What the Urban Chicken Keeper Needs to Know About Gathering Eggs

There’s absolutely nothing like gathering eggs fresh from your backyard flock. Not only is the whole process absolutely wonderfully more convenient than running to the store, but the eggs themselves are healthier overall. Most people also say that fresh eggs from happy backyard hens taste much better than weeks old battery caged hens, and we certainly agree. Besides, there’s nothing like eating what you grow yourself.

If you’re totally new and have yet to get your first eggs, or are getting eggs but having problems, read on. There are some basics the urban chicken keeper needs to know to make gathering eggs effortless and sanitary

How do I encourage my hens to lay in the coop?

A lot of new owners anticipate the signs of a pullet growing into a hen and laying her eggs. These signs include hearing an “egg song” (examples easily found on youtube), finding depressions in the coop litter or nests made in the coop’s provided nest boxes. Little combs and faces begin to redden. And then they day comes when you find your first pullet egg in the coop somewhere. But then after that first one or two eggs, the hens for some reason they seem to stop laying. Maybe suddenly your flock that’s been laying in the coop nicely suddenly stops. What’s going on?

Hens need a spot that they feel absolutely safe in to lay. If they don’t find it in the coop, they will find a nest spot in your garden or on the floor of the coop (where the poop is, yuck!). Hens are particular and have needs for nest spots. This spot must feel private while still giving them a view out to watch for any incoming predator (it’s instinct, don’t take it personally!). The spot should be large and deep enough with clean material that the nest they lay in is a nice deep depression in clean and soft grass or hay, which seems to be the preferred material of hens to nest in. Commercial nest boxes aren’t always large enough for bigger hens to lay in comfortably. You may have to get creative with your nest boxes in your coop if your hens are too large for the boxes provided. Here are some things to try to make the nest boxes more ideal for hens to lay in:

  • Try using hay, straw, or dried grass as bedding in the nest boxes instead of shavings.

  • Add a curtain to each box front to add privacy to the box.

  • Make sure boxes are in a shady spot in the coop and away from the door where the hens can be guaranteed privacy while laying.

  • Buy larger nests and install them near the existing nest spots if you have a coop with nests built in, if you have larger breed hens. There are plenty of fun nest box ideas online. Large breeds like Brahmas, Large Fowl Cochins, Jersey Giants, Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshire Reds sometimes don’t fit into the boxes designed for Leghorns and ISA Browns. Boxes need to be large enough for the hen to be able to enter and turn completely around in with an inch or two to spare on all sides for it to be the right size.

How do I force my free range hens to lay in the coop and not in my garden?

Now that you’ve gone out of your way to create the Cadillac’s of nest boxes for your hens and they’re still preferring to lay in your garden, what now? Hens are creatures of habit and may not have found your ideal nesting sites, so you have to retrain them and basically force them to notice their provided nest boxes in the coop where it’s easy for you to find and collect eggs. Here are some things you can do to encourage them to notice their new boxes:

  • Lock them up for a couple of days. It might seem a little cruel to restrict access to the wonders of the wide open world of the backyard or run for a couple of days, but it may be necessary.

  • Try “dummy” or fake eggs in the nest boxes. Hens can be tricked into thinking a spot is safe to lay in if there are already eggs in that spot. They look at the spot and think “Huh, my sisters think this is a safe spot so it must be!” You can find dummy eggs for this purpose for sale online or in farm supply stores. You can also use plastic Easter eggs filled with sand so they feel about as heavy as real eggs). Golf balls work too.

  • Remember to constantly remove eggs in nests that aren’t appropriate, and kick over the nest site in the garden or on the coop floor, erasing all the hard work the hens have done. This will discourage the hens to lay in those spots.

Why are my eggs dirty?

Another problem with collecting eggs from your hens revolves around the sanitary component. Eggs should be relatively clean when you collect them. Occasionally they may have a streak or two of whatever was on the hens behind here and there but overall eggs should be pretty clean consistently from chickens (ducks are a whole different matter, as they purposefully roll their eggs in mud, dirt, and poop to camouflage them). In fact, eggs that are blemish free as they are can be left unrefrigerated in a basket or counter top for weeks, even a month (some say more) without spoiling. They naturally come with a protective bloom that the hen’s body puts on them to keep them in good condition. Washed eggs have to be refrigerated as washing removes this bloom, and the eggs don’t last long- even in the fridge. If your eggs aren’t clean, there may be simple reasons or not so simple reasons as to why.

Hens that are sick but are still laying will often lay eggs that are soiled. Conditions such as vent gleet, parasitic infections, viral, and bacterial infections all result in a hen that can’t keep her vent area clean, and therefore her eggs are smeared with feces and dirt when they come out. It’s easy to see this on the hen- her vent area will be dirty. Healthy hens have clean and fluffy bottoms. Take your hen to the vet if you think she’s sick and treat her accordingly.

If your hens are healthy but still laying eggs that are unsanitary, remember to change bedding often and keep nest boxes and coops clean.

When do hens lay and how often do I need to collect my eggs?

Most hens lay in the mornings, usually after they’ve woken at first light and filled their crops with their first meal. They’ll then go into their nest spot and lay their eggs. But hens are individuals and their bodies are all different. Sometimes a hen might lay in the afternoon, or even in the evening. Overnight while the hens are roosting and they are disturbed by something in a significant way (usually a predator trying to access their coop) they may lay premature eggs while on the roost. They’re often soft and not fully formed. It’s best to check on your hens at least twice a day for eggs, and gather what you find.

One of my hens is sitting on a nest and growls at me when I come close. What is this?

Congratulations (or not), your hen might be broody! This means she’s decided she’s going to be a mother. Hens don’t always need roosters and fertilized eggs to decide they want to incubate eggs and be mommies. Their instinct tells them that if they see a pile of eggs, it’s time to sit. Some hens even go broody on piles of fake or “dummy” eggs!

Hens that go broody aren’t going to lay for you, and being broody is actually pretty hard on your hen’s body. If you’re not interested in making babies, it’s best to “break the broody” as many chicken keepers say. To do this, you have to reset your hen’s body and stop her hormones from wanting to sit on a nest of eggsHere’s how to do it. 

Will the Birds and the Bees Change my Eggs?

First of all, know that hens do NOT need a rooster to lay eggs normally. Think of it this way- hens in cages that produce grocery store eggs don’t have access to roosters, and they lay plenty of eggs throughout their short lives. Your hens will do fine without the presence of a rooster. But, if you do have a rooster and are worried about eating eggs that might be fertilized, don’t be. Eggs that are fertilized are exactly the same as eggs that are not fertilized. They only start to develop into chicks if the egg is incubated, either by a mother hen or artificially in an incubator. If a fertilized egg is laid and left in a nest, it’s exactly the same as an unfertilized egg- no difference. They won’t look different or taste different. Only if you’re going to incubate eggs will you need to treat the eggs differently.

If you’ve started your backyard flock journey, as most do, with purchasing day-old chicks and raising them to adulthood, the wonder of your first egg is seriously worth celebrating. It’s a mini miracle in itself, and a gift for you and your hen for all the hard work you’ve done. Enjoy your eggs, and we hope this quick guide helps solve any problems you’re having gathering eggs from your urban backyard hens!