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The C Files: How to raise chickens – Layers & Nest Business

Chicken eggs in nest

One would think that chickens were first domesticated for their egg and meat production, but in fact they were initially kept for cock fighting in Asia. These days chickens lay eggs on a daily (or nearly-daily) basis for human consumption, before we get to all the nitty gritty about nesting let me first start off with why and how chickens lay eggs.

The Why

A fertilised egg is laid; wherein an embryo develops and ultimately a chick hatches from. Reproduction and egg laying in most birds only happen when conditions are favourable, such as in spring, a single or clutch of eggs are laid to ensure the survival of the species. With domestication and selective breeding, humans have developed a chicken that lays unfertilised eggs every day. This is extremely wasteful from a biological sense as a lot of energy goes into egg production of which no chicks will result, but it is advantageous for humans who seek a cheap and relatively reliable protein source. Therefore chickens would sadly never be able to fend for themselves.

The How

Understanding how chickens lay their eggs also gives us some clues as to when to expect eggs, how many eggs to expect and what their colour might be. So the journey of an undeveloped yolk to the final egg products starts in the female’s body.

Chicken egg laying anatomy reproductive system hen diagram
Hen reproductive system (left oviduct): egg laying process


Each hen has many ova (or immature yolks), so much so that she would never be able to lay all of them during her life. The ova are contained within two ovaries; the right ovary remains inactive whereas the left releases ova and is functional in mature hens. Ova are released individually during ovulation or one hour after the previous egg has been laid. The ova travel through the oviduct and become wrapped in various layers of albumen (or egg white) then two protective membranes. Calcium carbonate is deposited within a protein matrix to form the eggshell, where the protein acts as biological glue to keep the shell intact, but remains porous so that developing chicks can breathe. Pigments are also deposited on the shell resulting in the final egg colour. Lastly the egg is coated in a layer of bloom or cuticle. This seals the egg presenting moisture loss or bacterial infection. The whole process takes about 25 hours and each day the hen will lay an egg an hour later. When it becomes too late in the day to lay the chicken will skip that day and lay the following morning.

The Who

Chickens are divided into two categorised, meat birds and egg layers. Hens from meat breed will lay eggs, but not nearly as prolifically as those bred for egg production. Here is a list of egg laying breeds to be on the lookout for:

Egg laying chicken breeds:

Egg laying chicken breeds egg colour

Colour coded according to egg colour. Breeds on bold are some of the best layers.
Still undecided then try this online tool: http://www.mypetchicken.com/chicken-breeds/which-breed-is-right-for-me.aspx

The When

Alright, so you have got yourself a flock of young hens and would like to know when the girls will start to lay. Young hens that have not started to lay are known as pullets. Normally hens start laying when they are about 20 weeks old (± 2 weeks for light breeds), heavy breed might start later at around 26-28 weeks. The point at which a hen is mature enough to lay is known as “Point of Lay” and is around 18 weeks, so add another 2 weeks for your first eggs to arrive. The best indicator that your hens are about to lay is the colour of their combs, face and ears. Pullets not ready to lay have pale pink combs, whereas hens about to lay (or laying) have bright red combs (an I mean really bright!). Also hens who are very near to lay or already young layers do a submissive egg squat when you walk by or when you touch their backs.

Pullet, point of lay and laying chicken difference
Pullet vs Laying hen I circled Koekoek here, she was about 12 weeks old. On the right she is about two years, combs and wattle may not be so large in younger hens

The Where

Providing a suitable nest for your hens where they can lay eggs makes it easier to collect fresh eggs every day. The nest should come with a few standard features, such as the nest should be a bit darker than the rest of the coop to make the hens feel safe when laying and have a nice thick layer of grass or saw dust to sit upon. Some books specify specific dimensions for nests and well as a minimum number of nests, such that you must have one nest for every four hens (dimensions in the table below)..

Nest box dimensions:

BreedWidth, cm (inch)Height, cm (inch)Depth, cm (inch)
Heavy35 (14)35 (14)30 (12)
Light30 (12)35 (14)30 (12)
Bantam25 (10)30 (12)25 (10)
Nest box dimensions per chicken breed & size

For more coop building instructions and specific dimensions, check out my Housing and Coops post

The number of nests and nest dimensions are good to incorporate into your coop, but I find that chickens have their own ideas about “Nest Business”. We have two nests that can accommodate two chickens each, but we have noticed that all of the hens want to lay their eggs in the same nest (they switch between the two every so often). That means that we find either two nesting at the same time in the same nest, or one (like Koekoek will peck at the others who want to join) hogs the whole nest and the other hens literally queue outside the coop waiting for the occupied nest to become available (I kid you not!). The queuing hens make and awful lot of noise about the hold-up and refuse to go to the other nest that is not occupied… so don’t be surprised if only one of your nest boxes are used at a time J Most of the time only one hen is laying and queuing happens rarely.

Nesting Shenanigans

Chickens can get up to all kinds of Nest Business shenanigans. This is when they decide where they would like to lay their eggs regardless of the fact that a nice comfy one is available in the coop. I see that most people refer to these kinds of nests as “Secret, Hidden or Garden nests”, but we call the Bush or Veld Nests. Every so often you will notice that one or more of your hens are not laying as there is a sudden decline in the total amount of eggs each day. Another indication of chicken misbehaviour is that that one or two rush out of the coop early in the morning (not interested in their breakfast even if it is their favourite thing: tomatoes) and will make a bee-line for the veld nest. I have a few pictures and examples of secret or veld nests so that you can identify them (in the absence of following the chicken in question) or to prevent any future veld nests. Veld nests can be under a low growing bush that makes a hollow or even under some side-swept grass.

Hidden secret or veld nest examples chicken
Some likely Veld nest candidates with hollows. Flatten or remove these to prevent veld nesting
Hidden secret or veld nest with eggs chicken
Veld nest discovered!!! Reclaim the eggs and promptly destroy the nest!

The best way to stop secret or veld nesting behaviour is to ‘ground the chickens in the coop’. I would suggest doing this on a cloudy day or if you don’t have one of those around the time veld nesting is going on; then keep the chickens cooped up for a few hours every morning (for about a week) and let them out before it gets too hot. This should reinstate the idea of egg laying in the nest box since the naughty chicken will see the others nesting there or she just can’t hold back the egg long enough until she can get to the veld nest again – you can call it nest discipline

Nesting Chicken
Good nest discipline

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