Provide a spot or box with some straw and your hens will happily lay eggs it's that simple, jobs done – sad to say it isn't quite that simple.
After much trial and error, open-eyed surprises, shaking head disappointments, wasted money, wasted eggs, and lost time, I have evolved my chicken nesting/laying box system into one which finally works. Hence, if you want to know the truth about egg laying and nesting boxes please keep reading.
Clean eggs - yabba dabba dooo! (image above)
Nesting boxes or even a nesting area for chickens is often a consideration made by people after they have made the decision to get chickens. Before I started keeping chickens, like many, I did a lot of research about these delightful animals: what types of hens to get, how to house chickens, how to care for chickens, what chickens eat, how often do they lay, and the list goes on...
However, whilst I gathered all this information I never remember seeing anything specifically focused on nesting. Yes, there was the standard - “ensure you have a safe place for your chickens to nest and lay,” with the odd tip and image of a nesting box or area. Still, the complete flippancy online and in literature about nesting lead me to believe chickens and the act of laying (and where) was the least issue concerning chicken keepers.
Well, I soon found out the above sentence couldn't be further from the truth. Indeed, where chickens lay is one of the most important considerations for chicken keeping, particularly for the backyard or hobby-farmer. And, to be totally honest, the simple act of a hen doing her business took me a few years to properly figure out.
Chickens roosting in nesting boxes
Hens all close and cozy roosting in nesting boxes (above)
This article also covers how to manage (not stop) chickens roosting in nesting/laying boxes. For most backyard or hobby chicken enthusiasts, hens roosting in the nesting boxes is a fact of life and completely normal behaviour. Most chickens like to sleep in the nesting/laying boxes.
To confuse the matter, not all chickens like to sit in a nesting box overnight and some actually prefer to roost on a perch. And, chickens lower in the pecking order may be forced to use the perch if there isn't enough nesting boxes for every bird – that isn't necessarily cruel or a problem as both roosting areas are fine; therefore, both types of roosting methods should be provided.
Often, I will find several hens squashed into one nesting box – it does look a bit comical but it does them no harm. The next night I might find two or three hens using the perches instead – it varies.
Hens roosting on perch in front of nesting boxes (above)
But the point I want to stress is don't believe all the junk out there about hens roosting in nesting boxes as a behaviour needed to be stopped, because it will drive you absolutely nuts trying to stop chickens from kipping in nesting boxes through the night.
Firstly, I wish I could say egg collecting was as easy as how it's portrayed in lifestyle or how-to TV shows with the perfect clean egg sitting in the nice clean straw but unfortunately it isn't always like that.
Ever heard the metaphor – Don't poop in your own nest? Well, I'm certain that saying came from a chicken keeper because only they know how much of a pain poop in a nest really is. And, if there's poop in a nest when a hen is laying an egg guess what? That's right, poopy egg syndrome PES - image (directly right).
The actual egg comes out clean during the laying process but it's the poop it touches after, which makes the egg dirty. Also, eggs can get dirty from dirt or mud especially in wet weather when the chickens come in to lay with muddy feet and inadvertently soil the nest or step on the eggs.
Mind you, most chickens will try to keep the eggs clean and often they will lay in the cleanest nesting box they can find. Hens will likely clean the nest (as best they can) before laying and sometimes even move eggs to a better spot within the box.
However, there’s only so much a chicken can do sanitary wise, so it's up to us to ensure the nesting boxes and materials within are kept as clean as reasonably possible. This means daily trips to the coop or preferably several quick trips a day. If only one trip a day is practical for you then a trip in the afternoon will ensure most of the egg laying has been complete so eggs aren’t sitting in the nest overnight.
Optimally, a visit in the morning and afternoon is the best because the morning trip can “re-set” the nesting boxes from the previous nights roosting by giving them a quick clean before the laying begins and the afternoon trip can collect the eggs.
