by Danny Williams of Mt. Airy, NC
When I was a boy in the mountains of East Tennessee, we didn’t know anything about ordering baby chicks or even gave it a thought. With the help of a nesting box, or boxes, a household with fifteen or twenty hens could hatch out 300 to 500 chicks each year. We would let the hens go broody by leaving the eggs in the nest until a hen laid 15 eggs, (plus or minus 1 or 2) and the hen would go to setting on them. Often times we would put boiled eggs in place of the fresh eggs under a sitting hen until we had 4 or 5 hens setting at one time.
After dark (and you had to do this after dark to keep the hen from leaving the new nest) we would move the setting hen to the setting box where the nest had been dusted with powder sulfur and the right amount of eggs in each nest, (ever how many she could cover). We would then bring the hen to her next nest, placing her on the eggs, and cover the whole box with an old sack to keep it kind of dark for a day or two.
We would not even open the lid on the nesting area for a couple of weeks to check on her. We only opened the lid on the feed area to keep fresh water and feed in that area all the time. On hatching day, and after the chicks were well-dried, we would take the chicks from the hens and keep them in a box in a warm place. Then after dark we would clean out the nest of any eggs that didn’t hatch (which wasn’t many). We would put eggs back under all the hens except one. We would take that one setting hen and put her with all the babies that had hatched out. The next day we would move that hen and chicks to a coop where in a day or two we could turn her out and let her scratch for the chicks. A hen might have from 30 to 50 chicks to care for.
When the other hens hatched out, we would repeat this same process giving all the hatched chicks to one hen. The other hens were released to repeat this cycle again. The released hens would soon go back to laying again to supply eggs for the setting hens or the family. The women folk would take great pride in who was the first to have fried chicken in the spring of the year, or the first to have a mess of green beans or corn, etc.
Remember, moving a setting hen to another nest area or putting strange chicks under another hen must all be done after dark. In later years I would order 25 baby chicks to arrive the same day my hen was due to hatch. You always remove her and after dark take the new chicks and her chicks and place them under her. The next morning she won’t know one from another. With a mother hen you don’t need an electric brooder, and you can really save on feed cost by letting them have free range during the day.
We very seldom set a hen more than two or three times in a row, giving the grower 30 to 45 baby chicks from each hen twice a year. The pullets hatched out in April or May would start laying in October or November and give the family a supply of eggs all winter long. The second winter the hen will molt and not start laying again till spring.
Two Amish boys helped me build my last nesting boxes in ’99. I used 12” wide oak boards and built them on the same pattern I did for my grandmother 45 plus years ago. We didn’t have 1/4” hardware cloth back then and sometimes had trouble with snakes or rats getting into the nest box. The nest box set on the ground for moisture. If it was a dry time we would pour a pint of warm water on and in the nest.
In all my years I never met but one man who knew what a setting box was. He, too, was from Tennessee. After use, the setting box was painted in burnt motor oil and put in the shed for next years use. With minor repairs a nesting box would last for years and years to come. On my nest box we used 1” T-hinges instead of leather strips, like we used to on the lids for the feed area and nesting area.
The Silkie Bantams are one of the easiest and best hens for setting that anyone could ask for. Buff Orpingtons make good setters and are a very gentle breed. Most all of the Bantams and game (fighting chickens) are good setters but some are a nervous type chicken.
Once, years ago, I put a cluster of duck eggs (about 2 dozen) under a setting turkey hen. I never enjoyed anything more than that. At every mud hole, the little ducklings would dive in for a swim while the turkey hen marched around and threw a real fit. I could not help but laugh.
I kept our farm stocked in quail and sometimes pheasants by putting the eggs under a bantam hen and then let her loose to raise them. The game birds always stayed close around.
P.S. The powder sulfur was used to keep out lice in the nest and off the hen. Lice would make a setting hen quit the nest.