Hi, we purchased a few hens at 16 weeks of age. We did keep them in a penned in area. Now the hens are laying. Our questions is, if we had let them free range before they started to lay, would they know when the time came to lay their eggs in the nest or would the free range confuse them. Thank you” ~ Paul and Lydia
Hi Paul and Lydia,
I’m glad you wrote.
Hens will instinctively look for a dark, private place to lay their eggs.
They naturally seek these conditions because once they’ve started to lay, they are unable to stop to flee from a predator or some other danger. So to ensure their safety, they lay in a place in which they feel they will be well hidden.
A hen will lay an egg anywhere she feels safe.
For a long time we kept our chickens in a run due to coyotes in the area. At some point we decided to let them out to roam the property.
The longer they were out, the fewer eggs we found in their nesting boxes.
Each day we’d all have to go out searching for eggs. We found them in the dog house, under the children’s slide, way down at the bottom where the slide and the ground meet, inside a cabinet in the woodshop where a cabinet door had been left open… our chickens were creative.
Eventually, we found fewer and fewer eggs and only two or three were being laid in the nest boxes.
It was frustrating, all this work and so few eggs!
One day I was headed out to feed the other animals and noticed a stray feather by the window of a truck that needed repair. The window would not stay all the way up and the truck had sat there for a few weeks until my husband had time to get around to fixing it.
Upon further investigation, the floor mats of the truck were absolutely covered with eggs!
Needless to say, we had to throw away all those eggs because we had no idea how long they had been there.
So I started watching the truck.
The hens would hop up into the bed of the truck, then onto the roof and finally, through the opening of about 4 inches where the window wouldn’t stay up. Then onto the seat and down to the floor to lay in peace and safety.
One crafty hen had figured it out and showed the others how to do it.
Here’s my point, even though our hens had spent a significant portion of their lives laying only in their nest boxes, once they had options, they laid wherever they wanted.
With that said, we have to train our hens where to lay if they decide to use something other than their nest boxes.
The best way to convince a hen where to lay an egg is to shut her up in the coop for a few days so that she gets used to using her nest box.
This is also the way to show a new flock where “home” is so that they lay in the coop and return to the roost each night.
Keep nest boxes clean and comfy so the hens want to go there.
Some people like to put wooden eggs in the box to help the hens understand what it’s for.
Another idea is to keep the flock inside in the morning until 10:00am or so in the hopes that everyone has finished laying before you let them out.
If your flock is foraging in an open pasture, where there is no place to hide, they’ll be more likely to return to the coop to lay.
If your flock has a lot of places to hide and lay their eggs, you’ll have to be more creative than your hens.
An old timer I know suggested using a garden hose with a spray attachment to give the hens a little squirt of water when they head into an area you don’t want them laying.