Nesting boxes are the spaces chickens will use to lay their eggs. Getting it right when it comes to the locations, number, size, and materials of nesting boxes is crucial for domestic flocks. From my own experiences, I know that chickens seem to take any excuse to lay in the most inconvenient places possible! But making their nesting boxes ideal for their needs can help in preventing them from hiding eggs all over your garden.
Ideally, nesting boxes should be in the coop. They should be positioned in reasonably dim, cool, and sheltered locations that make your hens feel safe. But some light won’t usually be a problem. Make sure your chickens can reach them easily, won’t be too crowded, and will be comfortable as can be.
If you get it right when it comes to your nesting boxes, you should find it much easier to manage your flock and your coop. And to collect the eggs that have been laid. Read on to find out more about nesting boxes. And get some tips to help you create the perfect set up for your flock.
Should Nesting Boxes be In The Coop?
Our rescue hens quickly acclimatize to free-range living. And that means that they don’t always choose to use the nesting boxes we have provided for them. We’ve found eggs in all sorts of strange places. In bushes, but also in a chiminea, and even in a cement mixer that was left in our yard!
Hens have their own minds, and some are determined not to lay where you want them to even when you leave a dummy egg in a nesting box to give them the idea.
Dummy eggs – fake eggs that are left in nesting boxes – sometimes work. I’ve heard that other chicken keepers have success with ceramic eggs, wooden eggs, even golf balls. But some of our hens have just ignored them completely. I do think it depends on the characters of individual hens. You may have more luck with chickens you have reared. But in my experience, rescue hens will not always pay attention.
Getting hens to lay where you want them to can be a challenge at the best of times. This is especially true when you are allowing them to free-range. But you can certainly make things easier for yourself by providing them the best nesting boxes possible.
Ideally, nesting boxes should be inside the coop. This means that hens will have easy access to them first thing in the morning. And will be protected from predators and the elements at all times. The coop is also a good spot because it is away from noise and activity and will help hens feel safe.
It is also worth bearing in mind your own convenience. Collecting eggs from the coop itself rather than elsewhere will avoid the need for separate trips. And will allow you to keep an eye on everything and make sure everything in the coop is in order when you collect the eggs each morning.
While chickens should be able to access the nesting boxes from inside the coop, there can also be access to them from outside. Whether you want to access the nesting boxes and collect eggs without entering the coop is something to consider when thinking about coop design.
Should Nesting Boxes be In The Dark?
Hens usually like a shady, dim place to lay their eggs. But the nesting boxes do not need to be entirely in darkness. Generally speaking, it is best to place your nesting boxes in the dimmest part of your coop. But there can be some light from a window.
In my chicken coop, the five nesting boxes are placed beneath a shelf, with a ramp leading up. And above that shelf (the ‘poop deck’), there is a roosting bar. The nesting boxes are fairly dim, but there is some indirect light shed on them from a window.
I have found (through discovering where different hens have chosen to lay their eggs) that chickens care more about how secure a nest site feels than about light levels. We once had a hen who chose to lay in a dust bath depression in full sun rather than in the many more shaded spots around the coop and garden.
But rescue chickens can be bizarre. They’ve been through some things. So our chickens may often be the exceptions to the general rules.
Broody hens who are sitting eggs (whether they have been fertilized or not) will generally tend to opt for a position that is as dark and secluded as possible.
Remember, the needs of a broody hen sitting eggs will be different to the needs of a layer that is not going to be spending any time on their nest.
Ideal Location For Nesting Boxes
A nesting box location should be chosen, first and foremost, for the comfort and safety of your chickens. An ideal location for nesting boxes will be:
- Relatively dim and quiet,
- Sheltered from the elements and definitely dry,
- Cool enough in summer and warm enough in winter for comfort,
- Protected from predators active in your area,
- Below the level of their roosting spots. When nesting boxes are higher than or at the same level as roosting areas, chickens may choose to sleep in them. This can make a mess and make cleaning out your coop more difficult.
Some hens may prefer to be raised up slightly off the ground. And you can wall-mount nesting boxes or stack them vertically as long as hens can still reach them easily. But do make sure there is always a higher place to roost.
It can also be a good idea to think about your own convenience. We have our nesting boxes at ground level inside a shed. But if you have mobility or bending issues, a bad back, for example, it may be ideal to position them a little higher, so you can collect the eggs more easily.
We simply enter the coop to retrieve the eggs. But in certain settings, coops can be designed so that an external flap or lid can be opened to collect the eggs without actually having to enter the coop. For convenience, this could be something to consider when you are designing or choosing your coop.
If the nesting boxes protrude from the edge of your chicken coop, this can make it easy to collect your eggs. But it is important to think about predators (nesting boxes inside the coop may be more secure if there is a problem with predators in your area).
It is also worthwhile thinking about the fact that nesting boxes protruding from the building envelope will likely be colder in winter. And if they are positioned on the south side of the structure, there is also the possibility that they could become too hot during warm summer days. Good coop design always means thinking about the climate and conditions in your particular area.
