If you have ever seen a hen sitting on an egg, and it’s clear that the hen is not doing much other than (probably) sitting there thinking about how awesome she is “raising” her chicks, then you know what a broody hen is. Now, while mother hens are miraculous creatures that do provide the cutest little baby chicks – some of them also prone to abandoning their nest and going off to find something else to do.
There are many reasons why chicken eggs might have been abandoned, ranging from the hen being out eating to parasites and pests. The hen could also be disturbed by humans or other chickens, or the eggs could be infertile or dead. Seasonal changes can also change why a chicken might abandon her nest, as well as some hens just not being good mothers.
In the following article, we will explore what causes this to happen, why hens will sometimes end up abandoning their nests before hatching, and what you can do to reduce the problem of broody hens leaving their eggs.
Table of Contents
1. She Is Eating
Before you start worrying that your hen has abandoned her eggs, you should check to make sure that she isn’t just getting some food and water? Broody hens need to eat and drink just like the rest of the flock. They also need to leave the nest to lay those supersized and smelly poops that broody hens are known to lay.
These trips outside are usually what causes chicken owners to worry, but don’t worry if your hen is away from the nest for a while. If she’s gone off for food and to relieve herself, she is likely to return very soon, and everything will be fine.
The obvious question then is, how long is too long?
Chickens can stay off their eggs for up to about four hours, depending on the temperature in the coop. The warmer the setting is, the longer she can leave the nest before en embryos perish. Under normal circumstances, the broody hen will leave for an hour or less and then promptly return to her nest. If she stays outside for longer than a couple of hours, she may have left the eggs for good, but it’s is not entirely uncommon that a hen may return after three or four hours.
One way you can see if a hen is still broody is how she acts. A broody hen will cluck and behave very similar to a mother hen with baby chicks.
2. She Is Young and Unexperienced
One reason why a hen might abandon her eggs is that she’s not mature enough to remain on the nest. Young hens will sometimes try sitting on a few eggs before they have developed the instinct to brood. When these broody hens lose interest, they may abandon the nest in favor of doing other chicken things.
As they mature, the instinct to sit on eggs will develop, and they don’t need to practice or be taught. The instinct should kick in by itself, but it can take a while before that happens.
Parasites such as poultry lice, mites, and even tapeworms can be a real problem. Parasites live in the hen’s feathers or inside the body, and they are contagious. A hen with parasites will often be very uncomfortable, which can cause her to abandon the nest.
The stress and restlessness caused by a parasite infestation can be enough to make a broody hen leave her eggs unattended and start attending to the infestation. So always check your chickens for symptoms of parasites and treat them accordingly.
When parasites are present in your flock, you need to do something about them, or chickens will keep getting infested. This is not just a matter of saving your eggs, as parasites in your flock can be a serious health threat if left untreated.
Baby chicks are an easy meal for predators such as rats, raccoons, or even other birds. As a result, broody hens may abandon nests, especially if there’s something scuttling around in the coop that could harm her future offspring. Rats, in particular, pose a significant danger to broody hens, as they will eat the eggs and even baby chicks.
After all, why sit on eggs for three weeks if there are rats in the coop ready to eat your soon-to-be offspring? Chickens may not be the brightest animals, but they have a very keen sense of danger.
Rat infestations are a very real problem in many chicken coops throughout the world. If you suspect a rat infestation, act quickly and prevent the problem from escalating.
5. Regular Disturbances
A broody hen will always look for a quiet and safe place to incubate the eggs. This means she wants to be alone and undisturbed throughout the three-week incubation period. If anything happens to disturb her, she may abandon the nest in favor of finding a safer spot.
Sometimes humans or other chickens will carelessly or accidentally upset a brooding hen by just walking by and cause enough of a disturbance for the hen to leave. She is not likely to give up her eggs because of a few interruptions, but a human can be very intimidating to the broody hen.
An overcrowded coop is also an invitation for disaster if you’re dealing with broody hens. A hen may leave the coop to find a safer and less crowded place to lay a new batch. As she can’t bring her eggs with her, you will be left with a nest of abandoned eggs.
6. The Eggs Are Infertile or Dead
Not all eggs are fertile. They may never have been fertilized, or the embryo has died due to several potential causes. In the case of a batch of only infertile or damaged eggs, the hen will eventually leave her nest and will give up on incubating them.
Chickens are not as good at spotting bad eggs as, say, ducks, but they do eventually recognize them, if for nothing else than because of the smell that will eventually emanate from them.
Some first-time chicken breeders will notice a few chicks have hatched, and the mother has brought them out in the big world only to leave several unhatched eggs behind. This is in all likelihood because the remaining eggs were not infertile, or the embryo died before hatching.
