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.

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