Managing Nests

Sometimes chickens simply seem silly. Take egg laying for example. Give a small flock four or five comfy nest boxes and three or four hens will cram into one at the same time while nearby nests remain vacant. That’s a problem. Too many hens laying in a one box is a recipe for broken eggs and a mess. Some hens even ignore perfect nests and lay their eggs on the floor where they’re bound to get dirty and are hard to collect.

There’s no perfect solution but careful nest management helps keep eggs clean and collecting easy.

How Many Nests

Most backyard chicken books and websites recommend placing one nest for every five hens. That’s good advice. One nest can accommodate a typical backyard flock of five or six hens. But more are usually needed. Most eggs are laid in the morning, so often several hens will be in the nest box at the same time jostling around while preparing to lay. Often that results in a broken egg or two that soil unbroken eggs. It wastes eggs and adds to the washing chore.  

The obvious solution is to add more nests. Unfortunately, that often fails. Put six nests in a six-hen coop and they’ll continue laying nearly all the eggs in the favored nest. Nearby nests go unused. 

A few tricks to lure some hens into rarely used nests include:

  • Curtains: Chickens prefer a somewhat dark and private place to lay. Adding a curtain to drape down over a nest entrance may entice birds to enter a rarely used nest. Cut a piece of cloth from an old T-shirt or towel and staple it so it covers about the top half of the nest opening.
  • No Vacancy Sign: Covering a popular nest temporarily with a board  is a “no vacancy” signal that forces hens to get in the habit of using other nests. After a week or so remove the board. By then some of the hens may have “adopted” the formerly little used nest. 
  • Bait:  An egg or two in a nest acts like bait that attracts hens. Putting an egg in a rarely used nest may lure some to get into the habit of laying there. Purchased artificial nest eggs work great and never spoil, but golf balls are a cheaper substitute. Real eggs also make great nest bait but should be rotated out daily and replaced with fresh ones so they don’t get old.

Nest Size

Chicken bodies range from tiny Bantams to massive Brahmas and Jersey Giants. Most flock owners typically favor brown egg laying breeds that weigh five to eight pounds. Nests measuring about 12” deep, 12” wide and 8 to 12” high work just fine for these mid-sized birds. Making a nest box is one of the simplest carpentry projects. A five-foot-long 1″ x 12” board cut to one-foot lengths is big enough for a single nest. A 10-foot board will make two nests. Be sure to cut a piece of scrap wood about 4” wide and 12” long and nail it to the bottom of the outside of the nest. It holds the nest bedding in place and keeps eggs from rolling out.

Nest Placement

In addition to cramming into a single nest chickens seem to delight in making egg collecting challenging. They’ll choose to lay in the nest that’s hardest for a person to reach. It might be down close to the floor requiring bending to gather or in the box farthest from the coop door. The solution is simply to not give them the option of laying in an inconvenient place.    

The more often eggs are collected the less time they will be in the nest to get dirty, stale or broken. Convenience makes frequent collection pleasant and likely. Place nest boxes close to the coop door in an easy to reach place. An even better solution is to craft the coop, or buy a manufactured one, that has nests protruding from the exterior wall with a trap door on top. That makes entering the coop unnecessary for collecting eggs. Just lift up the trap door, reach down, and gather.  

Nest Linings

Some hens will pop into a nest and lay an egg in a minute or two. Then she’s back on the floor. For other hens laying is a lengthy process. She’ll sit in the nest a long time.  Every once in a while, she’ll jostle around. If three or four other hens are jammed into the same nest movement is likely to break an egg or two. Soft padding on the nest’s bottom helps prevent broken eggs and makes the laying experience more comfortable for hens. Many items work well to cushion eggs.

Wood shavings:  Sawdust and wood shavings make ideal nest linings, but they have one major problem. Put a couple of inches of fragrant shavings in the nest, and the daily movement of hens will push much of it out. It needs to be replaced often. Larger sized wood shavings tend to stay in place longer than sawdust.

Commercial liners: Several companies sell nest liners, usually made from plastic mats or woven wood fiber. They are ideal. Since each is a single piece that fits snugly in the bottom of the nest hens can’t scratch it out like they do with wood shavings. Plastic ones can be washed occasionally. Soiled wood fiber ones can be composted. 

Plastic door mat: Home stores commonly sell green plastic door mats made to enable someone to rub dirty shoes off before entering the house. They are inexpensive and can be easily cut to nest size with a knife. They cushion eggs, can be easily washed, and hens can’t scratch them out of the nest. 