Are Nesting Boxes Necessary?
If you have free-range hens that lay in bushes or in other spots around your property, you may wonder whether nesting boxes are necessary at all. Chickens will usually lay somewhere, even if there are not nesting boxes for them to use.
But chickens do need nesting boxes if they are to feel comfortable and secure. You don’t necessarily have to buy nesting boxes since it is relatively easy and straightforward to make your own. Nesting boxes can be made from a wide range of materials.
But it is important to provide safe spaces for your chickens to lay their eggs. Chickens that do not feel that they have a safe place to lay may become stressed. They may not lay well and may even have health issues as a result.
As mentioned above, our chickens don’t all always use the nesting boxes we provide. But they are there when they do need them.
If you don’t provide nesting boxes, eggs can easily be damaged, broken, or even eaten. You might even find if you have free-range hens, that you struggle to find their eggs at all. So for your own convenience, as well as for your hens, you do need to provide nesting boxes.
How Many Nesting Boxes Do You Need?
Some people who are new to keeping chickens might imagine that you need a nesting box for each and every hen. But you don’t. Generally speaking, it is advisable to have at least one nesting box for every three hens. We have five individual nesting boxes for our flock and never have more than 15 rescue hens at any one time.
Sometimes, two hens will squeeze into one of these nesting boxes at the same time. Sometimes, they will wait in line to use the same one, even when another is available. I could probably have fewer nesting boxes since it is rare that they are all in use at the same time. But I would rather have too many than too few.
If you have a larger flock, you can usually get away with having just one nesting box per 4-6 hens. But again, I would say that it is always better to have one too many rather than too few.
You might imagine that you could simply have one larger nesting box for all your chickens, rather than individual spaces. But hens like to feel quite enclosed when they are laying and can be quite secretive about it. A communal nesting box can cause all sorts of squabbling issues, and eggs can easily be broken.
If you do decide to opt for a larger nesting box, make sure it has partitions or subdivisions so that hens can lay apart from one another.
How Large Should Nesting Boxes Be?
How large your nesting boxes should be will depend on the size of your hens. If you have a larger breed, these will obviously need slightly larger nesting boxes than bantams. Even for smaller birds, anything less than 1ft (c.30cm) square seems cramped. But you might go up to around 16 inches (c.40cm) square for larger birds.
The birds like to feel rather constricted and closed in when they are laying. So try not to make nest boxes any larger than they really need to be. Our rescue hens have nesting boxes that are 12×14, and as mentioned above, I have seen them sharing on occasion.
What Should Nesting Boxes Be Made From?
Nesting boxes can be made from a wide range of different materials. You can purchase nesting boxes ready-made, but I would recommend considering making your own. You can make your own from wood, which is a traditional approach (and the approach we chose in our own set up). You can also use reclaimed materials in a range of interesting and innovative ways.
Our nesting boxes, as mentioned above, sit below a shelf that catches the manure below their roosting bar. So they themselves are closed in on the sides and open at the top. We came up with a design with nesting boxes that have handles on top, which means they can be removed for cleaning. These wooden boxes are light enough to be moved for cleaning but heavy and solid enough to remain in place and not move around when in use.
When creating your nest boxes, it is important to think about cleaning. Wood is a more natural and eco-friendly material, and we have not had issues keeping the next boxes clean. But metal and plastic may be easier to clean, which is why they are sometimes seen as preferable options.
I personally don’t favor metal and plastic in chicken coops, as these materials can lead to issues with condensation. I also prefer to avoid plastic where possible for environmental reasons. But others prefer them as they may make it easier to manage pests and avoid pathogens.
But whatever your coop is made from, it is also important to make sure nesting boxes won’t move around or tip and injure your chickens as they move around the coop.
If you choose to stack nesting boxes or attach these to a wall, it is very important to make sure that you secure them safely to the wall, so there is no risk that they could fall or tip and injure your flock. If you are using more lightweight materials, you will likely have to secure your nesting boxes in some way, even if they are on the ground.
What Should You Use In Nesting Boxes?
What you place in your nesting boxes is also important. We use wood shavings as bedding, though there is a range of other materials that you can use. If your hens are not using the nesting boxes, you have provided, even though you have placed them in a suitable spot, making them the right size, etc. then try out a few different nesting materials to find one that your flock is happy with.
When choosing a material for nesting boxes, make sure you choose a material that will not harm your hens. Or cause any issues that could affect their health.
Whichever materials you choose, remember that nesting boxes should be cleaned out regularly. Make sure you have a regular cleaning routine in place so there is not a build-up of ammonia or any rotting material. Remain vigilant for pests and disease in your coop and in your flock.
Nesting boxes in the coop and in a dim and secure location should ensure that each hen stays healthy and continues to lay well. But there are also plenty of other things you need to think about if you are keeping chickens for the first time. Make sure you read up on all elements of chicken care before you take the plunge, and keep learning about your flock as you go.