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How To Set Up A Brooder Box For A Hen And Chicks

Raising chicks is one of the best parts of having backyard chickens. When you have a broody hen, it’s all the best parts with even less work! Here’s how to set up a brooder box that will accommodate mom AND chicks!

How Do You Know You Have a Broody Hen?

In order to hatch out eggs under one of your hens, you have to let her go broody. If you don’t want to hatch eggs and your hen goes broody, it can be quite inconvenient. She’ll stop laying eggs and want to sit in the nest all day.

Broody hens won’t go roost with the rest of the flock at night. In fact, they most likely will only get off their nest once per day to eat a little, drink some water, and relieve themselves. As they only relieve themselves once per day, these bowel movements can be quite large. Broody hens may also pull the feathers off of their chests and bellies.

Some breeds are more likely to brood than others. Silkies are very good chicken mothers, but so are many other heritage chicken breeds.

Brooding can be physically stressful on your hens, plus they won’t be laying during that time, so if you are not planning ot hatch out eggs, it’s best to discourage your hen. Cooling down her chest with cold water should discourage her. You can limit her access to the nest box.

Some hens just won’t be deterred though! I have one hen who raised three separate hatches this spring despite my best attempts to discourage her! If your hen is going to be sitting their anyway, you might as let her hatch out some chicks!

Should You Move Her Into A Brooder Box?

If you have a broody hen and you want to set eggs under her, you’ll need to decide if you want to keep her where she is, or if you want to move her to her own brooder box. Moving a broody hen can sometimes break them, which is unfortunate if you already have hatching eggs ready to go.

If you keep your chickens on pasture, it’s probably best to leave mama hen in with the rest of the flock. That is the least stressful for her, and she will do a great job protecting her chicks from the other adult birds. If you decide to keep them together, just put the whole flock on a feed without additional calcium and supplement oyster shell for your layers.

If you keep your birds in a more restrained area, it’s probably best to separate the mother hen and put her in her own brooder box. My hen raised her largest hatch on pasture with the other birds and it was by far the easiest option. On her third hatching, I had the birds penned in their new hot weather coop. Unfortunately, the nest box was infested with mites.

How to Deal With Mites

Pests like mites are one of the downsides of broody hens that aren’t getting out to dust bathe and eat. The treatment for mites in the coop is not safe for chicks. Because of this, I had to move mama bird and eggs. If you’d like more details on dealing with mites, read Be Ruthless With Chicken Mites And Obnoxious Bugs.

Here’s a video about dealing with mites on a broody hen:

If you have to move your broody hen to a different brooder box or coop try to move her at night. Have some eggs or golf balls ready for her in the nest. Set her down in the nest box nearby so she can settle onto them. If you don’t have access to fertile eggs and want to order some, your hen can sit on golf balls for about a week. She’ll still hatch her eggs out without any problems, even though she’s already been sitting. If you need to swap in eggs, try to do it at night, or when she’s up getting food and water. Otherwise, you are likely to get very pecked!

How Many Eggs Can A Hen Sit On?

Hens can handle as many eggs as they can cover, but if you give them too many, all the eggs can die. Hens will rotate the eggs under them, and the eggs on the edges get too cool and die. In the video above you can see what too many eggs looks like. Despite all those eggs, that ended up being my smallest hatch.

If you have a situation where multiple hens are sharing a nest box, or other hens are laying in a nest box with your broody hen, mark the eggs you intend to hatch. Then make sure to collect the unmarked eggs daily so they don’t start developing.

You can use a flashlight to “candle” the eggs around day 10. Any eggs that you can see veins in is developing. I personally haven’t tried it yet, although it’s probably cool. My hen has managed to hatch out her chicks just fine without that interference.

When Will The Chicks Hatch?

The chicks should start hatching out around day 20 or 21. Chicks can last for a couple days before eating, so you don’t need to rush in. Give plenty of time for all eggs to hatch. If the egg hasn’t hatched out by the next day, it most likely will not. Once mother hen gets up and starts moving her chicks around with her, any remaining eggs are likely duds.

How To Set Up A Brooder Box For Mother Hen

You may be thinking this is all great information but WHAT and I supposed to put all of this INTO? You’re in luck! There are LOTS of options!

How Much Brooder Box Space Do They Need?

While mama hen is sitting on her eggs, she only needs one square foot of nesting space. She’ll also need a place for her food and water. She really doesn’t need much space at all. Once the chicks arrive, plan to have two square feet per chick. Aside from the space, all they really need is to be protected from predators, especially rats.

