The Broody Hen vs. the Incubator

Interested in hatching your own chicks from eggs? This can be a challenging project, but one that is extremely rewarding.

The first thing to consider is whether you will let an obliging broody hen tend the eggs, or whether you will need to purchase an incubator machine. There are advantages to both options, so you will need to determine what promises the best results in your situation.

The Broody Hen

Advantages of the broody hen include:

  • No special equipment required. All the hen needs is a nesting box where she can brood undisturbed and then a safe place to rear her chicks away from predators and hostile chickens. No incubator, no brooder. No additional cost.
  • Hands-off incubating. Incubating chicks requires constant attention to temperature, humidity, and egg turning. A hen will attend to all of these details with precision, and she will not be nonplussed if the power goes out.
  • Happy chicks. Newly hatched chicks are extremely calm when safely under the wing of their mother. Compare this to the incubator, where the new chick often thrashes around cheeping wildly in search of companions. Even if there is only one chick, it will still be quite content if it has a hen with it.
  • Chick training. New chicks have to be taught to eat and drink. A good broody hen will teach her chicks these skills herself.

The Incubator

Advantages of the incubator include:

  • Always ready. Whenever you’re in the mood to hatch some eggs, the incubator awaits. Broody hens go broody on their own timetable.
  • Large broods. An incubator makes it easier to hatch more chicks at once. Broody hens will often reject their nests if burdened with too many eggs.
  • Reliability. As long as you keep the temperature and humidity at the correct levels and turn eggs appropriately, the incubator is pretty much sure-fire. Many modern hens are too scatter-brained to stay on the nest.
  • Spectators welcome. Incubators typically have clear windows that allow onlookers to watch the progress of the hatch, great for science projects or just for the curious.
  • Chick safety. Unfortunately, some hens will brood the egg and attack the chick. An incubator does not have to be supervised to prevent bullying.

Which is Best?

There are decided advantages to hatching chicks the natural way—under a hen. Whenever possible, this is probably the best option from the chick’s point of view. The temperature and humidity levels will always be kept optimal for health and proper development when the broody hen is in charge, and she will also get the chick off to a good start with minimal stress and plenty of TLC.

However, there are times when an incubator will come in handy, particularly if you have a lot of eggs to hatch or if you do not have a trustworthy broody hen. The latter is a particularly common problem, because broodiness has been deliberately bred out of most modern chicken breeds to boost egg production numbers. The most reliable broody breed left may be the Cochin, followed closely by the Buff Orpington.

What many chicken lovers do these days is allow a hen to set the eggs but keep an incubator handy as an insurance policy. If the hen proves unreliable, the situation can be quickly redeemed with minimal loss of life. All-natural and high-tech can sometimes work together quite nicely.

Helpful Resources

Murray McMurray Chick Selector
Find out which chicken breeds are most likely to brood with this handy tool.

Chicken Breeds

Chicken Breeds
Our online guide to popular chicken breeds includes assessments of each breed’s abilities in brooding and mothering chicks. Check out the section on uses and the list of pros and cons for the breeds you are interested in.