Straw:  Straw is the classic nest lining that’s been used for thousands of years because it works. Straw fibers tend to somewhat interlock so hens have a hard time scratching them out of the nest. Straw soils and packs down over time, so it needs to be replaced occasionally. Used straw makes great garden mulch. A bale should last a year or more.

Homemade Straw: Folks who mow a lawn can make their own nest lining free. Simply let the grass grow six or seven inches high. Then mow it on a warm, breezy, sunny day.  The mower will spit out clumps of cut grass. Rake them into loose windrows that allow the air to blow through the stalks and dry them. On a low humidity day with a light wind it only takes a few hours for grass to cure. Then rake it up and store it in a metal garbage can or another container with a tight-fitting lid. Line the nest with a couple of inches of the homemade straw.  It’s softness cushions eggs while its sweet smell makes collecting a joy.

Most people keep a few chickens in a backyard coop for the delicious fresh eggs they lay.  Eggs are gems of the coop, and careful placement and management of nest boxes makes it likely that every egg will be clean and easy to gather.

Feeding Chicks: Making the Transition to the Coop

What to Feed chicks

Let’s got started feeding chicks!

Congratulations, your chicks have made it to the transition stage!

A few weeks have passed since you brought those little balls of fluff home, and it’s time to formulate a plan on housing, because your flourishing chicks will soon outgrow that brooder.

Here are a few tips on transitioning to the coop some tips on feeding chicks and chick feeding recommendations as your babies grow into healthy adult birds.

Housing Upgrade

The change in environment can be a big one for your chicks, so consider these tips as you move them from brooder to adult coop:

  • Chicks should be mostly feathered – At 5 to 6 weeks your fluffy chicks will start to resemble adult birds by growing out pinfeathers.
  • These adult feathers will help them regulate their body temperature better than fluffy chick down.
  • Chicks should be acclimated – Although they start off at 90 – 95 degrees in the brooder the first week of life, you need to decrease this temperature each week until the temperature inside the brooder is close to what daytime temps will be. For the first few weeks (and especially if outdoor temperatures are fluctuating), you may want to bring the birds back into the brooder at night or in bad weather.
  • Chicks should be integrated – Nobody wants hen-house drama, and taking a few simple steps to introduce new birds to old will save a great deal of time and potential injuries.
    • These steps include having a “get acquainted” phase when the new and old birds are in separate, but attached areas so they can interact without aggressiveness.
    • You also want to do the coop consolidation at night so that the old and new flock wake up together, which can help minimize bullying.

On the Menu

At this point it is also important to remember, if you have youngsters joining your existing flock, to only feed chick starter to all birds until the youngest bird is 16 weeks.

The extra calcium in regular layer feed can harm young chicks. Once you’ve reached the 16 week mark, it is safe to switch to layer feed.

Your girls will most likely not be laying until they are around 24-26 weeks old, but it is important to build up the calcium level in their system. Using a layer crumble makes the transition a little easier.

Chicks should also be eating treats and grit by now. It’s a great idea to get your birds used to eating treats (if you plan to offer them) a few days prior to putting them outside. That way, you can use the treats to lure the birds into a secure space at night, if needed.

Until they are used to thinking of the coop as “home base” they may need just a bit of encouragement to go back in at night.

Just remember, if you start feeding treats, you should offer no more than 10-15% of the total diet as treats, so that you don’t create nutritional imbalances in their overall intake.  Also, you should offer a grit free choice to aid in digestion.

Chick Life Stages – What to Expect

You’ve just arrived home with a brimming box of peeping chicks, how exciting! The journey you are about to embark on is an exciting one, so get ready to learn about chick life stages and love those new fluffy creatures.

What to Expect – Week 1:

Before you go to pick up your new chicks, make sure the brooder is ready to go at home. This will prevent any unnecessary stress, for both you and the chicks.

Expect some peeping as the chicks get acquainted in their new environment, learning to drink and eat. They will likely do this for 4 or 5 days.

If the peeping seems to be excessive, make sure you evaluate the brooder for anything that may be causing distress.

A good indicator on temperature is to evaluate where the chicks are located. If they are spread out, they are likely comfortable.

HELPING BABY CHICKS THRIVE – Learn the basics

If they are huddled under the heat source, they may be too cold and temperature adjustments should be made.

If they are on the edges of the brooder (not under the heat source) then they are likely too hot.

