Hens are fussy about their nests, just like any other bird. Although there are many reasons why hens stop laying, dissatisfaction with their environment is often the culprit. Many birds have strict prerequisites about nesting sites. No one thinks it unreasonable for Purple Martins to prefer a white-colored, “condo-style” house with several compartments for relatives. The Robin likes to build itself a “mud hut,” whereas Tree Swallows don’t build their own nests, instead preferring to occupy a woodpecker’s abandoned site. When selecting a man-made house, they prefer one with an eastern, western, or southern aspect, and they abhor neighbors. Bluebirds are nit-pickers when it comes to their nesting materials: only soft grasses and fragrant pine needles will do. They prefer their house to be about 4 feet off the ground, whereas the American Kestral likes an elevated aspect from 20 feet. Swallows don’t like houses at all – a nesting shelf is what keeps them happy. Bluebirds prefer a house in a sunny spot, whilst Robins prefer shade, and Wood Duck likes a house which faces water. So why should chickens be any less particular?
The Red Jungle Fowl forebearer of the domestic chicken
Photo courtesy H.S. Wong
All domestic chickens are descended from their wild ancestor, the Red Jungle Fowl. Breeding season for the Red Jungle Fowl usually occurs in the late winter or spring. The Red Jungle Fowl will typically lay about a dozen eggs, and will incubate them for 18 – 20 days. Although domestic laying hens have been bred to produce an egg almost daily, it does not detract from their broodiness. To the contrary, if a hen is allowed to lay a full clutch of about a dozen eggs, without having the eggs removed, she will usually decide to incubate them. If a healthy, happy domestic hen is left to her own devices, she will typically lay three or four clutches of eggs a year and hatch all of the eggs.
Chicken owners should consider their birds’ natural wild instincts when it comes to egg laying. A hen, like any other bird, will not be looking for a place to lay your breakfast – she will be looking for a suitable place to hatch her eggs. She will leave each egg once laid, because she will want to lay about a dozen before starting to incubate them. This way all the chicks hatch on the same day. It is therefore necessary to provide hens with suitable nests for hatching, even if you remove the eggs before they accumulate. If the hen doesn’t think she has a safe, comfortable, private place to hatch her chicks, she simply won’t lay, or her laying may be sporadic and in different places. If left in the wild, a hen will choose a private, confined place on the ground to lay, such as beneath a big pile of brush. Remember also that when a hen is laying, she is 100% vulnerable, even more so than at night when she can’t see. A laying bird is the equivalent of a woman giving birth. If a predator (which includes humans) tries to catch her while laying, she is helpless to flee. For this reason a hen will prefer to be completely obscured while laying.
Do not underestimate the intelligence of chickens. Many people mistakenly believe chickens are stupid because they don’t fly or because they are cute and comical to watch. Penguins share these traits, and are accepted as an extremely intelligent animal with complex and intricate social behavior. It is true that through inbreeding, the IQ of many chickens has diminished. Chickens that are allowed to inbreed can be observed as becoming more dependent on humans for their survival, less skilled at foraging for food, and less adept at flying into trees to roost. Unless raised as pets, chickens should be energetic and feisty. Bred properly, chickens are highly intelligent survivors.
Chickens are also cunning. My hens are well aware that I expect them to lay eggs for my use, and indeed, that I will go searching for their eggs in likely hiding places if they don’t lay in the boxes I provide. Some of my hens have been known to lay an egg in the laying-box every other day, as usual, only for me to discover that the same hen has been gathering eggs under a brush pile in the forest! These hens have devised a carefully thought-out plan: they are broody, and they don’t want me to come searching for their hidden eggs, so they humor me by laying, alternately, an egg for me and an egg for their clutch.
Chickens also carry out complex social interactions. They develop meaningful friendships and partnerships. Many people think you put one rooster with five or six hens and there you have it. A closer study will reveal that the hens establish a clear pecking order with one hen establishing herself as alpha hen, and the rooster’s “first wife,” so to speak. If possible, she will roost beside him at night and will get first pickings of any tasty tidbit he finds while foraging. Chickens have a sense of humor, they like to have fun, they fall in love, and they pine for lost ones.
I have a hen who gets a kick out of taunting the dog. Everyday, Goldie hides in the collards beside the fenced-in dog run, waiting for the dog to come out. When the dog comes to the fence to watch the chickens, Goldie leaps out of the bushes, and zooms to and fro along the fence while the dog chases her on the other side, barking with frustration. Her behavior is no different from that of a Dachshund which teases a Rottweiler through a fence because he knows it can’t catch him! I have a three-month-old rooster whose life revolves around playing pranks on his younger brother and sister. He’ll follow them around all day just so that when they take a nap, he can creep up and peck them before running off.
There are some truly monogamous partnerships between my chickens wherein a rooster abstains from mating any hen besides his chosen mate, and will fight voraciously to protect her from other roosters. I’ve seen an alpha hen get broody and raise chicks, only to discover when the chicks are grown that another hen has taken her position beside the rooster. I’ve watched her suffer and pine as she fights in vain to regain his love and attention, only to finally resign herself to the position of subordinate. I’ve seen my alpha rooster embrace certain new hens as part of his flock, and drive others away. I’ve seen him fall in love with a beautiful frizzle hen, give her priority over all other hens, shelter and protect her, and when she died in a tragic accident, I watched him drive all the other chickens out of the coop that night so he could be alone to mourn.
Chickens are just as interesting and worthy of respect as any other breed of bird. And when providing them with housing and nesting sites, careful attention needs to be paid to their preferences. Just because they will accept poor quality when nothing else is offered, doesn’t mean they like it. Hens ideally like a nest box that is made of natural wood, is just big enough for them to fit inside and turn around, and has wood shavings or similar bedding inside. When facing the box, make sure it has an entrance to the side (i.e. off-center) so they cannot be seen while laying. A hinged roof makes it easy to check for eggs in the evening. Co-operate with your hens and they will try to please you. And don’t forget, they are mothers too, so consider buying your eggs in the spring.