Have you noticed that hens will lay more or less anywhere apart from the beautiful nest boxes we provide?
Perhaps you've wondered where all the eggs are going, only to find them under a tree, or hidden in a pile of grass, or even under your car.
That's because they really don't feel the need to have a nest "box". Like most birds, they will find a place to lay wherever they feel safest.
What we want them to do, or what we think they need, is irrelevant to them.
So our task is to look at what that safe place might look like, and recreate it for them in the coop. Unless you want to carry on hunting under the rose bushes for those missing eggs...
Chickens are an intuitive bunch. In the wild, they'll lay their eggs in a place where they are as protected as possible. Those eggs are, after all, potentially the next generation. A hen believes she's laying eggs which she may later choose to incubate and hatch.
So she'll always look for a place that's safe: quiet, private, dark and away from any perceived danger.
Our job is to make the place where our hens lay as close to that feeling of security as possible. The security aspect is always more critical than what kind of nesting boxes you use.
And if you don't get it right, your hens are likely to start laying elsewhere.
If you're planning your chicken coop, or considering buying or making some new nest boxes, think about what would make the ideal position for your situation.
You'll find quite a lot of information on the web about making your next boxes look good by hanging curtains. I admit, when I first had chickens I loved this idea and bought chicken-themed material to make them.
Then I discovered that hens can create quite a lot of dust. I was also concerned about the possibility of them harbouring mites, which tend to cling onto any surface that's not shiny.
I was forever washing the curtains and, in the end, I took them down. Too much work - simple is best, as far as I'm concerned.
But this is a matter of personal preference.
If you have somewhere to place nest boxes which is quiet and relatively dark, you probably don't need curtains. If you haven't, and you like to pretty-fy your coop, that's fine.
Do just bear in mind the cleanliness aspect, though.
One of the "Five Freedoms" for chickens lays down that they must be able to express "normal behaviour" by having access to enough space. "Normal behaviour" includes nesting to lay, and enough space means that your hens need to be able to sit, stand and turn round easily in their nest box(1).
So the size will in part depend on the breed of chicken. Hybrids such as the Red Star and traditional breeds like the Wyandotte or Livorno (Leghorn) need a box at least 12" (30cm) tall x 12" wide and 12" deep.
Larger breeds like the Brahma and even "fluffier" breeds such as the Orpington will need more space; bantams will require less.
In some ways it really doesn't matter, because what you'll find is there's a "favourite" box that everyone queues up to get. No matter how many nest boxes they have available, nothing will persuade the hens to use them if they decide there's a special one.
There are official requirements for this, although they're really meant for commercial egg-laying businesses where hens were (and in some places still are) crammed into tiny cages with little or no room to move.
For backyard chickens, the ratio should be at least one nest box for five hens to be accepted as "humane conditions"(2).
I prefer a ratio of one box to three hens. That allows for plenty of choice - although there's often still a queue for the favourite!
Bedding serves two purposes: to provide a clean place for hens to lay, and a safe place for eggs to fall. Broken eggs are all too easy for hens to eat, and getting a taste for them can lead to serious egg-pecking - which is hard to stop.
In Europe, EU regulations for the welfare of chickens state that chickens must not have to sit on wire, or plastic-coated wire(2). Most backyard chicken keepers wouldn't dream of making their hens use this as a nest box, but it needs saying.
Looking at bedding which is both safe and easy to clean, then, here are some possibilities, starting with my preferred option.
Nest liners: Made from wood shavings on a paper backing, these pads slot into most nest boxes easily. They're thick enough for the hens to "fluff up" which they like to do before settling, and they can be cleaned by simply shaking dirt off them. They don't contain chemicals and they're biodegradable, so can be composted after use.
I'd not heard of them until quite recently. Now I wouldn't use anything else.
Straw: this is the bedding most people choose to use, including me before I discovered the liners. It's affordable, soft enough for eggs not to break and it looks nice! On the downside, it's not very absorbent, so poop can make it wet and wetness makes it go mouldy; and it can harbour mites.
The answer? Make sure you clean the nest boxes regularly. Get rid of any poop immediately, and check your coop for mites at night.
Sand: becoming increasingly popular as bedding in the coop, it's a good option in that it's easy to clean, but be careful to get the right type. Play sand is too fine and can cause respiratory problems, so go for construction sand which is heavier.
