How do I get my hens to lay their eggs in the nests and not on the floor or outside?
If you are like me and prefer to keep your chickens naturally and free ranged it can be a source of irritation that your backyard flock, or just certain members of it, have taken to laying their eggs in the bushes or amongst they hay bales or just somewhere you cant get to easily.
Below: All chicken keepers prefer their egg in clean nests.
Chickens are stubborn creatures of habit and this is another one that is easier prevented. Gathering the eggs is one of the simple pleasures that delight all chicken keepers and we all prefer to find them neatly left in a clean nest.
Why do chickens hide their eggs?
Despite what you think it is not just to annoy you although sometimes it can feel like it. Hens hiding their eggs and nest is an evolutionary response to predators. There is simply a part of their brains that compels them to find the most inaccessible spot for a nest.
This is a problem because eggs are being left on the hen house floor or outdoors which can be dirty or they may get broken or be eaten or just be lost in the litter to go rotten.
Below: Eggs laid outside can be eaten by hens or predators.
In a few words the cause might be either a shortage of nest boxes or the hen isn't comfortable in the boxes you have provided. Most hens are prefer to lay in the nests you provide but sometimes the incidence of away from the box laying can be quite high.
If your hens were happily using the boxes and then stopped it is likely there are mites in the nesting material.
The first thing is to check your nesting boxes. Are there:
- Lice or pests present in the nest box material.
- Thin nesting material, hens like to be comfortable.
- Overly small or large nest boxes. Is it a squeeze or are they feeling uncomfortable in a large box
- To bright, breezy or damp in the box.
- The Birds are physically finding it difficult to get in and /or out of the nest boxes
10 Proven ways to get the hens laying in the nest boxes:
10 ways to try and get you hens back in their nesting boxes.
- Confine your hens till mid morning or the middle of the day. Keep them locked in the run until all or most hens have produces their eggs for the day. Most hens lay early in the day and this makes the most of your chances.
- Make sure the nest boxes are clean dry and comfortable. Hens like to be comfy when producing an egg. The box should have deep bedding and be clean, dry and free of parasites. Make sure they are away from distractions and in the darker areas of the coop, not in direct light.
- Have you got the right number of nest boxes. The average backyard flock needs at least three nest boxes for 12 to 16 hens and preferably four. Also have some of them up a little higher like in a block of four. All hens are different and some like to be higher up.
- Train them with pottery eggs. Or even golf balls. Pop fake eggs in each nest you want the birds to use. They will take the hint especially if you do it from minute one.
- Collect the eggs on a regular basis. This is particularly true if you have a lot of hens and the boxes get full of egg quickly. They don't like a full nest and regular collection helps prevent broody behaviour.
- Hunt down the hen(s) that are laying outside. Sneak out and about and listen for the egg song to see if you can identify the culprit. Try to nip it in the bud as other hens may follow her lead if you leave the problem. Catch her in the act and confine the perpetrator for two weeks until she gets into her new habits.
- Provide enough roosts. That are above the level of the nesting boxes. Hens choose to be up high and will use the nest boxes as roosts if there aren't enough perching spots or the perches are lower than the nests.
- Check at night for hen sleeping in the nesting boxes. This causes endless problems and stems mostly from hand reared chicks that were never taught to perch properly by a mother hen. Cover the nest boxes at night a physically place the hens on the perch until they get the hang of it or borrow a hen that perches normally and use it to teach yours.
- Use light to get them up in the morning. Never at the end of the day they should be allowed to roost naturally. Artificial light gets them up in the morning and laying before it become light outside hence they have to use the nest boxes.
- Provide a variety of nest boxes in different locations. If a hen is laying outside then just turn that spot into a sheltered nest and add it to your egg collecting route. Alternatively make nesting boxes of different sizes and shapes available.
Egg laying habits are persistent and chickens are very strongly motivated by a pre-laying behaviour which consists of the searching for the nest phase and then the selection of a site and the creation of a hollow. This helps explain why some birds faithfully return to one nest and complain bitterly if someone else is in it at the time.
Young hens should be allowed to investigate nesting sites in the coop before being allowed out.
Site your nest boxes up off the floor but below the level of the perches as roosting in the nest boxes presents it's own suite of issues. Hens like to lay in enclosed spaces and the amount of light the birds are happy with may vary especially if you keep several breeds or a greater number of chickens.
How to stop chickens from laying on the ground:
Checklist for getting tour birds laying in the nests:
- Clean dry nest boxes.
- Lock them in for a few hours in the morning.
- Draught free and dark.
- Suitable nesting material with a depression and a fake egg.
- Enough nesting boxes - 1 per 2 or 3 birds for the first 6 and then 1 per 8 after that.
- A little variation in the type and position of the boxes.
- Don't let the hens face each other across the coop.
- Keep the nest boxes free from parasites.
The coop should be a darker place and the boxes darker still. They should also have an enclosed comfortable feeling and not have a view out of their pop hole for example. Lower ambient light is a must for happy laying hens and some like to feel completely enclosed.
I have had several hens in the past that didn't like a nest box that faced the coop exit, although they seem happy under the hedge.
Below: I recently caught one of my flock nesting in a hedge.
Chickens tend to lay in the early half of the day and not providing enough nest boxes will lead to overcrowding, it isn't unusual for two or three hens to squash into a single nest box to the amusement of their keepers and also for young pullets to be caught short and dump their first eggs all over the place with a surprised squawk.
False or pot eggs are the accepted encouragement for bird to know where to lay but a nicely rounded pebble from a river or beach will work just the same as will a wooden one or a golf ball.
As a last resort or if they are laying outside, then keep them in, in the mornings for a week or two so as they are forced to be inside to lay. They may begin to get used to leaving their eggs where you want them to.
I have had the odd bird that never lays in the box but they are few and far between.