Eggs-asperating! On Broody Hens (And What They Can Teach Us)

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: May 05, 2011
Share this:

I’ve one hen shy of a dozen. They’re adorable in their reptilian hilarity; chasing the cats away from their food, competing for avocado flesh in apparent pursuit of the most orange egg yolk ever, and devouring palmetto bugs with revolting alacrity. Problem is, only ten of them are currently doing what they’re supposed to be doing by all normal measures of hen-dom.

That is to say, one of them is not quite right at the moment. She spends her every spare minute engaged in a brainlessly ineffectual task she’s apparently compelled to pursue with all her gallinaceous heart and soul: sitting atop an egg or two all … day … long. And get this: They aren’t even hers.



– verb (used without object)

6. to sit upon eggs to be hatched, as a bird.

7. to dwell on a subject or to meditate with morbid persistence (usually followed by over  or on).

The hen-in-question (let’s call her "OCD-girl," as I normally do, though "Brunhilda" works, too) is obsessed with eggs that do not belong to her. She wants nothing to do with real life as long as there are eggs around. As soon as eggs get laid, she’s right there angling to get atop them ASAP. Because God knows one of them might hatch real soon if she’s lucky!

OK, so perhaps I’m being too hard on my wayward hen. It’s not her fault, really. After all, it’s not exactly "normal" that she should be deprived of a bunch of fertile eggs of her own. Not in the context of a wild life, anyway. I mean, she’s asked to make empty eggs every day. Meanwhile, her body is telling her it really, really wants to make real babies … not somebody’s breakfast.

This bottle-blonde woman keeps coming by a few times every day to take my future babies away! What’s up with that?

Here’s what’s up: Girlfriend hen is being "broody." Which means she’s being stubborn in clinging to her hormonal roots. Clearly, she hasn’t yet realized that in the context of her community her behavior is obnoxious, disruptive, inefficient and frustrating (not just to me, but to her fellow hens, who despise her behavior).

Nope. She’s single-mindedly clinging to the unrealistic hope that one day her chicks will come.

So what’s a thoughtful, welfare-minded hen-keeper to do? Should I let the situation play itself out? (So you know, I’ve been doing that so far and all it’s done is get my hens further riled up against broody-girl.) Or should I break the cycle by extracting broody-girl from her home, taking her far, far away from the life of eggs so she can re-set her internal hormonal clock in keeping with a normal flock of laying hens?

That’s how it’s done, you know. Breaking the cycle is what it’s all about. That’s what farmers used to do in times long past when curing a hen was more efficient than culling her. Or so I’ve read. Here’s what they did (and what some small-scale farmers still do): They separate said broody hen and take any eggs away (she won’t lay any of her own as long as she’s got access to eggs). If that doesn’t work they dunk her underside in cold water to "cool her off." (Now that’s an idea I don’t think I can get behind, but I swear it’s been described in my readings. Really.)

Anyhow, there are lots of solutions on offer. And so far I’ve only tried the one that says you take her eggs away. The next step is on the horizon, though. Tomorrow I’ll be taking her to work with me. After all, separating her from her flock shouldn’t be any more stressful than what she’s suffering now. Seeing as the girls are all picking on her, presumably as a result of her abnormal behavior, it might be a behavioral blessing to keep her in a quiet spot in X-ray.

Three days? Through the weekend? Not yet sure. I will, however, be looking forward to a state of broody-lessness. Because, if nothing else, Brunhilda’s taught me there’s nothing quite so pathetic and maddening as broodiness. I just have no patience for it. Best we all abandon excessive bouts of this behavior. Now, if only three days in a cage could cure the rest of us…

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: hen house life by jamesmorton