Brooding, molting and picking are just some of the lovable quirks you can expect from your new flok of hens. Here's our quick guide to why they behave like this, and what, if anything, you should do about it.
If you’re breeding chickens, a broody hen is good news. She will sit on her own eggs, the eggs of other hens, and even the eggs of other birds (not to mention stones and golf balls!). However, if you’re just in it for the eggs, and not roosters and chicks, a broody hen is a nuisance. She will not like anyone coming close and may peck at a hand that attempts to retrieve an egg. She will also start plucking her breast feathers to line her nest, and may overheat eggs, shortening their shelf life.
This is one reason why eggs should be collected every morning. If left in the nest/egg box, a hen’s brooding instincts may kick in.
A mother hen looking after her recently hatched chicks
To prevent this habit from forming, collect eggs every day. Hens are more likely to go broody on a nest full of eggs.
A hen who has already gone broody can be persuaded to abandon the eggs in a number of gentle ways. Take her off the nest at least twice a day and prevent her returning for at least ten minutes, and she will soon grow tired of the whole business. If this fails, an ice pack in the egg box will be sufficiently uncomfortable to dissuade her from brooding. Failing that, two or three days in isolation will force her to give up hopes of hatching. This isn’t cruel – hen’s act purely on instinct, and once the ‘cure’ is in place, her instinct will tell her to scratch, squabble and lay with the other hens, and she won’t think twice about brooding.
All birds shed and regrow their feathers each year, a process known as molting. It will usually occur in the summer, although a flock does not always molt in unison. They will stop laying for the duration of the molt, and will look messy and balding while the new feathers grow. They may also be more short-tempered than usual.
If a hen loses feathers and develops bald patches that linger, with no other sign of a molt, there may be parasites or illness at work (see the Chicken Health section of this Guide for further advice). Watch out for unusual behavior – listlessness or a hunched posture, for example – and if in any doubt about the bird’s health, speak with your vet.
Chickens with bald patches may well be victims of ‘picking’. This is when stressed or angry hens peck at each other, and is nearly always the result of poor environment. Hens need lots of space, and if there’s not enough of it they will take out their frustrations by plucking their neighbors' feathers.