hatch eggs is worse than helping her get back to her normal life quicker.
Broody box quick tip: Use your nursery area as a broody breaker. Unless you have chicks in there when a hen goes broody, it should be unoccupied. This is what we do.
3. Give her day-old chicks to raise.
If one of your hens goes broody at a time when you were going to buy chicks anyway, let your broody girl raise them. Buy the chicks and wait for night to fall (it is best to do this at night). Place the chicks under the hen from behind. This will trick her into thinking her eggs have hatched. Momma and babies will know what to do from there. It is not 100% guaranteed, but she will very likely take them to raise.
Broody is as broody does.
Some chickens never go broody. Others do it all the time. Now you’ll know what’s going on if one of your hens suddenly growls at you.