Chicken nest boxes help ensure optimal laying behavior and egg quality for your flock by providing hens with a safe and comfortable environment in which to lay their eggs. You may be wondering what makes a good nest box and why they are a necessity.
In this article, we’ll explore the different types of nest boxes, from individual to communal setups, and review sizes, materials, and practical tips that ensure a stress-free egg-laying process. Understanding the nuances of nest box selection, setup, and maintenance will help to contribute to the overall productivity and well-being of your hens.
Table of Contents
How Proper Nest Boxes Help Your Hens
Properly designed and strategically placed nest boxes are necessary to maintain a healthy and productive poultry environment. Nest boxes serve as dedicated spaces where hens can comfortably and safely lay their eggs.
By providing appropriate nesting areas, the overall well-being of your hens and the quality of their eggs can be improved. Nest box design and functionality have a direct impact on the laying behavior of hens, affecting their stress levels, productivity, and comfort.
Enhancing Egg-Laying Behaviour and Egg Quality
Hens are more likely to exhibit their natural egg-laying instincts when nest boxes are well-made and correctly positioned. The idea is to mimic the sheltered, secluded places where wild hens would naturally seek to nest – beneath dense bushes, in old tree stumps, and so on.
This results in the hens feeling secure and encourages them to lay. Having them lay where you want them to makes the eggs easy to find and collect. So, both the chicken and the chicken keeper reap the benefits.
Eggs that are laid in well-designed nest boxes are less likely to be damaged, soiled, or exposed to external stressors such as sun or rain. This results in better egg quality, as the eggs will typically have cleaner shells and will receive less damage.
Types of Chicken Nest Boxes
There are two main categories of nest boxes: individual and communal. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages and is designed for different flock types, sizes, management preferences, and space constraints.
Individual Nest Boxes
These are designed to accommodate only one chicken at a time and provide each hen with a private and secluded place to lay her eggs.
These boxes are typically partitioned units within the coop, resembling cozy nooks that mimic the natural nesting areas that hens would naturally seek out in the wild. They are usually enclosed on three sides, with an open front for easy access for the hens to enter and for you to collect the eggs once they have been laid.
Individual nest boxes offer several advantages: They help prevent egg breakage and other types of damage by giving each hen her own space when multiple hens are laying at the same time. They also reduce competition and stress among hens, promoting a calm environment. They simplify the egg collection process as you won’t need to go searching for the eggs.
On the downside, individual nest boxes take up more space than community ones. This can be a limiting factor, especially in smaller coops or for backyard setups.
If all the boxes are not properly designed and well located, some hens may become territorial over their favorite boxes, leading to conflicts or less dominant hens laying their eggs outside of the boxes.
Community Nesting Boxes
Community nesting boxes, also known as shared or communal nesting areas, provide a common space for multiple hens to lay their eggs. These setups consist of larger nesting areas with multiple laying spots. The design often includes dividers or partitions to create separate spaces within the communal box.
I myself have used both individual nest boxes and communal ones and have often found that the hens prefer using communal boxes.
Community nesting is space-efficient, allowing several hens to lay eggs within a single confined area. They can be particularly useful for smaller coops where individual nest boxes may not be feasible due to space limitations. They also encourage social behavior among hens as they share the egg-laying space.
One of the challenges with communal nesting is the potential for increased egg breakage and soiling due to multiple hens entering and exiting. I have never found this to be a problem myself, but where larger chicken breeds are using the boxes, it could potentially create an issue.
Dominant hens might also try to monopolize certain nest areas, causing stress to submissive flock members. Maintaining a high level of cleanliness could also be more challenging.
When choosing between individual and communal nest boxes, first consider the size of your hens, the number in your flock, available space, and management requirements to determine the most appropriate option.
Choosing the Right Size
The size of your nest boxes is a critical factor for ensuring your hens’ comfort and the boxes’ functionality. Get it wrong and it could affect production. The dimensions are, therefore, critical.
Factors Influencing Nest Box Size
The size of the nest boxes you choose should be influenced by several key factors:
Breed Size – As chicken breeds can vary quite considerably in size, they have different requirements. Larger breeds will need more space to accommodate them comfortably.