Personally I don't use sand in nest boxes, although I do use it in the coop. It can become compacted and I'm concerned that eggs may break.
Wood shavings: always get the larger chips, not the smaller shavings and certainly not sawdust. These can cause massive respiratory problems. The wood must not be hard wood, particularly not cedar, as mould can be a problem and the oils are toxic for chickens. And beware (again) of mites and other bugs who love hiding in wood shavings.
Of all wood shavings, dust free pine is best.
Chopped cardboard: more absorbent than paper, dust free, doesn't get compacted like sand and can be composted. Doesn't look very pretty, and rodents quite like chewing it - but otherwise this is a good option.
Leaves and other backyard waste: I use dried leaves very successfully as bedding in the coop - the hens love scratching round in them looking for bugs. But I don't use them in the nest boxes, simply because the hens tend to scratch them all over the place. Within a day I found the nest boxes were empty.
Don't use grass clippings - they're too full of moisture - and be careful not to use anything that's been treated with chemicals.
If you have nest boxes with a lip, and leaves that haven't been sprayed and are quite dry, this might work well. Otherwise, use something else.
This is a cleanliness issue.
Chickens poop. A lot. Sleeping in the nest box means they'll deposit poop there. Poop attracts flies. You do not want flies - or poop - on your lovely fresh eggs.
Don't allow your flock to sleep in nest boxes. Fix up a proper roost for them and think about making or buying nest boxes with a sloping roof or with perches that hinge upwards to block entry at night.
Hens are very house-proud. They like to lay where it's clean, and if their nest boxes become dirty they may well find somewhere else to lay. Leaving eggs in nest boxes for too long will also attract rats - who love eggs.
So check your nests every day when you collect eggs, and collect eggs at least once a day, more often for a larger flock.
Make sure the bedding is clean and remove any containing poop. Change it completely at least once a month.
Check for lice and mites, although you're unlikely to see mites during the day. Be aware too of issues around putting fresh flowers or herbs into nest boxes - see the next section for more information.
There's no evidence of this at all - but there's no harm in using herbs in nest boxes, either. They smell wonderful, if you grow your own they're inexpensive and who knows - maybe chickens do get the same benefits from them as humans do!
A warning, though: if you're planning to use fresh herbs, make sure you have time to clean out the nest boxes very regularly.
Why? Because fresh herbs can rot and create bacteria in the bedding. So if you're not sure you have the time, use dried herbs.
Which herbs to try? It's fun to make up your own pot-pourris, but my favourite of all time is lavender. It's easy to grow and dry, is known to have a calming effect (yes, even on chickens!) and smells amazing.
If you don't want to grow your own, or you have no space, these lavender buds are good value and last for ages. Sprinkle a handful into the nesting box once a week.
Lemongrass is another favourite. It contains citronella which keeps flies and mosquitoes at bay, and the chickens love to eat it.
And finally, mint is another easily grown herb which smells delicious, is said to have a calming effect and is fine for your hens to eat, if they feel like.
You may come across information on the web that mint will repel rodents. There's no evidence of this at all - rats are attracted by the smell of grain, not repelled by herbs.
It's possible to buy prepared herbs for coops. I prepare my own, so I haven't used this one, but it's particularly highly recommended by customers as being sweet-smelling and retaining the smell for a long time.
Making your nest boxes as close as possible to what chickens would use in the wild will give the best possible chance of them laying where you want them to lay. So following the tips in this article should help.
New hens you introduce to an existing flock of layers will get the idea very quickly: they'll do what their elders do.
But some may refuse to use your safe, dark, private nest boxes, no matter what you do. If that's the case take a step back and try to look at your nest boxes from a hen's perspective. Is it too noisy? Not private enough? Too light? Too small?
Put those things right and try again. If none of that works, here are some final tips you can try.
If you discover one of your hens isn't laying where she should and she disappears from the flock altogether, don't assume the worst.
It's not unusual for a hen to gather a clutch of eggs somewhere she feels is safe, only to return to the flock three weeks later - with babies in tow!
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.
The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.
Some of the sources I have used in this article are these.
1. RSPCA: Welfare standards for laying hens. Pub. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2017.
2. European Union: Higher welfare systems for laying hens. Pub. EU Commission, via Compassion in World Farming, 2018.
3. DEFRA (UK): Code of practice for the welfare of laying hens and pullets. Pub. August 2018.