A chicken owner interested in growing their flock should know how long a broody hen can safely leave her eggs.
While the definitive answer must factor in the outside temperature, how far along the eggs are, and how many eggs are in the nest, it is usually safe for a broody hen to leave her eggs for around four hours.
You should also know why a broody hen will abandon her nest and how you can prevent such an occurrence.
Will chicken eggs still hatch if they get cold?
It is still possible for an egg to develop as long as it was not abandoned for too long and there are no cracks around the shell. So, it is not too late to still put the cold egg back under the hen.
In such a scenario, the egg might hatch a little bit later than its batchmates. If you never try, you’ll never know!
Why a broody hen may abandon her nest
There are occasions where you must intervene and FORCE a broody hen off of her nest for her to take care of her needs, like eating, drinking, and relieving themselves. Yet, some things will cause a broody hen to abandon her nest.
She is not prepared for motherhood.
Hens occasionally become broody before they are mature enough to take on motherhood. If her maternal instincts have not yet kicked in, then your hen may abandon her nest after she has started laying on them.
If a hen who is too young to be a mother tries to make her way through the three-week incubation period, she will sometimes either break the eggs or kill the chicks when they hatch.
She knows something is afoot.
Suppose unwanted visitors take over a hen’s nesting area, especially rats who commonly eat either unhatched eggs or newborn chicks. In that case, the broody hen will sometimes abandon her eggs altogether.
In hen logic, there is no point spending the next 21 days or so of her life trying to hatch chicks only to have them gobbled up by rodents.
Very often, chickens can become infested by parasites that reside in their feathers or inside their bodies. If this happens to a hen while brooding, she may leave her nest because she is uncomfortable.
If she has mites or chicken lice, then your broody hen may need to spend much of her time trying to rid herself of them by taking extended dirt baths.
And because these parasites are contagious, your broody may not want to pass these pests on to their babies.
She knows it is a lost cause.
Another reason a broody hen may abandon her nest is that she knows the eggs are not viable.
Sometimes she will not realize this until late in the incubation period, and the only reason she will acknowledge it is due to the smell of the rotten eggs.
4 ways to prevent brooding hen from abandoning her nest
There are several ways you can help to prevent your brooding hen from leaving her nest.
#1 If she is too young, give her some support
While you cannot force a hen to become a good mother, sometimes, a bit of encouragement or support can go a long way.
Try to isolate the young hen. Occasionally, the distraction of other chickens makes a hen leave her nest. By putting your broody in a place where she can focus on her young, she might follow through with her motherly duty.
Another solution could be as simple as reminding her she needs to nest rather than hang out with the rest of the flock. Pick her up and put her back in the nest. That simple gesture could be the solution.
#2 Check your hen house for intruders
If the presence of a pest is why your hen won’t nest, then the solution is easy: get rid of the pest.
Do some investigation into the safety inside the hen house. If you notice that rats or other rodents have made their way inside, do what you can to get them out of there and be fast.
If your hen feels the threat is gone, she may return to her nest.
#3 If she has parasites, treat her for them
If you notice your hen is spending lots of time exhibiting symptoms of a parasite infestation, ridding her of the bugs may allow her to focus on her eggs rather than alleviating her discomfort.
This is not only a good idea to keep your hen on her nest; it can also save your flock. As mentioned earlier, these parasites are contagious, so it’s best to nip them in the bud as quickly as possible.
#4 Check the nest for rotten or damaged eggs
If your hen decides to abandon her nest because she is convinced that her eggs will not hatch, then it’s a good idea to see if you can spot the eggs that are causing concern and remove them from the nest.
If the problem is one or two rotten eggs, the chances are good that your hen will return to her nest, especially if she has shown continual interest in bringing the chicks to hatch.
What to do if your hen will not return to her nest
You might think all is lost if your hen abandons her nest, but here is still hope. Several other options could be viable to keep the hope (and chicks) alive.
But before I raise your spirits too high too soon, let’s take a look at factors that could determine if the eggs are still actually viable.
How long was the hen off of the nest?
As determined earlier, if a hen leaves her nest for three or four hours, the eggs should still be warm enough to be viable for hatching. If the weather is warm, the time could extend well past that three or four-hour mark, and the eggs could be perfectly fine.
However, three or four hours could be too long for the abandoned eggs if the temperature is freezing or very cold.
The total time of incubation of the eggs will also play a factor. If the eggs are days old, they might not be viable after a few hours, but if they are close to hatching, they may be okay alone for several hours.
If you find some to be rotten or broken upon inspection of the eggs, remove them from the nest immediately. The mother could return at this point. If not, it’s time to move on to other strategies to save the chicks.
This is an option if you are unsure whether the eggs could make it, and it is not an exact science.
During this process, in its most rudimentary form, eggs can be held to the light of a candle to monitor for fetal movement inside the egg.
However, if it is too early in the incubation process, candling will probably not do any good, as the baby chick will not have formed enough to show visible signs of life.
Time to call in the reinforcements
You have checked to make sure the eggs are still viable, and they appear to be so. The mother hen will not finish her job regardless of how much you beg, plead, or barter with her.
Now it is time to call in the reinforcements to take over and finish the job. There are several options here to help save your chicks and your goal of increasing your flock.
Get a surrogate mother.
Often, you will not have to look far for a suitable surrogate mother who will not only sit on the eggs until hatching time. They will also help in getting the little chicks acclimatized to the world, as well.
Sometimes another broody hen will be more than ready to take over the job and finish hatching the chicks.
Other times ducks, geese, guineas, or other fouls are happy to do the job. Even if they are not the same species, they can still be the warm body the chicks need to bring them to life.
But if you do not have any good options around, then it’s probably time to introduce new hens to the flock.
Using an incubator
If no one wants to volunteer for motherhood, you can resort to a mechanical mother: an incubator. This is a bit more complicated, and it will take more of your time to ensure that things are going the way they need to to ensure healthy chicks.
You must first ensure that the incubator is at the right temperature for the eggs. The recommendation is around 99 degrees. Also, the humidity must be kept right the entire time the eggs are incubating.
More expensive, high-end incubators will have many built-in features, making this a more straightforward process.
If you do not have a more high-end machine, you will have to turn the eggs regularly. This is crucial to the survival of the chicks. From this point, you will check the humidity and turn the eggs regularly until hatching day arrives.
Sometimes, even after they break through the egg initially, it is not uncommon for a baby chick to peck a bit, take a rest, rinse, and repeat. It can often take up to twelve hours or more until they finally decide to make their appearance to the world.
Once they arrive, you will then need to keep them warm and fed, and then when the time comes, they will need to be gradually introduced to the flock so that they are welcomed, not doomed to the life they might have been subjected to without intervention.
Then celebrate the life of the brand-new additions to your larger flock!