Flock Size – The number of hens in your flock also impacts the number and size of your nest boxes. As a general guide, it is best to provide one nest box for every 4 to 5 hens. Overcrowding may lead to stress and possible egg breakage.
Egg Size – The size of the eggs your hens lay is another consideration you may not have thought of. Larger eggs are not only bigger in size but also heavier. To prevent cracking, they require slightly larger nest boxes.
Available Space – The dimensions of your coop or hen house will dictate the maximum size of the nest boxes you can install.
How Big Should a Nest Box Be?
As a general guideline, an individual nest box is usually recommended to be 12 inches (wide) x 12 inches (deep) x 12 inches (high). This provides enough space for a moderately sized individual hen to lay comfortably without feeling cramped. In addition, a front lip of around 1 to 2 inches will prevent eggs from being kicked out of the nest.
- Small breeds, like the Serama, will be happy in smaller nest boxes of 10 inches (wide) x 10 inches (deep) x 10 inches (high).
- Medium breeds, such as the Rhode Island Red, will be fine in standard-size nest boxes of 12 inches (wide) x 12 inches (deep) x 12 inches (high).
- Larger breeds, such as Orpingtons, will require nest boxes closer to 14 inches (wide) x 14 inches (deep) x 14 inches (high).
For communal nest boxes, the dimensions can vary dramatically, depending on the number of hens sharing the space. For example, a communal box could be 24 inches (wide) x 36 inches (deep) x 18 inches (high). These boxes are better if they are divided into sections to create separate laying areas.
These dimensions are just a starting point and should be adjusted based on observations of your own hens’ behavior. Providing enough space for the hens to turn around and sit comfortably while accommodating the size of their eggs will contribute to a successful laying experience.
Materials for Nest Boxes
The choice of materials you use for your chicken nest boxes plays a significant role in their durability, maintenance, and, even more importantly, the well-being of your hens. Different materials offer various benefits and drawbacks you must consider when designing or purchasing nest boxes for your flock.
This is a traditional and widely used material for nest box construction. It provides a natural and cozy feel that hens are attracted to when laying eggs. Some advantages of wooden nest boxes include:
Insulation – Wood provides insulation against temperature fluctuations, creating a comfortable environment for hens in both hot and cold weather.
Aesthetics – Wood blends well with rustic coop designs and provides pleasing visual appeal.
Customization – Wood can be easily cut, shaped, and modified to fit your specific dimensions and designs.
However, wood does also have its drawbacks:
Maintenance – Wooden nest boxes require regular maintenance to prevent moisture buildup, rot, and pest infestation.
Durability – Over time, wood deteriorates, especially when exposed to moisture and constant use.
Cleaning Challenges – Wood absorbs dirt, moisture, and odors, making thorough cleaning difficult. To overcome this, I line mine with cardboard and change it out when it gets dirty. This also provides additional insulation and softness, helping to prevent egg breakage.
Plastic nest boxes have gained popularity due to their ease of maintenance and durability.
Advantages – Plastic is easy to clean, resistant to moisture, and less likely to harbor parasites. It is also lightweight, which means the nest boxes can be moved or rearranged without much effort.
Drawbacks – Plastic may not provide the same level of insulation as wood, leading to temperature-related discomfort for your hens. Some hens may also be less inclined to use plastic boxes due to the different texture and sound it makes when they move around.
Metal nest boxes offer some unique advantages that may be appropriate for certain environments:
Durability – Metal is sturdy and withstands prolonged use without deterioration.
Easy to clean – Metal surfaces are easy to clean and disinfect, preventing the buildup of germs and odors.
Predator Resistance – The strength of metal provides added protection against predators that attempt to damage or access the nest boxes.
However, there are also considerations for metal nest boxes:
Temperature regulation – One of the biggest challenges with metal is that it can get very hot or cold, depending on the weather. This could, in turn, affect your hens’ egg-laying behavior, making them less likely to use the boxes.
Noise – Metal surfaces generate noise as hens move around within them. Some hens may find this stressful, making them less inclined to use the boxes.
Comfort – The hard and cold nature of metal is sometimes less appealing to hens than warmer, softer materials.
When choosing your ideal material, consider the climate, ease of maintenance, and the preferences of your hens. You could use a combination of materials, such as wood, with a plastic liner for easy-to-clean surfaces.