Because you don’t need a heat lamp or electricity to keep your chicks warm, there are many possibilities! A cardboard box makes a great brooder box because it’s easy to compost and get a new one when it’s time to clean it.

You can put mama and chicks into a rabbit hutch, or even a wire rabbit cage. They can live in an outbuilding such as a shed or garage. If you have a dog house, run, or crate, those are also great choices.

Traditional brooders for chicks such as metal stock tanks and Rubbermaid tubs work just as well when mama hen is there too. Here’s how to make your own chick brooder out of a plastic tub.

Another option would be a second smaller coop and run. Many of the chicken tractors and prefab coops are a good size for a growing batch of chicks. And if you don’t want to completely separate mom and babies, simply use wire or wooden panels to section off a corner of your main coop.

Protect Chicks From Predators

Just remember that chicks are very vulnerable to attack. Mama hen does a good job defending her chicks during the day. Unfortunately, it’s easy for rats, possums, and cats to make off with a chick or two at night while she is sleeping. If you need some tips on how to keep unwanted critters out of your coop, check out my post on Predator Proof Chicken Coops.

What Do You Feed Them?

Mama hen can eat the chick crumbles or grower feed readily available from feed stores. If you don’t have the smaller crumbles, mama hen will teach them to eat regular sized pellets. She will also teach them to forage. If they don’t have access to a run or pasture, add in some greens and grit for them to practice on. Chicks should never have layer feed, as the extra calcium can hurt them. Instead, give mother hen access to oyster shell.

Your hen and chicks will also need access to water. Be careful with waterers with very small chicks. They need to be able to reach the water. However, it also needs to be shallow enough that they will not fall in. And of course keep the water clean.

When Do The Chicks Grow Out Of The Brooder Box?

If your hen and chicks are on pasture, they can go out right away. There is no reason to keep them penned up. The mother will protect her babies during the day. My hen had no qualms about flying right into the face of my black lab when he got too close!

Harvey Ussery recommends putting them out on pasture. He recounts in a Mother Earth News article how despite challenging and cold conditions he has had hens not lose any chicks.

If you want to put the babies into a pen with other adult chickens, you may want to wait until the babies are bigger. Mother hen can’t necessarily fend off all her flock mates at once, especially in tight quarters.

When Should You Put a Broody Hen Back Into The Flock?

The hen will let you know when she is done caring for her chicks. She may start pecking at them to encourage them to leave her alone. She will start roosting at night without them. She will also start laying eggs again. You can put her back with the main flock at this point if she is not already.

If the chicks are still significantly smaller than the other chickens, it’s probably best to wait until they grow until they are introduced into the main flock. Of course, if you have plenty of space for them to get away from larger, meaner birds, they can go in earlier.

Mother hen may have lost her pecking order status while she was gone, and she will need to reintegrate. The new chicks will also need to establish their place. The post Introducing New Chickens Without Causing a Bloodbath has strategies you can try to make the transition easier.

Raising your own chicks with a mother hen is a rewarding and fun experience! Hopefully your hatch rates will be wonderful, and your chicks grow quickly!

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Wednesday 3rd of May 2023

I have 2 broody hens I moved to a metal stock tank. It is in a corner of the coop. I have a framed wire cover on it, so that the other hens won't bother them. There is food and water at one end of the tank. I placed marked fertilized eggs under one of the hens a week ago.(given to me by a friend, we are not sure what breed) When I moved the 2 hens to the brooder I moved their eggs with them. I think I will move some of the unfertilized eggs out (there was a large clutch, even after moving some of them out every few days) so the fertilized eggs will stay under her and warm. My questions are: 1) is it okay to keep the lid on? It has a wooden frame, but is a fine wire mesh for the main part. 2) if I remove the unfertilized eggs, can they be eaten. Thank you in advance for your help. Pamela


Wednesday 10th of May 2023

The lid sounds like it's fine and won't be too hot and has plenty of airflow.

If the unfertilized eggs have been under the hen for a while, they will probably not be good anymore. The heat from the hen ages them faster than just sitting out.


Thursday 20th of April 2023

When is the best time to move a hen with her 3 day old chicks to a little bigger pen day or night


Saturday 22nd of April 2023

During the day should be fine to move them.

Ivy Clayton

Friday 6th of December 2019

I have the feeder up on some cinder blocks. Will that be ok or do I need to put it lower?


Tuesday 10th of December 2019

Yes, that will be much too high for the chicks at first.


Thursday 5th of December 2019

Can chicks really eat pellets?


Thursday 5th of December 2019

Mama hen can help break them apart for them, and they will eat pretty much anything she eats.

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