By the way, it isn't uncommon for smaller flocks to all only use one nesting box for laying. And if after all the best planning and effort, a few eggs still get a little poopy, don't worry, just carefully wipe them clean with a dry cloth or rub off the dried manure with a light grade sand paper - don't wash with water or wipe them with a wet cloth because eggs are porous and the act of washing may leach bacteria through the shell and into the egg. If an egg is heavily soiled then disgard it or give it to the dog (which is what I do).
Cleaning nesting boxes
Cleaning a nesting box is simple, easy, and effective, provided it is done regularly. The best way to do this is by inspecting the laying boxes in the morning and removing the poop piles produced from the nights roosting. This can be done by using an implement like a dustpan or I just use my hands by carefully “wrapping” the manure in surrounding straw grabbing it out for either collecting in a bucket or throwing it on the floor for raking up later.
Once a month, I remove all the litter from the boxes and give them a good brush out then a dusting with a mite powder before placing more fresh litter back in.
I have a galvanised bin with replacement litter situated next to the nesting boxes so I can immediately top-up the nesting boxes once I'm done.
Types of laying boxes for chickens
When chickens need to lay they will practically lay anywhere if they have to but of course it's best to provide a comfortable, safe place for them to nest and lay. The following are some different types of nesting/laying boxes for hens:
Open nesting – Old tyres or a milk crate make good open nests placed in the corners of a hen house they are simple and hard to beat. Fill the container with straw and the hens will make a comfortable divot in the middle to lay. Then it's just a matter of pulling out the dirty nesting material and topping up with more straw daily.
Open nesting boxes are particularly good for chickens that can't flap up to higher nesting boxes (breeds like silkies).
Drawbacks for open nesting: Tend to be close to the ground meaning more bending over to clean and collect eggs. More susceptible to predators like snakes, lizards, dogs and other animals.
Standard nesting boxes – A bit like open box shape shelving you might find in a house or shed. Normally, the boxes are about 1-2 feet high and wide and about the same deep forming a cube. A steep sloping roof on the nesting box is required (unless there's no space above it) otherwise the hens will also roost on top of the boxes and dirty them.
These nesting boxes are best placed off the ground at least 1 metre (3 feet) to about 1.5 metres, as this makes egg collection and maintenance/cleaning easier. Also, off the ground at a safe height gives better protection from egg predators or even gives a second line of protection for the hen if, for example, a dog or fox got into the coop through the night.
Standard nesting boxes are usually fixed to a wall or secured on a stand in a barn or chook shed with access gained from inside, although, access to nesting boxes from the outside can be built if required. Either DIY or commercial nesting boxes are good with DIY being the cheapest option and not that hard to do really. All that is required for basic nesting boxes are some cheap ply wood (some 10 and 4 mil pieces), a qty of timber off-cuts (pine will do), some wood glue, and wood screws.
Commercial nesting boxes can be simple too and sometimes hobby farm retailers make their own basic boxes for reasonable prices. You can also get very elaborate nesting box designs like igloo boxes with insulation or accessories and pretty designer boxes all different colours if you have the money to spend.
Drawbacks for standard nesting boxes – None really, although cost can be restrictive if buying the commercial boxes.
Contained nesting boxes – Very similar to standard nesting boxes and mainly seen in modern chicken houses or mobile chicken tractors in an urban environment but can also be employed in a chicken barn arrangement on farms. The hens have an enclosed housing area for sleeping and laying sometimes with a small attached run (but can also be free-range). These set-ups are really good for the small suburban flock and keep the hens cozy and safe when laying and roosting through the night. Egg collection (typically from the outside) is usually via a hinged door at the rear of the nesting boxes making egg collection an easy task.
Drawbacks for contained nesting boxes – With exception to the larger walk-in barn types of contained nesting boxes, the urban designs (including mobile chicken tractors) can become a little overcrowded and messy when the flock passes half dozen. Also, cleaning inside the boxes and immediate housing can be difficult.
Roll-away – A nesting box set-up where the egg rolls into a collection area either at the rear or front of the box. Typically, plastic mesh inserts or special matting act as the nesting material on a slight gradient, which tunnels the egg to the collection area.