Placement and Location
Choosing the right location inside the coop for your nest boxes will significantly impact how much they are used:
Quiet and low-traffic areas – reduce disturbance as far as possible to create a sense of security for your hens.
Away from roosting areas – hens prefer to lay eggs in a separate place from where they sleep, so keep the two zones separate.
Ideal height – When creating the nesting area, consider what height the boxes should be at. Chicken breeds that are lightweight with good flying ability may be happier with nest boxes that are higher than larger, heavier breeds that cannot fly.
The boxes should be convenient for the hens to access but not so low that they will become quickly soiled or are easily accessible to predators. A height of 18 to 24 inches above the floor is generally appropriate for most breeds.
Accessibility – While it is important that the nest boxes are easy to access for the hens, you should also they are easy to access when you collect the eggs.
Providing Privacy and Security
As we have already ascertained, hens are more likely to use nest boxes where they feel safe, secure, and hidden. You can do this by placing them away from doors and windows that let in too much light. Remembering that hens prefer dimly lit, darker areas to lay eggs. After all, chickens were once forest-dwelling birds.
There are a variety of bedding materials that you can choose from to go inside the nest boxes. This contributes to comfort and helps prevent egg breakage:
- Straw or Hay – A common choice, straw, and particularly hay, provides a soft, warm, and comfortable surface for hens to lay eggs. The downside is that it can also provide a home for mites.
- Wood shavings – Made from pine or cedar, shavings should have had the dust extracted and bust not be too coarse or sharp. Always ensure that the wood has not been treated with any chemicals, as this could detrimentally affect your hens.
- Shredded paper – This is also a viable option for bedding because it doesn’t harbor parasites. Be careful about the type of paper you use, especially if it is recycled, as some inks and other chemicals used in papermaking can be harmful to chickens.
- Nest box pads or liners – These are specially made to use as bedding in your nest boxes and can be purchased online. They don’t encourage mites and lice, are hygienic, dust-free, comfortable, and help stop egg breakage. Their main downside is the cost.
Creating a Comfortable Environment
A comfortable environment has a positive effect on egg-laying behavior. Clean out your nest boxes regularly to prevent the accumulation of dirt, droppings, and pests.
Make sure there is adequate ventilation, as this inhibits the build-up of excessive humidity, which can lead to mold and could lead to health problems for you and your hens. Good ventilation allows air to circulate freely around the coop and nest boxes and permits hot air to escape at the roof level.
Temperature extremes can discourage hens from using nest boxes if the environment is too warm or too cold. Generally, chickens are more resilient to cold temperatures than to heat and the optimal temperature range for a hen house is between 50°F (10°C) and 85°F (29°C).
Winter (Cold Temperatures)
Aim to keep the coop temperature above freezing to prevent frostbite of your hens’ combs and toes. A range of 40°F to 50°F (4°C to 10°C) is generally acceptable.
Some coop heating methods include purpose-made, safe heat lamps or heated pads. Be cautious and take precautions to avoid fire hazards and overheating. Good insulation will help retain warmth and lessen the need to provide artificial heat.
Spring and Fall (Moderate Temperatures)
As the weather gets milder, maintaining a temperature range of 50°F to 70°F (10°C to 21°C) is more comfortable for the chickens.
Summer (Warm Temperatures)
In hotter months, try to keep the coop below 85°F (29°C).
This can be achieved by providing adequate shade and ventilation and helps prevent heat stress. You can also use methods such as fans and misters. Always provide cool, fresh water to help your chickens stay comfortable and hydrated.
Although chickens are adaptable, extreme temperature variations lead to stress, which in turn causes reduced egg production and can also promote health issues.
Monitoring the temperature within the coop and making adjustments when needed will contribute to the overall well-being of your flock.
Besides temperature, drafts are another thing you need to be mindful of when positioning your nest boxes. Don’t place them opposite a door or window, as any slight breeze or stronger wind blowing in will directly hit the chickens when they are laying their eggs.
Encouraging Hens to Use Nest Boxes
Once you’ve created a cozy, welcoming, comfortable, and convenient environment for your hens to lay their eggs, there are several other effective ways to encourage nest box use in your flock.
