Congratulations! You have built your coop and your girls are happily living their chicken lives scratching, eating, and roosting. You are providing them with fresh water and plenty of food every day. You are making sure their coop is clean and safe. And you are waiting. Waiting for those chicks you brought home (who aren't chicks anymore!) to lay some eggs. When will your chickens start laying eggs?
Hens typically start laying eggs around 5 months of age. Some hens have laid as early as 4 months, and one of my hens didn't start until she was 6 months old. The fun thing is that your hens will start giving you hints that an egg is coming.
One signal that your hen is getting ready to lay her first egg is that you may find her making a nest. One of my hens spent a week perfecting a nest in an outdoor planter. I would see her in there every day diligently moving things around and getting it just right. Most recently, I have seen my hens in the nest boxes spinning around and getting comfy. Not long after this practice I found eggs.
Another sign eggs are coming is what I like to call the chicken squat. Typically when I approached my pullets to pet them, they would scurry just out of the way so I couldn't touch them. When they are mature enough to lay eggs, they will squat down when you go to pet them. Actually, they will squat down if you walk by them! It is funny to watch. The squatting is actually a submissive thing they do for roosters. I guess I am their rooster.
Placing a plastic egg, or a golf ball, in the nest box will give the hens the idea of where to put their egg when the time comes. Hens like to lay eggs where other eggs are. You may have three nest boxes, but will find all of the eggs in one. It is kind of funny, actually. The other day I went out to check the nest boxes and I found two chickens in one box. The other box was available. Go figure.
Chickens depend on light to lay eggs. In the winter months, when the days are shorter, you will notice a decline in the hen's egg production. Some people like to put a light on a timer in the hen house to turn on two hours before sunrise and turn off two hours after sunset. I haven't done this, but I know a friend who has. I don't have lots of eggs in the winter. She does.
One problem that can affect egg layers is egg binding. This happens when an egg gets stuck and the poor hen can't get it out during laying. This typically happens with fat hens – or hens that are not allowed much exercise. It can also happen if the egg is just too darn big. Symptoms that your chicken may be binding up are obvious discomfort and moving about with her head or tail down. Please help this poor gal! Egg binding can cause death so prompt attention is necessary.
Some tips for helping with egg binding:
- Warm up your chicken! You can use a heat lamp for this, or just place her in a warm area. Sometimes warmth can get things moving on their own.
- Lube up your finger and gently massage her vent while placing the other hand on her belly and gently massaging the egg towards the vent. (I bet you never thought you would know your chicken so well!)
- See the egg but she still can't get it out? You can carefully break the egg and help her remove it bit by bit, taking great care not to injure her in the process.
Keeping Hens Healthy
Most of the tips in here are intuitive to keeping your chickens in good health, but I wanted to mention them anyway.
- Make sure your hens get plenty of exercise, if only to avoid having to stick a lubed finger up your chicken's butt!
- Make sure their coop is clean and safe. Dirty coops make sick hens. Period.
- Provide plenty of fresh water and food. Happy hens are hungry!! Always.
- Hens also don't like to be wet. Be sure they have a dry place to be warm and happy.
Happy and healthy hens will give you lots of eggs! If they stop laying eggs, be sure to go through the list above and make sure you are meeting all of their needs. A couple months ago I had gone a bit longer than I normally do between coop cleanings and ALL of the hens stopped laying. The day I cleaned the coop, I got three eggs.
Mature hens, once a year, will go into a molt. They will lose all of their old feathers and will grow new ones. Some hens, like the one above, will lose all of her feathers seemingly at once and then grow new ones. I have another hen who loses her feathers so slowly I hardly know she is molting. Molting is a stressful time for chickens. I know that I would be grumpy if I lost all of my hair at once and had to wait for it to grow back in! Their little chicken bodies devote most of their energy into growing new feathers and as a result egg production ceases. Awesome. And if your birds are like mine, they will all do it at the SAME TIME. It is like a women's college dorm room where, by simply living together, they are all on the same menstruation cycle! I guess it is good for the hens, they can sympathize with each other. But it is bad for me, as I don't get to eat their eggs. The good news is that this only happens once a year, but count on being eggless for about 2 months. In the meantime, give them lots of good nourishment to help keep them strong and happy. They will get right back to egg laying when they feel pretty again.
Extreme Weather Care
Most of us don't live in the perfect climate – mild all year round. As I live in the desert and have to deal with extreme heat, you may live where you have to deal with extreme cold. In places, like Phoenix, that experience high temperatures in the summers, there are a few things you can do to help mitigate how miserable they may be.
- Make sure the coop is adequately ventilated! For those hens who are confined to their coop, a big box fan may make all the difference in the world.
- Provide plenty of fresh and cool water for your birds. I usually put a frozen water bottle (like a giant ice cube) into their water. Since chickens cool off through their feet, I like to put a few bowls of water out as I typically find them standing in it.
- I like to set up misters in a shaded area of my yard since I live in an area with low humidity. Then hens always like to find a cool spot on the ground and lay down on it. The misters can lower the temp in that shaded area by 15 degrees or more!
What about the winters?
- Make sure the litter in the coop is dry!! Replace damp or wet litter frequently.
- Make sure your hen house is sealed up properly to prevent drafts.
- Having wide perches allows the hens to cover their feet with their breast feathers at night.
- Install a heat lamp for use when the temperatures dip below freezing.
- Coat combs and wattles with petroleum jelly or some other barrier to protect them from the cold air.
Chickens are pretty hearty animals. They live outside and acclimate appropriately. But doing these simple things can ensure that they are more likely to stay alive during extreme weather.
Chicken care is simple Keeping your chickens happy and healthy will hopefully give them a nice long life filled with many delicious eggs.
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Next up: EGGS!!
In case you missed it: The Scoop on the Coop