I’ve had pretty good luck getting free range chickens to lay where I want them to. It certainly helps to get them laying in certain places before they bond with some random spot in the firewood pile or in a shed behind the shovels which they then refuse to abandon. I made this short video when I was enticing my hens into laying in a coop where I can easily get the eggs. I thought I’d outline some more complete thoughts below.
Laying and nesting/brooding behavior are basically still centered around hatching eggs and raising chicks, even when the hens are not broody. We have got them laying tons of eggs through the year by breeding for that trait, but the natural behavior that is all based on is still centered around reproduction. The great majority of the penned chickens I ever kept were not that inclined to brood chicks. But my completely free range hens are a totally different story. They go broody very frequently, sometimes half of them in a year. Broody behavior complicates this whole situation. If the hens were not ranging and doing as they please all day long, I could set up some boxes in one place and service a number of hens. But when one goes broody, they might take over a popular site and the other hens start having to look elsewhere. Or, they will go seek some secluded spot, start laying there and telling other hens to lay there and I may never find it. Outside, where I can’t lock them up, they are vulnerable to predators and probably 50% of the time they won’t make it through the brooding process because a raccoon or some other predator finds them. I hear them screaming in the night and run out with a flashlight and shotgun in my long johns hellbent on murderin’ me a varmint, but alas, it’s usually too late :(
Sometimes, especially if you do it early in the process, you can move the hen and her eggs to a new place. Do the moving at night when they might just think it was a bad dream. If they are locked in somewhere in the dark for a couple of days in a new nest, they will often stay there, though some are too bonded with the original site and will abandon the eggs.
For those reasons, I like to have multiple sites set up to lure them into, places where I can lock them up, or at least know where they are. So….
How do we get them to lay where we want. There are some behaviors and preferences we can exploit to that end. One is the site. They like something that is a little out of the way. Occasionally they will lay or go broody in odd places where people are walking around and such, but usually they’ll pick something slightly out of the way, but not usually too far. Put it in the zone that they frequent the most. For instance, my chickens spend a lot of time way out by the compost pile down the driveway, but they’ll usually brood closer to the main living area where their coop is located. They also seem to like buildings and concentrations of stuff, like around or in the woodshed or in the stuff around the outside of a building. And, like us, they like the inside of buildings too. I’ve many times found them laying in my bed when I’ve left the door open.
Elevation seems preferred. I have a lot of chicks brood on the ground, but they’ll often express at least a slight preference for elevated laying sites.
Enclosed. They like a little bit of cover, preferably above and below. Boxes are great.
Other hens lay there. They like to lay in the same spots. I have 3 or 4 laying in the spot I just set up, probably all the hens that are currently laying are laying there. You can use a couple of old eggs that are marked for identification, or dummy eggs made for that purpose. This really makes a difference once bonded to the site, they’ll usually keep laying there whether you take all the eggs away or not, but it really helps to get them started in a spot. If I ever get my lathe set up again, I’d like to make wooden dummy eggs painted with milk paint to sell. I usually just use old eggs though and that works well as long as the shells are strong. Some people use golf balls. I don’t have a lot of experience with that.
Stuff they like. I usually put some new straw or leaves in and a round the site to get them scratching around. They like food! a handful of grain tossed in some leaves will get all the chickens around scratching and exploring. After that, when a hen spots that laying site and it has everything going on just right, they’re going to take notice. Even if that doesn’t get them laying in a spot right away, having a few spots set up and in waiting will draw most of them in when they decide to go broody.
That’s about it. It is pretty simple really. Something like a box or brooding hutch set up with a little padding and some dry leaves or straw is often all it takes. If you have hens poking around frantically into every nook and cranny and making a lot of noise, you can up your game a little and try to get them hanging around your chosen site with a little food and fun stuff to scratch around in. They are simple and their needs and desires are simple. They are the most dedicated and fiercest of mothers. They have no fear for themselves, but they like security for their chicks. They like food! They love to scratch! Mine are overstuffed lately with literally piles off all the human food scraps they can eat. In spite of that smorgasbord, they still spend a lot of time scratching around. Chickens scratch, period.
Well, all that works for me. But they are stubborn and recalcitrant creatures, so just make sure they think it’s their idea! You know when you’re a kid and everything that is potentially covered a or enclosed a little is a potential fort or clubhouse? Think like that on a smaller scale. I have a set up a couple more sites this week as it is very spring like and any day now a switch is going to flip in one of those hens and she’s going to go broody and start looking for another spot.
If you like chickens, I did a whole post on just Chicken pictures one year. You can read that here....