When your hens have found somewhere to their liking where they feel secure and comfortable, they are far less likely to lay their egg elsewhere. Here are a couple of things you can try to encourage them to use the nest boxes:
Fake Eggs – Placing fake eggs or golf balls in the nest boxes can trigger the hens’ natural instinct to lay their eggs there.
Mimicry – Hens are more likely to lay eggs where they see a couple of existing eggs. At first, don’t remove eggs so often so that a couple remain in the box. This will encourage more nervous hens to also lay their eggs there as they perceive the nest box to be a safe environment.
Reducing Choice – If your hens are free range, then shut them into the coop for a few days so they have no other choice than to use the nest boxes provided. Once they get used to using the boxes, they are far more likely to continue in the future.
Maintenance and Cleaning
Keeping the nest boxes clean and well-maintained is essential for the health of your flock and for the quality of the eggs they produce. Regular cleaning, parasite prevention, and proper maintenance will extend the life of your nest boxes and ensure a comfortable environment for your hens for years to come.
Establish a consistent cleaning routine and stick with it. Each day, remove any soiled bedding, feathers, or debris from the nest boxes. Perform a more thorough cleaning once a week by completely emptying and cleaning the boxes and using a suitable anti-bacterial cleaner to remove any dirt or odors. Replace old bedding with fresh materials to keep things clean and prevent the buildup of moisture, odor, and bacteria.
To naturally help stop the spread of parasites, try using raw, food-grade diatomaceous earth by sprinkling a fine layer in the nest boxes. I use a fine mesh strainer to do this. It kills mites and lice by drying them out.
Herbs can also be incorporated into your parasite-repelling arsenal in the form of dried mint, thyme, and lavender Simply crush it up and add it to the bedding materials, making sure it’s well mixed in.
Protect the boxes from direct rain or strong sunlight to prevent wood or plastic deterioration.
Periodically check for signs of wear, damage, or weak spots that may require repair or reinforcement.
Treat wooden nest boxes with a non-toxic sealant or paint them with non-toxic paint to protect against moisture and rot.
Troubleshooting Common Issues
While proper nest box setup and maintenance can prevent many problems, some challenges may still arise. Here’s how to address common problems that could affect egg-laying behavior and overall flock welfare.
Egg Laying in Undesired Locations
Sometimes, hens choose to lay eggs somewhere other than in their nest boxes. There are several ways to address this:
1. Provide enough boxes. Make sure you have enough nest boxes for your flock. A general guideline is one box for every 4 to 5 hens.
2. Provide attractive nest boxes. This doesn’t involve painting flowers on them, although you could; it just means making sure they are comfortable, clean, and well-located to encourage hens to use them.
3. Collect eggs promptly. Regular egg collection reduces the likelihood that hens will discover and lay eggs in unintended areas.
Nest Box Aggression
Dominant hens may try to prevent weaker ones from accessing nest boxes. This could lead to conflict and stress. To manage nest box aggression, try increasing the number of boxes to prevent overcrowding and provide more options for laying.
In communal setups, use dividers to create separate areas for hens to lay eggs. This will reduce the chances of dominant hens monopolizing the area.
Another method is to provide distractions, such as hanging treats or items that keep hens occupied, as this helps reduce aggression.
DIY Nest Box Ideas
If you enjoy hands-on projects and want to add a personal touch to your coop setup, why not explore do-it-yourself (DIY) ideas? Here are some creative DIY options you could try to enhance the functionality and aesthetics of your coop:
1. Repurposed Materials
Repurposing materials not only reduces waste but also adds character and uniqueness to your barn:
Wooden crates – These can make excellent nest boxes and it’s a fun and resourceful option. Mount them securely and provide enough space for the hens to enter comfortably. For privacy, insert dividers between adjacent crates to create separate nesting areas.
Old cabinets – You could try giving a new lease of life to an old cabinet by converting it into a multi-compartment nesting hub. Remove the cabinet doors, install perches or dividers, and add soft bedding to each compartment. The cabinet’s spacious interior should provide plenty of room for hens of different sizes to nest comfortably.