7. Seasonal Changes
In colder climates, chickens will only sit on eggs during the spring and summer. Problems may arise during the early fall if the weather changes suddenly from pleasantly warm to a cold snap.
Baby chicks are less likely to survive during the cold months, and in nature, they are certain to die when access to food is reduced. Therefore, if the weather suddenly turns cold, broody hens may switch to winter mode and abandon the nest.
After all, why spend precious energy on hatching chicks that are likely to die from the cold anyway?
8. Some Chickens Are Just Not Good Mothers
Finally, it’s relevant to note that not all chickens are great mothers. Some breeds are better than others at hatching eggs and protecting their babies. It seems we are starting to breed this trait out of some breeds due to our reliance on incubators. Breeds such as Ancona, Andalusian, and Campine are known to be more hesitant to become broody and more likely to leave the nest once they do start laying on eggs.
Other breeds are known to be much better at hatching eggs, but every breed has its own share of bad mothers that will eventually just abandon the eggs or even the chicks.
Sometimes it’s genetics, and sometimes it’s just an individual trait that makes some hens great mothers and others not so much. Most chickens are exceptional mothers, though.
How To Prevent a Hen From Abandoning Her Eggs?
Let’s say you have had issues with hens leaving the eggs before. How do you prevent this from happening again?
Check For Pests and Mites
First, you should check for causes that may have led the chickens to abandon the eggs previously. If there are signs of a mite infestation or poultry lice, you will need to clean and sterilize the coop and treat all of your chickens with dichotomous earth or insecticides.
If the chicken has already left the nest, you may not convince her to return to the eggs at this point, but you will have a much better chance of success in the future if you remedy this problem first.
Try Not to Move Her
Some chickens really love to find the most inconvenient (to you) location to lay and incubate their eggs. If at all possible, let her stay there. She chose the location because she feels it’s the safest.
If you try to move her to a new location, she is likely to abandon the eggs trying to get back to her previous location. Often she will return to her old nesting spot, and you can make her lay on the eggs again if you move them back where they were.
If you do need to move a broody hen, you should do it doing the night when she is drowsy and not paying attention to her surroundings. There is something about chickens (perhaps the short memory span) that makes them more likely to accept changes if it’s done while they sleep.
Provide Privacy and Safety for the Hen
Make sure the nest box is sheltered from most of the activities in the run. A covered nest box will provide a safe place for the hen to sit on her eggs, and she is less likely to abandon them if it’s comfortable.
Ideally, the chicken should have her own little house where she can be alone and not disturbed. I have built a small coop with a run dedicated to mother hens. Here, she can hatch the eggs and raise her baby chicks in peace and quiet.
You can also modify the coop with temporary barriers. This way, the brooding hen will remain in her favorite nest box inside the coop but have her own secluded part with her own feeder and water.
Use an Incubator
Say you have found a nest with abandoned eggs. You have checked, and the hen is clearly not broody any longer, there are no external factors that need to be solved, or she’s too young to reliably sit on the eggs. What do you do?
Sometimes there is nothing you can do besides pulling out an incubator. This is why I recommend you have at least one affordable incubator for such circumstances. If all else fails, you can still hatch the eggs and get healthy baby chicks from them even if your broody hen left them behind.
Remember to check if the eggs are actually fertile and undamaged. Also, try to estimate how long she was brooding on them, so you know how far in the process they are. You will need to modify your humidity settings based on your findings.
What if the eggs have been abandoned for some time? Will cold eggs still hatch?
Eggs that are cold to the touch can still be viable for hatching. If an embryo has already started to form, it depends on how long the egg has been at that temperature. The longer it spends in the cold, the more likely it is that the embryo will die.
If you are unsure how long it has been, try to candle the eggs. If there are no signs of an embryo and no signs that the egg has gone bad, it’s probably too early in the process. If there is an embryo, check for movement from the heart pumping blood around. Continue to candle the eggs every few days until you feel confident about which eggs are viable for hatching.
It is important to know why your chicken has abandoned her eggs. Usually, the hen is just eating, drinking, and relieving herself. She is likely to get back to the eggs after a short moment of rest. If she has been away for over four hours and you still don’t see her sitting on them, it’s time to act and solve why she abandoned them.
To prevent hens from abandoning their eggs, make sure the nest is in a secluded area to protect and hide the hen from disturbances. A covered nest box or dedicated coop will provide a safe place for the hen to sit on her eggs. Remove any external factors that could be causing your hen to abandon her eggs.
If you have found a nest with abandoned eggs, there may be nothing you can do besides pulling out an incubator.