Roll away nesting boxes can be a handy method to overcome certain problems like: hens eating eggs, other animals getting to the eggs, and dirty eggs. It's also a convenient way to collect the eggs as they all roll into one area.
Hens seem to be fine with the plastic inserts and tend to happily sit on them to lay.
DIY roll-away nesting boxes are also easy enough to make. The plastic nest inserts can be purchased separately (without the box) and the nesting box can be home made saving considerable costs.
Drawbacks for roll-away nesting boxes – I have my own prejudices when it comes to roll-away nesting boxes and whilst I acknowledge the system does work for some people, I personally don't recommend roll-away nesting boxes for backyard chicken keeping. I have written more about why I'm not a fan of roll-away nesting boxes later in this article (myths section).
Pseudo nesting box - If you begin to notice missing eggs or the hens just don't seem to be laying much lately, then before blaming predators, egg eating hens, stealing neighbours, chicken diet etc for the puzzling egg shortage, firstly, do a walk around to check the hens don't have a secret laying spot.
Some organic free-range farmers actually use this method for real and “hunt” for the eggs every day letting the chickens decide where they wish to lay. My uncle Ernie had a farm near Crows Nest (past Toowoomba, Queensland) and he used to do the same with his chickens but not for commercial reasons – his hens used to roam all over the place and lay anywhere. Then occasionally there'd be a bunch of little chicks wandering around (obviously a clutch missed).
I once had a hen with a odd fetish for laying in my garden shed under my tool rack where I kept my shovels and garden forks. Nearly every day she would leave the rest of the flock and trundle up 70 metres to the shed when it was egg laying time. Another hen would lay in the compost heap until I decided to only let the girls out of the hen enclosure after laying was done (usually after lunch).
Pseudo nesting spots can be particularly evident for large backyards where chickens are allowed to free-range and occasionally the hens will find a better spot than what we've provided to lay, like a tree hollow or under a shrub (or a tool rack). If this happens blocking access (even temporarily) should get them laying back in the nesting boxes provided .
Open nests only attract predators and scavengers like snakes and crows so it's usually prudent to nip it in the bud quickly.
Myths about laying boxes for chickens
Myth 1 – Perch height
Keep the nesting/laying boxes lower than the perches because chickens like to roost on the highest spot - then they won't roost in the boxes .
I have never seen any evidence to support this notion. I believe it's a complete myth. Not withstanding the fact this technique doesn't work to encourage hens to roost on the perch instead of in the laying box through the night; but also, laying boxes lower and closer to the ground are: more susceptible to predators, and harder to get to for egg collection.
Unless the hens are soft feathered (silkies, for instance) the nesting boxes should be at least above waist high. If the hens are soft feathered and can't fly too well then closer to the ground it has to be; although, I'd look at creating a step or ramp first to see if the girls can't be helped jump-up a little higher.
Myth 2 – Screening off nesting boxes or area
A screen in front of the nesting boxes will stop chickens roosting in them at night.
Some claim chickens like privacy when laying but don't like being closed off when roosting; therefore, a screen in front of the nesting boxes (within a foot or so) will allow the hens to lay but deter them from sleeping in the nest at night. This doesn't work – I tried the screening method for months and noticed no change in behaviour.
Myth 3 – Roll away nesting boxes
Roll away nesting boxes are an easy way to keep the eggs clean, stop cannibalism (hens eating own eggs), and ensure eggs are safe from predators.
Not really. Ok, yes, they do work but are the benefits worth the effort and cost? I have to say in my experience, no.
In roll-away nesting box set-ups the inserts quickly get messy and covered in manure; therefore, inserts need to be regularly removed and washed for the system to be effective.
The eggs still get dirty and sometimes the eggs even break during the roll away action and this messes up the bottom of the box potentially attracting flies and maggots making an awful mess.