Plastic barrels – Half-cut plastic barrels not only make good waterers for larger animals but also make great nest boxes. Mount them so they’re at a comfortable height for the hens. Provide plenty of bedding inside each barrel to create a comfortable nest. The curved interior shape gives hens a sense of security.
2. Creative and Space-Saving Designs
Efficient use of space, combined with creative design, will optimize the layout and functionality of your barn:
Roll-out/sloping nest boxes – Construct sloped nest boxes with an inclined floor that is 3.5 inches higher at the back and slopes towards where you want to collect the eggs. When a hen lays an egg, it will gently roll down the slope to a separate collection area.
This design keeps eggs clean and easily accessible, reducing the likelihood of damage or contamination. A hinged lid at the collection area makes egg retrieval convenient. I have found that padding the area where the eggs run into with a thin sheet of upholstery foam helps prevent breakage.
Elevated Nest Boxes – Creating externally accessible nest boxes that are attached to the outside of the hen house and include a small entry point inside for hens to access the nests conserves valuable interior space while providing easy access for egg collection.
Stackable nest boxes – Building individual nest boxes that stack vertically like drawers is ideal for coops with limited floor space. Stacking them saves space while providing dedicated nesting areas for your hens. Each box can be easily pulled out for egg collection and cleaning. You may also want to provide a ladder for your hens to use to get in and out of the boxes safely.
3. Tailored Designs to Suit Your Flock
When embarking on a DIY nest box project, think about the needs of your particular flock and any other constraints, such as coop size:
1. Breed considerations – Design nest boxes that accommodate the size and habits of your chicken breeds. Different breeds may prefer different nesting environments.
2. Behavioral characteristics – Observe the egg-laying behavior of your hens. Some hens may require more secluded nesting areas, while others may appreciate more open and airy designs.
3. Ease of maintenance – Prioritize designs that allow for easy cleaning, egg collection, and bedding replacement. A well-maintained nest box improves egg quality and flock health.
Personal touches not only improve your hens’ daily living experience but also add a touch of craftsmanship and individual style to your chicken-keeping.
Nest boxes play a vital role in the well-being of your flock and the quality of eggs your hens produce. By understanding the importance of nest boxes and implementing thoughtful design and maintenance strategies, you can create an environment that promotes comfortable and stress-free egg-laying behavior.
A well-designed nest box offers more than just a place for hens to lay eggs; it creates a sanctuary that mirrors your hens’ natural nesting instincts.
Careful selection of materials, strategic placement of boxes, and the incorporation of privacy measures will ensure your hens’ comfort and encourage productive egg-laying. DIY innovations allow for customization that meets your hens’ needs as well as your creative vision.
Every aspect of nest box management, from size considerations to maintenance routines, affects the overall health and productivity of your flock. By providing an environment that meets your hens’ preferences and natural behaviors, you will ensure a consistent supply of high-quality eggs but also the well-being of your feathered companions.
Questions & Answers
Q1: Do chickens lay eggs without nest boxes?
A: Yes, chickens will still lay eggs somewhere if you don’t have nest boxes. However, they like to hide them as they don’t want to be laying their eggs out in the open. For this reason, especially if your chickens are free-range, you may have a lot of difficulty finding the eggs. Eggs that are laid anywhere also stand a greater chance of getting dirty, broken, or damaged, and it can also be hard to tell how old they are.
Q2: How many nest boxes do I need for my chickens?
A: You should have one nest box for every four to five hens to prevent overcrowding and to ensure all hens have access when they want it.
Q3: Can I use recycled materials to make nest boxes?
A: Yes, as long as the materials are safe, clean, and provide adequate insulation.
Q4: Why are my chickens not using the nest boxes?
A: Chickens might avoid nest boxes due to discomfort, lighting issues, or overcrowding. Review their environment to identify the problem.
Q5: Should I place the nest boxes inside the coop or outside?
A: Nest boxes are typically placed inside the coop as it provides a safer and more private environment for egg-laying. However, they can be placed on the outside, providing they have access to the box from inside the coop. External nest boxes will need additional insulation to prevent them from becoming too hot or cold.
Q6: How often should I clean the nest boxes?
A: Clean nest boxes regularly, ideally once a week or as needed. Remove soiled bedding and eggs daily to maintain hygiene.