Chicken Nests: How to Get Chickens to Use Nesting Box
Nests in Bizarre Places and How to Encourage Chickens to Lay Where You Want
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Despite our efforts to provide comfortable chicken laying boxes, hens frequently confound us. They would rather hide their eggs in places of their own choosing. We have come across chicken nests in the most unexpected places, from dusty bowls under bushes to a pile of towels on storage boxes. To find a solution for both hens and their owners, I will consider the following points: Why do chickens do this? What kind of nest do they like? And how to get chickens to use nesting boxes!
Bizarre Chicken Nests
On visiting friends of mine in France, I was surprised to find an egg on their couch. Luckily, I didn’t sit on it! My friend explained that one of her hens had been bullied by the others and sought refuge in the front yard. She regularly came into the living room to lay.
Many keepers have told me about their hens laying in hay bales, under bushes, under pallets, and on the floor. My own birds are no exception. They have favored a cat carrier for several months now, and are time-sharing it with the cat. Only recently, some have switched to one of their designated laying boxes. However, they sometimes lay in hedgerows in the summer. It is very hard to find the eggs when they do this. I have to follow one when she shows sign of laying behavior so that she leads me to the nest.
I found another remarkable example in Florida. Des Ganuza related how her hens often laid under bushes or the picnic table. Her head hen, Henrietta, a Rhode Island Red, had a more unusual choice: “There are three nests outside for the hens to use. But sometimes they get broody and they’ll end up using the dog crate which is everyone’s favorite.
“There was a time when Henrietta would scream every afternoon and I’d feed her but nothing seemed to make her happy. Finally I decided to let her in the house and see what she would do. She jumped on the couch that had a box on it at the time and got between the arm of the couch and the box and sat down. I realized she wanted to lay her egg inside the house. All my chickens were raised indoors as chicks so she must remember having been in here. But she can’t make the couch into a nest. So I put some towels down in the shape of a nest on top of some of my plastic storage boxes and put her on top of it. She approved.
“Now she comes to the glass door every day and demands to be let in by screaming … She goes to all the windows in the house looking for me … knocks on the windows with her beak — and on the screen door in the back. If I don’t listen to her when she screams, she dropkicks it. Once she’s done, if I don’t hear her feet hit the ground, she’ll yell at me to let her out.”
(1) Henrietta attempts to lay on the couch. (2) Henrietta laying in her indoor nest of towels. Photo credit: Des Ganuza.
How Hens Choose Their Nests
What motivates hens to choose such nests? Firstly, let’s examine pre-laying behavior. Chickens spend considerable time seeking out a suitable nest and arranging it before laying. They may inspect several candidate places before deciding. You may notice a hen walking around restlessly. If she is unable to find the right place, she may sound off about it. If she finds somewhere to settle but gets disturbed, she will shout the place down, often setting off the rest of the flock. The rooster might help out by exploring nests and calling his hens to it (see video example).
Secondly, let’s look at what the hens’ choices of nest have in common. They tend to be secluded, often enclosed overhead and behind, but with visibility ahead. This enables the hen to hide from potential predators, but still be able to spot them approaching. It also avoids disturbance from other flock members. Think of the thick bushes and boxes that hens often choose. Nests are often raised, giving a vantage point. This will help the hen spot the approach of a predator or other disturbance. Think of the nests that you find in hay or straw bales.
Hens Prefer to Lay in the Same Nest Box
Hens prefer to lay communally. So when one hen finds a good nest, the others will form a line and await their turn. A waiting hen may even try to muscle in and lay beside the current occupier. In this way, the hens quickly build up a clutch of eggs. In the wild, this is advantageous, as there are quickly enough eggs to set. If it takes a long time to build up a clutch, predators get more time to find and pilfer the nest. As the flock members are normally related in the wild, a broody hen is happy to sit on her relatives’ eggs as well as her own. When she starts to brood, other hens will often lay beside her, and she will take their eggs in.
The slideshow below features my own hens sharing the cat carrier, even making a line to lay in it, much to the dismay of the cat!
Youngsters tend to learn from older flock members where to lay, but they may face aggression from their elders when they start using the current favorite nest. This may mean that they look elsewhere. Then, they do not always make the best choices. In desperation, they may end up laying on the coop floor or out in the open. In time, they learn better control. As they establish a place in the pecking order, they learn to avoid aggression.
Chickens Remember the Nest Location
Location is very important. When my hens chose the wicker cat carrier, it was located in a barn we were about to convert into a goat shelter. Now goats would certainly disrupt the peace and quiet of the nest, so I moved the carrier somewhere safe. The poor chickens could not find it and persisted in searching the goat shelter in disbelief, squawking in frustration. The solution was to bring the carrier back, let each hen settle, then move the carrier to the new location, which was at a similar height in a quiet corner. We did this for two hens, and they remembered next day where the carrier was now located. The others followed suit.
Why Have The Chickens Stopped Laying in Nest Boxes?
One of the problems with chicken laying boxes is that they can be a bit too public. Hens rarely lay in places where the rest of the flock are congregating and performing non-laying activities. They want to get away somewhere private. Another factor is their apparent disregard for orderly rows of laying boxes. When hens use designated boxes, they often choose just one and ignore the rest, or choose the boxes at the extremes of the row. Even if there are enough nests for all, they will still wait to use just one or two of them.
When hens choose their own nesting places, they tend to pick spread-out locations: one nest in a hay bale, another under a bush, and perhaps one in the coop. They also like to vary locations. If a clutch has failed to build up in one favorite nest after a few weeks, they frequently find another spot and start laying there. So, even if your hens start out in the right place, they may switch to a new site after a while.
How to Get Chickens to Lay Eggs in Nesting Boxes
In Africa, some farmers hang baskets in trees, which are popular with their hens. These nests are covered and have an entrance for the hen to keep an eye on her world. Taking advice from my own hens, I make them the kind of nests I think they will like: secluded, quiet, raised, and with good visibility. I also spread them around the yard, so they have choice of location. They normally alternate between the following nests: the cat carrier on top of the log pile, a former rabbit hutch, one of their laying boxes within the main chicken coop, and the nest box of a smaller coop.
Here are my tips for preparing nesting boxes for chickens that your hens may like:
- Regularly change bedding and keep nests dry and well padded;
- Provide several nests in different locations;
- Enclose the nest with a roof and three sides;
- Raise the nest to a height that a hen can climb or jump into;
- Place nests in dark, quiet corners where sitters will not be disturbed.
We have more design tips for chicken nesting boxes, ideas for inexpensive DIY designs, and how to hang nesting box curtains for you to read. But what about your chickens? What’s the strangest place you’ve seen them lay?
Originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.