Don’t forget, the journey to their new home was a long one, so consider providing some bottled water with vitamins and electrolytes for the first 3 days.

Chick Life Stages: What to Expect – Weeks 2-3:

After the first week, their down will start to turn into feathers, and by week 4 you can expect to see more feathers than down.

With adequate food, water and proper temperature, your chicks should be acclimating quite well to their new home.

Don’t forget the importance of brooder maintenance during this time.

To keep odors at bay and cleanliness paramount, make sure you are cleaning out the brooder once a week and adding fresh shavings.

Place the waterer in the corner to prevent dampness throughout the entire brooder.

What to Expect – Weeks 4 – 6:

At this time, you may notice your chicks starting to test their wings.

At week 6, the brooder is likely getting a little crowded, and you should consider the transition outside to the coop.

It’s wise to choose a nice day to do this, as it will be less of a shock to the birds.

It’s important to note that during this transition, you should make sure your chicks are fully feathered so they are prepared for the elements.

A gradual integration of new chicks with mature hens may be necessary to prevent older birds from picking on the young birds.

A good option is to separate the two groups with a gate or some fencing, so they can be exposed to one another before being fully integrated.

Watering Backyard Chickens – Winter Water

Chickens love to drink. Fortunately, their favorite beverage is cool clean water. During summer’s inferno their panting helps them stay cool but to stay hydrated they need to drink plenty of water.

Come winter’s chill their need to drink declines but doesn’t disappear. Even during extreme cold they must drink several times every day. That poses a problem.

Chickens can’t hydrate from ice or snow and must have liquid water available. During extreme cold a bucket or waterer freezes solid in just a few hours.

For centuries cold climate chicken keepers had to deliver buckets of water to the coop several times a day then retrieve, and thaw ice filled containers. That remains an effective way to keep liquid water in the coop but constantly delivering water several times a day is wearisome.

Fortunately, there are easier ways to keep coop water liquid no matter how low the temperature sinks.

Let Electricity Do the Work

By far the easiest way to keep ice at bay is to let electricity do the work. Many types of electrically heated water founts are sold in stores that sell baby chicks, feed, and supplies.  They all work.

Most have a thermostat that only warms water when the temperature drops below freezing.  Thermostats soften the electric bill.

A somewhat less expensive and more widely available heated waterer is designed for dogs.

These have heating coils beneath a plastic bowl. They work well with chickens but are low to the ground, allowing birds to scratch litter into them and foul the water.

A simple homemade cradle of scrap lumber elevates the bowl a few inches above the litter and stabilizes it. Hens easily drink without fouling or tipping over the water.

Electrically heating waterers need special care to reduce fire danger and shocks.

It’s important to keep wires out of reach of chickens and away from flammable litter.

Many backyard coops lack electricity, but there are few items as useful in managing chickens.

Power in the coop allows chicks to be brooded there and lets the owner switch on lights to check on the birds or complete chores after sunset. It also allows lighting the coop early mornings on dark winter days to stimulate egg production.

Hiring an electrical company to run a safe wire to the coop may not be expensive and makes keeping chickens more convenient.

If There’s No Electricity

Most small backyard coops lack electricity, but several techniques help keep drinking water from freezing and some can even help slightly warm the coop, keeping hens comfortable.

Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Take advantage of free heat from the sun.  Many lightweight backyard coops can be easily moved. Set the coop so its window faces south. Put a water bucket just inside the window so the sun’s warmth helps keep it ice free. Black absorbs solar energy effectively, so a black bucket or black painted waterer set in the sun will stay ice-free longer than a silvery one. Black rubber buckets sold in farm supply stores are flexible, making it make it rather easy to crack and dump out ice that forms inside. They are much more convenient than metal pails.
  2. Insulate the coop. A few inches of insulation keeps waterers inside ice-free longer on cold nights and makes the coop’s interior warmer in winter and cooler in summer. Comfortable chickens are productive and pleasant.
  3. Make a freeze resistant waterer. There are several ways to do this. Probably the easiest is to buy a small plastic camping or picnicking cooler. They are well insulated and small ones are just the right size for chickens to drink from. Either use a saber-type saw to cut a two- or three-inch diameter hole in the lid or put a weighted board over most of the cooler, leaving a small water surface exposed so the hens can drink.   Simply fill the cooler with warm water, secure the lid, and place it in the coop. Chickens quickly learn to drink from the small hole. A cinder block placed next to the cooler will help the birds reach water.

