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I have been keeping and breeding chickens for more than 20 years, and during that time I have kept hundreds of chickens from dozens of different breeds.
Some of the breeds I have kept were excellent egg layers, like my Plymouth Rocks that laid 250 to 300 eggs each per year, others were not so good, like my Japanese Bantams that rarely ever laid eggs.
No matter which breeds I kept, they all shared the desire to lay eggs in a nestbox that was warm, dry, and away from other hens.
In this article, I will discuss everything you could possibly want to know about chicken nest boxes including how many you need for your flock, what size they should be, and what the best bedding material is (although I have a separate article looking at all the best beddings in more detail).
Are nesting boxes necessary for chickens?
Chickens have to lay eggs, it is what they were born to do! The eggs take around 25 to 30 hours from the moment they are released from the chicken’s ovaries to the time they are laid. The egg is coming out whether or not the chicken has access to a suitable nest box.
However, when chickens are ready to lay their eggs, they like to be secretive. They want to lay their eggs away from all the other hens in their flock.
If chickens do not have access to a suitable nestbox, they can become distressed.
Nest boxes also make life easier for us chicken keepers. By providing our hens with an easy-to-access place to lay their eggs, we can collect the eggs once or twice a day without having to go on a hunt around the entire enclosure looking for where the chickens might have laid their eggs.
In its most basic form, a nestbox needs to be a place that is ideally dark, but certainly dry and comfortable, and preferably allows the hen to be out of sight of other members of her flock.
The vast majority of ready-made chicken coops that we can order online or purchase from our local pet store will already have nestboxes included, and the chances are the number of nestboxes reflects the number of birds the coop is designed for.
Most small coops have 2 or 3 nest boxes, whereas larger ones can have up to 10 nest boxes. It will all depend on the number of hens that are likely to be using the coop.
There are however occasions when we find ourselves either building our own coops (something I am a strong fan of) or we are perhaps keeping our hens in a barn or outhouse and we want to provide sufficient nest boxes for all our hens.
How many Nestboxes does a flock of chickens need?
The good news here is every hen does not need its own nest box. Chickens want to lay their eggs at varying times during the day, and it is extremely unlikely you would end up in a situation where all of your birds wanted to lay at the same time.
In one of my flocks, I keep 12 birds, and I have only ever seen 2 of the nestboxes in use at any one time.
As a general rule, you want to have 1 nest box for every 3 chickens, plus 1 additional nest box.
The table below gives a very rough guide to the number of nestboxes a flock would need, however it should be pointed out the math gets less important the more birds you have in the flock.
|Number of Chickens||Number of Nestboxes|
These numbers are based on my own experience, but they correspond fairly well with all the flocks I currently have, and I never seem to have any issues.
What happens if there are too few nest boxes?
Each hen will take somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes on average from the time they enter the nestbox to the time they leave.
Whilst it is rare that every hen will want to lay at the same time, if all your nest boxes are full and another hen wants to lay, there is a good chance the hen looking to lay will squeeze into an already occupied nest box.
Having two birds in a single nest box can lead to eggs getting broken, and a broken egg can lead to the unwanted issue of hens eating their own eggs. Once chickens get a taste for their own eggs, they will become a menace in the flock, breaking and eating eggs whenever they come across them.
The other problem that can arise if you have an insufficient number of nest boxes is a bird who is lower down the pecking order, but sitting in a nestbox, can get kicked out by a bird who sits higher up the pecking order.
This can lead to some birds retaining their eggs rather than laying them, meaning they become egg-bound and require a trip to the veterinary surgeon.
How Large should a chicken nestbox be?
The actual size of the nest box will largely depend on the size of the breed you are keeping. With that said, whenever I build my own coops or nestboxes, I always err on the side of larger rather than smaller, as I may end up using that coop or nestbox for another breed further down the line.
Nestboxes do not want to be too large as the hens want to feel safe and enclosed when they sit down to lay. Equally, they should not be too small otherwise she might end up breaking her eggs when she is trying to move around and get comfortable.
As a general rule, I follow these sizes when building nest boxes.
|Breed Size||Nestbox Dimensions|
|Small (bantams)||10″ x 10″ x 10″ (25cm x 25cm x 25cm)|
|Medium||12″ x 12″ x 12″ (30cm x 30cm x 30cm)|
|Large||14″ x 14″ x 14″ (35cm x 35cm x 35cm)|
Whilst these dimensions give the impression the nestbox must be a cube shape, in reality, most nestboxes taper off to a slight slope on the top edge to help shed the rainwater when it falls, otherwise, the rain can run into the nestbox, making the chickens and the bedding material wet.
