Roosters crow but the hen delivers, eggs that is! Nest boxes sure can make our lives easier when it comes to collecting eggs. Egg hunting can be fun once a year at Easter time but who wants to go digging around on a daily basis in corners of the coop and bedding, outside under every bush or under the your porch! Chickens will lay their eggs just about anywhere they feel comfortable doing so and being creatures of habit, will continue to lay where they have laid in the past. Technically they don't need nesting boxes, however not only don't we want to go searching for these wonderful treasures, but eggs laid out in the field will attract unwanted predators and eggs laying in and around the coop or run are subject to being consumed by the chickens themselves. If we want their eggs, we need to create an environment conducive for hens to collectively lay in. Hence the nest box!
Requirements for nest boxes:
There are certain requirements that all hens desire in a nest box:
So lets discuss just how to create a place like this for your hens.
Hens aren't too particular when it comes to shapes and sizes of nest boxes, their main concern is how safe they will be laying their egg, is it clean enough to lay there and is there enough room just in case they want to go broody. As for how many boxes you need? This is really up to you and your flock. The standard recommendation is 1 box per 4 hens. Some even say 1 box per 5 hens. And some people keep a box for every bird in their flock! I found in my flock that 1 box per 3 hens was adequate. I tried the 1 per 4 method and there were long waiting lines, bickering and the lower ranking birds were run off entirely. You will need to experiment with your flock, take away or add as needed.
The number one thing on a hens mind when she is ready to lay is, she knows she is vulnerable when laying her egg. She is going to first pick a spot that she feels comfortable, she won't be preyed upon and best of all usually where another hen has laid her egg. Why "best of all?" We can fool them into laying where we want them to lay with a cozy nest box, one that she fits in and by using fake eggs in the box so that she thinks others have laid there. She peeks in the box, sees what she thinks is a freshly laid egg and knows she too will be safe laying hers there as well. I prefer the "ceramic" eggs, they appear real to the human eye, even hens are fooled!
My flock never fell for "golf balls" in the boxes, so if you have suspicious hens, I suggest ceramic eggs. You can buy them at feed stores or online.
Another requirement is the size of space she will want to lay in. Not so tight that she can't turn around or stand in, not so tight it destroys her tail feathers. Nature will have her test out the dimensions to see if a brood of chicks will work in the size space. Not so big either that other chickens can invade her space, chicks will feel snuggled and she feels she has command of her small space.
Cleanliness, it's very important for your nest boxes to be clean at all times. Chickens will refuse to lay in them if they are dirty or buggy, so we need to keep the bedding and box clean. Many people don't like wooden boxes for this reason as if you have a hen that doesn't put a shell on her egg, you will have a big mess at the bottom of the nest box. If using a wooden box, I recommend you put in a piece of sheet metal, some sort of plastic or even nest box liners so that these accidents can be properly cleaned.
Last but not least, easy access for us and the hen! The box needs to be placed in a fashion that the hen can easily enter and exit without too much difficulty and we too can easily collect the eggs. Generally you want your chickens roosting higher than your nest boxes so the birds don't have the tendency to sleep in the boxes or on top as chickens like to go high for roosting. Floor nest boxes are easy for hens to use and easy for you to access. On smaller chicken coops, outside access is nice to be able to lift the lid and collect eggs. (Make sure these lids are locked on tight to prevent predators from entering.)
Looking for some ideas? Lets start with the standard nest box size and materials used. Some people purchase their nest boxes on line from a poultry supply house. There are metal boxes, wooden boxes, the multi box set up and if you are not handy with the tools, this is an easy way to go.
Other chicken keepers prefer to build boxes themselves. Roughly a 10" deep x 12" wide x 10" tall for Bantam breeds, 12" deep x 12" wide x 12" tall for standard breeds akin in size to Plymouth Barred Rocks or Rhode Island Reds. 15"deep x 15" wide x 15" tall for larger breeds like Jersey Giants. Chickens LOVE to scratch bedding around and out of nest boxes and I am SURE it's a wonderful delight to do so! So make sure to incorporate a "lip" on the front of the box to keep the bedding in. 4 to 6 inches will do.