Another way to create an inexpensive freeze-resistant waterer is to buy a Styrofoam bait bucket sold in northern fishing supply stores.

They are made to keep water that holds minnows stay liquid when out on a frozen lake.

Insulated buckets only cost a few dollars, and some are made to fit snugly inside a plastic five-gallon plastic pail.

Insulated bait buckets come with a Styrofoam lid.

Chickens will peck and destroy Styrofoam, so it needs to be protected.

Either a plastic pail lid or piece of quarter inch plywood with a two to three inch diameter hole cut in it will let chickens drink while protecting the Styrofoam from their pecking.

Styrofoam isn’t completely leak proof.

Water oozes slowly through it, so lining the inside of the bucket with a plastic bag makes it watertight.

When an icy wind blows remember the girls in the coop. They get thirsty on even the coldest days and need a drink.

Fortunately, there are many ways to keep water from freezing during even the chilliest winder days.

Winter Is Coming

The temps are dropping, and for some of you, even the snow is starting to fly. It’s that time of year where we are busy preparing for the upcoming holidays, but there are additional preparations that need to be made – to your chicken coop!

Weatherization of your coop is vital in ensuring your feathered ladies survive and thrive the cold winter months. A quick checklist for sealing the coop up can make the task easy and achievable.

Consider the following:

Clean and disinfect

  • Healthy birds require a clean environment. Wash away any microorganisms that have grown happy in the warm weather.
  • Perches and laying boxes are often forgotten during cleaning. Birds spend a lot of time in these places and bacteria are plentiful! Don’t forget these spots.

Pitch out and deep-bed your coop

  • Remove the bedding you use in your coop and replace with a thick layer of pine shavings, sawdust, or straw.
  • Pile the bedding up against the walls or leave a few bales of straw in your coop so if you need to remove some bedding during the winter during cleaning, you don’t have to haul fresh bedding in.
  • Piles of straw provide a warm place for chickens to cuddle through the coldest weather.
  • Don’t forget to place straw or other bedding in the nesting boxes. Soft, dried grass makes a great (free!) nest that protects eggs from cracking.

Feed and supplement your birds correctly

  • Chickens need a source of calcium all year, so don’t neglect providing oyster shells in winter.
  • To stimulate the scratching instinct and keep birds entertained, provide scratch grains periodically.

Check for drafts

  • Drafts can cause respiratory problems and sickness in your flock.
  • Check for drafts where your chickens roost and spend most of their time when in the coop.
  • Make any repairs to your chickens’ house while the weather is still fair.

Set up any heat lamps and water heaters

  • Develop a plan so your chickens have access to fresh, unfrozen water 24 hours a day.
  • Frozen water isn’t any fun. Set up your heating devices early so you’re prepared and safe.
  • If you use a heat lamp, make sure you have a spare bulb on hand and have safely located the lamp.

Chicken Coop Plans: Creating a Delightful Chicken Home

Fall is the best season for a family to prepare for the delightful experience of welcoming a small flock of chickens to the backyard. For poultry newcomers, fall gives them plenty of time to research the breeds they’d like to welcome, acquire, design or create and research chicken coop plans or build a coop, and read up on chicken care.

Perhaps there’s even time to visit other families who already have chickens or take a beginning chicken class at a nearby farm store or nature center.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will detail the construction of a sturdy, attractive coop. It’s not always necessary to build a coop, but construction is a fun family learning experience.

Characteristics of an ideal coop

Whether a coop is made by a family from scratch, purchased as a kit, or crafted from an existing building, these characteristics are necessary for chickens to be comfortable, safe, and productive.