If you are building your own nestbox, remember to place a 2″ to 3″ (5cm to 7.5cm) lip on the front edge to prevent the eggs from rolling out when the chicken gets up to leave the nestbox.
What material should a nestbox be made from?
Almost everyone who builds their own nestboxes is going to make it from pieces of wood. Scraps of wood are what I generally use.
The most important thing to remember is the wood should ideally be sealed to prevent moisture from any chicken poop that ends up in the nest box or from any eggs that break, soaking into the wood.
I usually make my nestboxes from either pressure-treated rough-sawn timber or from small pieces of external grade plywood. Both are easy to work with and can be sealed with a suitable wood preservative.
Never use chipboard to build nest boxes. Firstly it will ‘blow’ as soon as it gets wet, meaning it will not last very long, and secondly the chickens will literally sit in the nest box, picking it to pieces.
Nestboxes do not have to be made of wood. Plastic totes or storage boxes can be repurposed, as can rigid pet carriers. I have seen other homesteaders use milk crates as nestboxes and I used to know a chap who made an old bookcase into a row of nest boxes.
At the end of the day, providing the nestbox provides a space where the chickens can feel safe, dry, and comfortable, they will use it as a nestbox.
How High off the ground Should a Nestbox Be?
The exact placement of a nestbox is something else that creates a lot of debate. If your nestbox is part of a normal coop, the exact placement will depend on the design of your coop.
If however, you are placing nestboxes in a large walk-in coop or old storage shed, the placement of the nestbox may need some consideration.
You essentially want the nestbox to be high enough off the ground that the hens don’t feel like they are sitting on the floor (they want to nest up in the air), but you don’t want it to be so high up they can’t get to it.
In my experience, somewhere between 12″ and 18″ (30cm to 45cm) off the ground level is the right height to place a nestbox. At that height, most chickens can do a kind of jump-flap motion to get up to the box.
If your hens are struggling to get up to their nestboxes, consider placing a small perch or ledge halfway up so the chickens can jump onto the perch first, then into the nest box.
One important point to note is, that whatever height you place your nesting boxes at, place the roosting bars higher, otherwise, in their desire to roost at the highest point in the coop, the chickens will end up sleeping in the nestbox.
As chickens poop continuously throughout the night, if they are sleeping in the nestboxes, the nestbox bedding material will need to be changed frequently.
Best Nestbox Bedding material
As mentioned above, I have a whole article dedicated to the subject of what is the best bedding material for a chicken’s nest box, so I will just touch on it briefly here.
You can basically use anything as bedding material in a chicken’s nestbox. In the table below I have detailed 6 of my favorite nestbox bedding materials, but there are countless other options.
|Straw||Cheap and composts very well||Can become smelly when it gets wet and needs to be changed frequently|
|Wood Shavings||Easily available and low cost||Must be dust extracted and it is slow to compost|
|Shredded Paper||Usually available for free from a local office building||It is very dusty and must be cross shredded not strips as strips can tangle around the chicken’s legs|
|Chopped Cardboard||Absorbent and fairly quickly to compost||Not as readily available as shredded paper and it can become smelly when wet|
|Auboise||An almost perfect bedding material||Often expensive compared to other options|
|Coco Fiber||Absorbent and also a recycled by-product so good for the environment||Relatively expensive for bedding material, especially if you have multiple nest boxes|
If you need some nestboxes but don’t have the time or skill to build them yourself, you can of course buy ready-made ones.
Off-the-shelf nestboxes are available in wood, metal, or plastic and they can be as basic or elaborate as your budget allows.
There are some on the market like the Homestead Essentials 3 (see the current price on Amzon.com) which allow the eggs to roll forwards once laid making them ready to be collected, and others like the Precision Pet Triple which is basically a simple timber nestbox.
The Little Giant Single Plastic Nesting Box is currently one of my favorite nest boxes. I recently ordered 6 of these from Amazon.com and I have to say I was really impressed with them.
These nest boxes have proved to be easy to clean, and easy to mount where ever I wanted to put them, plus my hens are more than happy to lay in them.
I have another barn to convert next year and I will be installing 10 of these nest boxes.
Nestboxes are an essential part of keeping chickens. Nestboxes make laying easier and more relaxing for the chickens and certainly make life easier for us chicken keepers when it comes to collecting the eggs.
It does not really matter what the nest box is made of, providing the chickens are happy to use it.
To be useable, nestboxes must be dry, free from draughts, and provide the hens with some privacy.
If you found this article interesting, why not check out another I wrote recently titled ‘The Benefits of Feeding Garlic to Chickens’.
- Nest use and patterns of egg laying and damage by 4 strains of laying hens in an aviary system National Library of Medicine