You’re going about your business on the homestead and suddenly one of your hens proudly appears with chicks following behind her. Wait. What? Where did those chicks come from? Well, if you’ve got a rooster and your chickens are free range, it’s completely possible that you’re going to end up with a surprise hatch at some point in your adventure.
Back when we were free ranging our chickens here at Clucky Dickens Farm, we dealt with quite a few surprise hatches.. Sometimes the hatches produced just a couple chicks, other times the hatches brought upwards of a dozen babes. Here is what to do when you unexpectedly discover that your hen is now a proud mama.
Surprise Hatch: If Mama is around…
You really need to do very little. If mom has appeared with her chicks, chances are you won’t be able to get close to them anyway. Wait to see where they settle down and then set some food and water nearby. (This is why it’s a good idea to always have extra chick waterers and feeders on hand!) If you need to, drop some bedding for comfort/warmth and let them be.
If you need to move them because they’re in an unsafe or inconvenient place (like—ahem—up in your hayloft), do so, but be careful. Believe me when I tell you that Mama will protect those babies—from other animals and you.
Hens have been doing this mama thing much longer than we’ve been trying to interfere with them doing it. If the other hens (or a rooster, dog, cat, etc) gets closer than she feels is necessary, she will let them know in no uncertain terms that they’re not welcome.
If mama is around, your work is pretty minimal. Those babies will stick with mama as they grow up, and you have the joy of witnessing nature in action. There are few things more awesome than watching chicks with a mama on the farm.
Surprise Hatch: If Mama is not around…
One of the hatches I discovered in the hayloft was underneath a hen that had died, clearly a sad situation. What then? Treat them the same as you would if you’d ordered chicks. Find a safe place for the chicks in a brooder (we have a heated room in our barn with a heat lamp and brooder set up for emergency or surprise situations).
Offer food, water, and make sure the temp in the brooder is 95ish degrees. Give them some time to warm up. They will let you know if the temp is too warm (spreading out to get away from the light of the heat lamp) or not warm enough (continuing to huddle together in a super tight clump directly under the heat lamp). If you do not have any chick starter feed, you can feed regular chicken feed. We have done this without issue. If you’re worried about the crumbles being too large, you can always mash or grind them a bit in a coffee grinder.
Surprise Hatch: Frequently asked questions
ARE ALL THE CHICKS FROM THE SAME HEN?
The chicks may be from eggs laid by different hens or they may be all from the hen who was sitting. It all depends on the nest, where it was, and which hens knew about it. If it was a popular place to lay, there might have been lots of hens laying eggs in that spot. The eggs could also have been fertilized by different roosters. In short, don’t be surprised if one mama comes trotting back with several different types of chicks – some that might not even be from eggs she laid.
HOW LONG CAN THE CHICKS GO WITHOUT EATING?
Baby chicks do not need to eat right after they hatch. Shortly before they hatch, the chicks absorb the yolk that’s in the egg and that yolk is able to sustain them for a few days after hatching.This is the same reason that chicks are able to be shipped from hatcheries – they do not need to eat the first few days of life. That doesn’t mean they won’t, it just means they don’t have to.
In the case of our hayloft hatch moms, what was mama eating? When she hatched the babies and realized a) she couldn’t leave them and b) the feeder full of food was below her in the main part of the barn, what was she eating to sustain herself? Maybe nothing. Some broody hens go without eating. But I’m assuming hunger is why 1) the first hayloft hen let me grab her no problem and take her down into the barn with her chicks and 2) the second hayloft hen died before we got to her. Both times when I found the hayloft hatches, there was no mess from the hatch – no egg mess, nothing—so I’m also assuming that the hayloft hens ate that.
I’m assuming the reason I was suddenly hearing the hayloft hatch baby chicks (which was the only way we were alerted to their existence) was because they were finally hungry. I’m also assuming that hunger isn’t an issue with the chicks that just appear following Mom (surprise!) because Mom is hungry and has decided it’s time to eat and has brought her babies along.
WHAT IS IF IT IS COLD OUTSIDE? DO IN NEED TO PUT MOM AND CHICKS UNDER A HEAT LAMP?
We live in Central Minnesota. Our last surprise hatch happened at the end of March when the nighttime temps were still dropping into the 20s. Mama Hen, in her wisdom, decided the best place to sit with these babies was in the floor gutter along the main aisle of the barn.
(Can you say cold cement?) I tossed some hay on the floor for her to nest in, but she opted for the cold floor. I was apparently more worried about it than she was, because she and her chicks never had an issue with the cold at all.
WHEN CAN THE CHICKS GO OUTSIDE? DO I NEED TO WAIT FOR THEM TO FEATHER OUT?
If mama goes outside to explore and scratch and get some sunshine, those babies will follow right after her. This is totally fine and totally normal.
If they get cold or scared, they run back to Mom and shove themselves under her feathers. With a mama hen to care for the babes, feathering out is not quite the issue that it is for incubator or hatchery chicks.
And there you have it. A surprise hatch is definitely a s-u-r-p-r-i-s-e, but can certainly be easily handled whether Mama proudly presents the chicks to you, or you discover the chicks in a mama-less nest. Enjoy your new baby chicks!