When I used the roll-away system (and paid handsomely for the boxes), I found the maintenance and effort involved to keep the inserts clean and collect the eggs was just not worth it. The type of retail roll-away nesting boxes I got did have the ability to block access to the hen so they couldn't roost in the box through the night by a galvanised flap; nevertheless, the practicality of remembering to put this flap up in the evening and down in the morning is self evident.
Commercially, roll away nesting boxes work only because the birds are kept as battery hens in cages, which have gaps to allow manure to fall through and not remain in the nest. Or, for commercial free-range farming the nesting boxes (cages) are automated to kick the hens out of the box and close at night to stop the chickens roosting in the boxes.
Furthermore, keeping the eggs clean via these commercial practices isn't 100% anyway, that's why they use egg cleaning machines which wash and spray the outer egg shells with disinfectant.
I no longer use the roll-away laying boxes (as designed) but to save costs I did modify the boxes and incorporate them into the system I have today.
Honestly, the standard nesting box method using a litter like straw or sugar cane mulch is more practical because, unlike a plastic insert, the litter helps absorb the manure somewhat which can actually help keep the eggs cleaner. Whereas, only one poop on a plastic insert is needed to dirty any eggs laid after until the insert is removed and cleaned.
How many nesting boxes?
One nesting box per 4 hens is usually the minimum rate for conventional set-ups. However, I believe in striving for a ratio of 1:1 if the nesting/laying boxes are considered “roosting” boxes also. If the nesting boxes are large enough often hens will roost together - this is the case in my set-up; therefore, 1:1 probably isn't necessary.
My laying/nesting/roosting boxes set-up
My chickens are housed in a large open roofed compound; therefore, I need to be mindful of egg predators that can fly or climb into the coop and gain access to the nesting boxes (predators like crows, and goanna).
So what do I use? After trying every method possible I prefer to have my hens lay in a standard type nesting box set-up and I don't restrict the chickens access at all if they want to roost in them through the night, in fact, I encourage it.
Nesting box set-up with chickens roosting at night (above)
I have ensured there are enough nesting boxes (or space within) to easily accommodate all my hens if they decide to all roost at the same time.
My nesting boxes are a DIY job made from standard pine and ply wood combined with the roll-away nesting boxes, which I modified by removing the front galvanised flaps/hinges and turned them into standard boxes. The centre divider in my wooden boxes is removable by sliding out for easy cleaning. I have incorporated a perch in the centre of the nesting boxes as an alternative roost for the birds and also as an easy entry point for them to jump up and gain access to the boxes.
DIY nesting boxes with front perch & gap in wood at front of box makes for easy sweep out (image above)
The nesting boxes are situated at the back of the coop and off the ground about 1.5 metres high and are secured (by screws) to a stand made from a pine sleeper and Besser blocks. Due to an egg predator problem I have called the Australian goanna, the nesting boxes overhang the stand making it impossible for the lizard to climb up and reach the eggs - the shed being aluminium means the walls can't be climbed either. I have also secured the boxes to the wall for extra stability and made a simple angle cover from thin ply wood to prevent roosting on top of the boxes.
Underside of nesting boxes showing the brick and sleeper stand (image above)
This system, as simple as it is, works well and as long as the soiled litter is scooped out and replaced daily the eggs remain clean (mostly).
My nesting box set-up may not be everyone’s cup of tea and that's fine. Whether the nesting/laying system employed is the roll-away, a simple open box type using an old tyre, or a similar method to my standard box set-up, is a choice made by summing up one's own circumstances.
I hope by elaborating on the different nesting box systems this article has given a better insight into what's often an overlooked consideration when people are planning to get into chicken keeping. And, possibly by reading this article choosing a nesting box system will be made easier thus saving unnecessary costs later down the track.
Why not have your say? Do you have a question about nesting boxes or perhaps an idea you'd like to share with the readers? Join our forum (it's free) and we have a great little chicken section to browse. You can also leave a comment below in the comments section – your email is not required to be entered.
If you were wondering where I got my coop/aviary from is was Cheap Sheds online (sponsors).
Thanks for reading and thanks for your support.
Look, and see the Earth through her eyes
Mark Valencia – Editor SSM