  • Sized right: Be sure to have at least four-square feet of coop floor space per hen. More is even better and attaching an outdoor run to the coop adds living space. Coops can be as small as eight or ten square feet, suitable for two hens. More common backyard coops are 20 to 30 square feet and designed for four to six hens. If space is tight, consider bantam chickens. They only need half to a third as much space as full sized birds.
  • Comfort: Coops should provide plenty of ventilation, yet thwart chilly drafts come winter. Hens enjoy a cool breeze on sultry summer evenings and need to be protected from winter’s harsh winds. Great coops allow opening windows or vents when the weather is warm yet closing them down when frost arrives.
  • Protection: Raccoons, opossums, mink, and a host of other furry predators love eating fresh chicken. Mosquitoes and gnats enjoy a meal of blood. Good coops have heavy duty wire mesh on the outside and mosquito netting on the inside stretched over windows to keep predators at bay. A sturdy door, locked each evening after the chickens go to bed, keeps nocturnal predators out.
  • Furniture: Chickens sleep while standing on a perch. A pole or 2×4 with rounded off corners a couple of feet above the floor, makes a comfortable sleeping structure. Hens prefer to lay in nest boxes, which also keep eggs clean. Coops should have at least one nest per four birds. Many small coops have a hinged door that allows for egg collection without entering the coop.
  • Feeders and waterers: These should be easy for hens to reach and humans to clean and fill.
  • Light: Chickens need light. Windows should be positioned to gather as much natural daylight as possible. In the northern regions, positioning a coop so windows are on the south side helps gather the most sunshine and warmth on cold winter days.
  • The weather: Chickens love frequent drinks of clean fresh water, but a wet coop is an invitation to disease and foul odors. The coop must have a good roof that will always protect the interior from rain and snow.
  • Electricity: It’s not necessary to have electricity to the coop, but it makes care of chickens easier, especially in cold climates. Having electricity allows adding artificial light on dark winter days. That increases egg production. Also, a great convenience is a waterer with an electric heating unit inside it. This eliminates the need to keep replacing frozen waterers with fresh water.

Ideal coops should look great in the yard and be part of a backyard decor.  Access should be easy, so hens can be examined, feeders and waterers filled, and cleaning a snap.

Four ways to acquire a coop

  1. Modify an existing building: Often one of the easiest and least expensive ways of creating a backyard coop is to modify an existing building. A large corner of a garage or storage building may work well. Modification may be as simple as making a frame of 2×4 lumber, framing in a door, and covering the interior with chicken wire. Add a feeder, waterer, nests and roost and, bingo, it’s ready to house the flock. Cut a pop hole door in the exterior, create a fenced outdoor run, and the chickens have a snug home to sleep in and escape foul weather and a pleasant outdoor place to loiter and search for tasty insects and seeds. Many home stores sell pre-built or kit garden sheds. These can be modified into a coop.
  2. Buy a pre-built kit: Most places that sell chicks and chicken supplies sell coop kits, and they are also available from chick hatcheries and online. Most kits are small and lightweight. Many allow the purchase of an attached outdoor run. Some kits seem quite frail and may be best suited for people trying chickens for the first time. If they grow to love their hens, they may graduate to a larger or more elaborate coop. Some coop kits are high quality and durable. Take a close look at materials before buying.
  3. Buy a custom-made coop: Many garden and farm stores sell custom made coops. These are often high quality. They look great and are durable but may be relatively expensive. Well-made coops are heavy, so make sure the seller is willing to deliver it.
  4. Building a coop: This is an ideal way to enter the backyard chicken hobby. Later blogs featured on Scoop from the Coop will detail why and how to build a coop perfect for any yard.

Chicken Molting: Molt Is Coming, Are You Ready?

It’s hard to imagine that dreaded time of year is almost upon us, you guessed it, molt. Even though moly is a very natural process for poultry, it doesn’t make it any easier as a flock owner. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for the less-favorable chicken molting season.

  1. Be proactive – Supplemental light, especially in the winter months, is a great consideration for your flock. Hens 18 months or older can benefit from this practice, and it can possibly lessen the extreme experiences of molt.
  2. Feed adjustments – Now is the time to dial up the protein and cut back on the treats. Higher levels of protein are required for birds in molt so they can replace those protein-rich feathers. A product like Nutrena NatureWise Feather Fixer can also aid in getting through the painful period of molt just a little quicker. Feeding this at least 30 days in advance of the onset of molt will provide maximum benefit to your birds.
  3. Clean is key – A clean coop will not only prepare you for the long winter months, but it will also reduce the bacteria and chance of infection for birds with bare skin due to molt.
  4. Keep the creepy crawly’s out – Parasites like mites and lice will only make the molt process more challenging. Examine your flock and their housing for any parasites and treat accordingly, to prevent the issue from affecting your birds during the regrowth period.
  5. Make sure everyone can play nice – If you have a flock member that has a rap sheet for being a bully or acting aggressively, it may be time to assess if that bird should continue to be kept in the flock. Tender, exposed skin and blood-filled pin feathers can be a prime target for angry birds (no pun intended…ok, maybe a little).

Just remember, molt is no one’s favorite time of year, but it does serve an important purpose in the life-cycle of your chickens and the health of the flock.

Check out these posts to learn more about molting and what to expect.