It’s mid-February, and if you live in the northern hemisphere, this means that days are lengthening, and though it might still seem like the dead of winter, the biological clock of your chickens unmistakably indicates the approach of spring and the season of egg abundance.
A behavior pattern I have observed in my flock at this season are hens checking out the nesting boxes, and sitting inside them for a few minutes, without actually laying an egg. It’s like they are thinking, “Hmm, I’m going to start laying soon. Check out this neat and comfy spot! Which one is better?”
Chickens like to lay their eggs in safe, snug and quiet corners, and such your nesting boxes should be. To avoid crowding, it is recommended you have one box per 3-4 hens, though chickens, like humans, often have a tendency to believe that something used by someone else is inherently better, and will all try to lay in the same box anyway.
With some basic carpentry skills, you can easily build your own nesting boxes out of wood scraps, but even if you don’t know which way to hold a hammer, there are plenty of simple and cheap DIY solutions. Among them are 5-gallon buckets (resting on their side, obviously), old cat litter boxes, large plastic containers with the top cut off, and old re-purposed drawers and crates. The nesting boxes should be stable, so that they aren’t prone to falling even if the hens tend to shove each other, sheltered, and with a rim to prevent the eggs from falling.
Our favorite nesting box solution is the kind of light metal containers we often find near stores that sell spices, nuts, etc. They are rectangular and have a round opening that is the perfect size for the average chicken (see picture). They do rust, but there’s always a supply of new containers free for the taking when we want them.
Your nesting boxes should be padded so that the chickens are comfortable and the eggs don’t break. Straw is a popular choice; wood shavings, dry leaves or pine needles can be used as well. I usually pad my boxes with dry grass I collect from our yard. We also put a dummy egg or two in each box, especially in the beginning of the season, to encourage our chickens to lay there, but that’s entirely optional.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to provide a comfortable laying place, your hens will still decide that the bushes at the far end of your property are a more attractive spot for egg-laying. It is extremely frustrating to wonder for weeks why a hen isn’t laying, only to follow her one day and discover an immense clutch of eggs you can barely reach. If a hen goes broody and begins sitting in such a secluded spot, and you don’t find her in time, she may well fall prey to a fox or another predator. The only way to break such bad habits is to keep her confined to the coop for at least a week, or however long it takes to see that she is consistently laying in one of the boxes you provided.
Chicken behavior is a fascinating thing, and the start of egg (and, by extension, chick) season is always exciting. Whether you are a new or experienced chicken keeper, I wish you the best of luck with your flock this spring.
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Amazon.com Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.
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