Now you don't have to go standard when it comes to nest boxes, as I mentioned earlier, chickens will lay just about anywhere they feel comfortable...feed bags, high corner shelves, wheelbarrows, I have found eggs in the craziest places! Get creative and make it fun if you wish, you can use buckets laid on their sides, pet carriers, laundry baskets, old milk crates, heck, in a pinch a cardboard box will work until you can fashion something else!
Ideally the nest boxes should be placed in the darker corner of your coop. Someplace without constant traffic or near the roost bars. Pullets love to sleep in nest boxes and I recommend training your young birds to roost on the roost bars at night and not in your nest boxes. If roost bars are higher than the boxes or away from the nesting area, sleeping in boxes should not be a problem.
Bedding the Nest Box
Generally what ever you use on the floors of your coop and run, you can put in your nest boxes. Pine shavings, grass hay, straw, wood mulch, even sand will work. Nesting liner/pads are new on the market, they are fun to use as well. Make sure to change the bedding on a regular basis in the boxes because you don't want bugs to take up residence or smells to attract predators. Again, hens will refuse to use dirty boxes.
Reiterating my opinion, fake eggs are a must! They help to fool the hens into believing it's a safe place to lay their egg, they invite the hens to lay in any nest box and not just one they have become used to. Fake eggs have done wonders in my flock, which at one point became egg eaters. I have had a few hens over the years that just could not put a shell on if their lives depended upon it. So what happened was, the rest of the flock would lurk as one of these "Shell-less Eggers" would go into the nest box, the hen would deposit a runny yolk and the moment she stood up, if she didn't start devouring the yolk, I swore I could hear the hens on the outside yell, "DINNER!!" And they all charged into eat this yolk and any other egg that had previously been laid. I began leaving fake eggs in the boxes at all times. At first the birds thought they were real and tried to break into them. After messing around with them long enough, the hens realized that they were impenetrable as must be all eggs. (You need to collect eggs as often as possible with eggs eaters.)
I can't say enough about curtains either! These are a "must" for egg eaters as well as for broodies and shy birds that might otherwise get bullied from laying. They create a darkened space for hens and their privacy, broodies love to hide in dark spaces, the shier lower ranking birds can slip in and the others don't see them. The hen slips in through the slit in the middle, lays her egg and because it's dark, they leave the yolk, egg or eggs alone. And others can't "cruise" for eggs from the outside. There was a study once done on Parrots, a peanut was placed on a table next to the Parrot. The bird could clearly see the peanut and goes after it. However when a hand was placed over the peanut and the bird could no longer see the tasty nut, the bird did not try and peck the hand away but instead must have assumed the nut was no longer there and the bird walked away. When the hand was removed from covering the peanut, the bird again showed interest in eating it. What I am getting at is, out of sight, out of mind with chickens. With curtains, birds soon forget there is a bird in the nest boxes and go off and do other things. Any eggs or yolks that may have been left in the nest boxes are less likely to be messed around with. Between the use of ceramic eggs and curtains, I have completely eliminated all egg eating in my flock. Curtains create that quiet, darkened space that birds so desire when laying their eggs. Any material will do, you can fashion your own or purchase a set of kitchen curtains at the store. Attach them at the top of the boxes with heavy duty staples, nails will also do. Leave a tiny slit in the middle for entering, chickens learn very fast how to use them. And they dress up your coop!
I hope this has given you some ideas on setting up your nest boxes! Think "outside the box" (no pun intended) and get the kids involved painting the names of their chickens on the outside of the boxes, make a fun day out of it!
Happy egg collecting!!
For further reading from our Learning Center, check out this article from BYC Support!
Also check out our Laying Nests & Nesting Boxes section in our Learning Center as well!
Some fun and cute ideas can also be found here on this website:
Check out these threads here on BYC, nest box ideas!
And of course don't forget about our Coop and Run Construction forums to ask others about their nest boxes!