Chicken owners talk a lot about broody hens. In most cases, it is discussing ways to discourage broody behavior. Since many of us want eggs from our chickens, a broody hen can be a setback to the egg program. Not only do broody hens stop laying for the amount of time it takes to hatch an egg (21 days) but it can also be time consuming to get them to start laying again, even if the eggs they were trying to hatch were not allowed to do so. With all of this in mind, who wants a broody hen?! People who want their hens to hatch eggs, that's who!
A hen is the original incubator. Hatching eggs is one of the things nature intended her to do. Unfortunately, over the years, humans have had other plans for the hen and have discouraged her motherly tendencies in favor of egg production. In other words, the broodiness has been bred out of many breeds to make them more desirable as egg layers. This is great for those who wish to avoid dealing with broody hens, but not so great for those who wish to have hens that lay and hatch their own eggs.
It is possible to still acquire breeds with a broody nature, however. Some examples of breeds that have not lost their broody tendencies are Australorps, Brahmas, Cochins, Silkies, and Orpingtons. These breeds continue to exhibit strong tendencies toward motherly instincts and are a reliable option for anyone who wishes to use hens to hatch.
Barring using a broody breed, there are a few things you can try around the coop to encourage broodiness in hens. No hen can be made to sit on eggs if she does not wish to do so, but you can make nesting boxes into a peaceful, inviting place conducive to eggs being laid. Keep the area quiet and make it a little bit darker as well as private by adding curtains. Also be sure to clean nesting boxes and check for mites and other parasites as hens will not want to nest in boxes where such bugs are present.
If the above tactics do not work, there is also the option of using dummy eggs. These can be golf balls, wooden eggs, plastic toy eggs for Easter, or anything else that is similar to an actual egg. Leave these in the nest for inspiration and see if any of your hens take the bait and begin to feel awash with the urge for motherhood.
While incubators have their advantages, there is no substitute for the natural way that is the hen. If you wish to keep your hens laying eggs for your food supply, it is understandable why an incubator would benefit you. However, if you wish to let your hens do the work themselves, a little bit of encouragement may at times be needed. With a little luck you will be able to remind your hens how to play a maternal role with just a bit of encouragement, resulting in chicks being hatched before you know it!