Everything you need to know about nest boxes

One of the most important features in a chicken coop is the nest boxes. Since then hens use the nest boxes almost every day you need to make sure the nest boxes you choose meet a few criteria. They need to be big enough for the hens, but not too big that several try to cram in at once. They need to be comfortable for the hens, afford them some privacy to lay their eggs, yet still be easy to access. 

Nest box with hen in it

Nest boxes also need to be up off the ground, but not too high and definitely not directly under a roost! Plus you need to have enough so hens can spread out.

Wow, that makes nest boxes sound so complicated! They're really not, in fact they're not even totally necessary. Chickens will lay their eggs on the floor in the corner if that is their only option. The problem though is that there's a lot of poop on the floor of a chicken coop, and it will end up on the eggs. 

Plus chickens like to scratch around in their bedding for pieces of feed they might have missed, and any eggs on the floor could get broken. You definitely want to invest in some nest boxes.

Chicken nest boxes

Whether you make or buy your nest boxes (and I've done both) they need to fill a few criteria for the whole flock to use them effectively. So how do you decide which nest boxes to get, how many you need and where to put them? Well...let's figure it all out starting with how many you need.

Plastic nest box on wall of chicken coop

How many nest boxes do you need? 

The 'general rule of thumb' is one nest box for every 4 laying hens. With an answer like that you'd think that would be the end of it. It's just a simple math equation right? I've got 12 hens, get 3 nest boxes. 15 hens? Get 5 nest boxes to be on the safe side.

Except....hens don't exactly play by the rules when it comes to nest boxes. Sometimes they all want to lay their egg in the same nest box. Other times they don't want to use any nest boxes. *sigh*

So it's often difficult to figure out how many nest boxes to put in a chicken coop because you don't want to waste time and money on nest boxes that won't be used, or have the hens overcrowded in the nest boxes if several want to lay at once.

Overcrowding is bad because when 2 or more hens try to cram into a nest box, they don't exactly fit. This can cause the eggs to get broken or create hairline cracks can lead to egg eating. Cracked eggs ooze and once the hens realize there's food in those eggs, it could be hard to get them to stop eating them.

How big should nest boxes be?

For a standard sized hen, a nest box should be around 12" X 12" or slightly larger. This is sitting space obviously. Some nest boxes have open tops and other are enclosed. I tend to like them taller than most but I don't think my chickens care at all. 

Does the nest box need a perch?

When a hen enters the nest box she needs to fly up from the coop floor. It's easier for her to enter and exit the nest box if she can step onto a perch first. It can be difficult for her to land perfectly on the lip of a nest box as chickens aren't the most adept at flying. 

It can be as simple as a thick wooden dowel mounted a few inches out from the front of the nest box. Some premade nest boxes come with perches in front of them.

Why you need a sloped roof on nest boxes:

You want to choose or build nest boxes with a sloped roof. This prevents sleeping on top of the nest boxes. Our first bank of nest boxes had a flat roof and the chickens slept of top of it all the time. Drove me batty! lol 

It didn't help that it was made of wood which is harder to keep clean than metal or plastic. Definitely go for metal or plastic nest boxes if you can. They are much easier to clean! 

You could also choose nest boxes without a solid top. These types of nest boxes don't always need a perch in front of them as it's easier for the hens to land on and jump down from them when there's no roof.

Where to mount nest boxes:

Some hens like more privacy than others. I personally have found that the nest boxes that have more privacy get more use. Try to situate the nest boxes in a quieter area, or out of direct line of the door if possible.

For instance I have 4 nest boxes in one of my coops. Two of them are mounted right across from the main door, the other two are on the same wall as the door but back towards the corner. Obviously those second two are more private. I find eggs in those 2 daily and only rarely in the ones across from the door. 

Both sets of nest boxes are mounted exactly the same, equal heights and all. The girls just prefer those 2 to lay in, though if I ever catch a chicken sleeping in the nest boxes, it's the ones facing the door.

Hang nest boxes lower than roost

Make sure the lowest roost is higher up then the highest nest box, or lower the nest boxes. Chickens love to sleep up high and unfortunately if the nest box is higher then the roosts they'll choose to sleep there. 

Always make sure the roosts are higher than the nest boxes and that there is enough room for all the chickens to roost at once. This helps to keep the nest boxes clean inside, since chickens tend to poop in their sleep.

Nest box bedding: 

When the nest box is full of straw or shavings the eggs have a lower chance of breaking on the bottom or sides of the nest box. It's also more comfortable for the hen. Make sure each nest has a few inches of clean bedding.

I take a peek into the nest box each time I collect eggs and make sure there is plenty of soft bedding inside. Hens tend to kick some out as they get comfortable, so you'll lose some daily. Lots of soft bedding keeps the eggs from rolling around on the hard bottom of the nest box and possibly cracking into each other. 

I keep a bucket of fresh bedding in the coop to add more as needed. I prefer wood shavings or straw for nest box filler. These two are the most absorbent choices, and straw can be matted down so it's harder to kick out.

Collect eggs often: 

Collecting eggs at least once a day and sometimes more often (depending on season) keeps the nest box less cluttered. When a hen sits down to lay an egg she shifts around the other eggs to get comfortable. Most hens are gentle, but some bang the eggs together enough to cause hairline cracks.

Cracked and seeping eggs make a mess contributing to the dirty eggs problem and can even cause egg eating to start!

To recap, nest boxes should be:

  • 12" X 12" minimum size.
  • At least 1 for every 4 hens.
  • Hang the nest boxes lower than roosts.
  • Place them in a location with privacy.
  • Sloped roof and a perch on nest box.
  • Keep filled with soft bedding.
  • Collect eggs daily.

If you get new nest boxes it can sometimes take a few days for hens to start using them, but once they do it's usually a monkey-see monkey-do situation. Once the first hen gets the nerve to try them out, they all will! 

Want to know more about choosing or building your first chicken coop? Check out Chicken coops and bedding how to's.


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