Q: One of our chickens is not laying in the nest box. Is this common, and what should I do?
A: Don't worry. "Floor eggs" are relatively common, and nothing to be too concerned about.
Having your hens laying eggs on the floor rather than in the nest can be a pain in the neck. You want to be able to easily find all the eggs laid so you can gather them freshly--and you don't want to accidentally step on a floor egg! Some hens even lay eggs under the roosting area, which is just gross, because then the eggs get pooped on in the night. Having your eggs in a dark nest means your hens will be less likely to break one accidentally, the eggs will be easy to collect, and they're far more likely to be clean. We get it: eggs in the nest are just preferable.
So what is causing the floor eggs, and how can you fix the problem? Well, there are a few possible causes, and we have some suggestions about how to break your hen's habit, but we'll warn you in advance: she might not be persuaded!
Cause #1: Insufficient nesting space
Solution: Add more nesting boxes! As a rule of thumb, you'll need to provide one nest box for every 4-5 laying hens in your flock. If you have fewer than that, we recommend you install more. (We offer nesting boxes, here.) If you DO have the recommended number of nesting boxes, you may still find yourself with so many broody hens that the other members of your flock have nowhere acceptable to lay. In this case, you'll want to add more nesting space, even if it's just a cardboard box with a hole in the side, and bedding material added inside! As soon as your broodies have returned to normal, you can remove the additional nesting space. (Although if it's likely to happen frequently, you may as well just go ahead and add more nests permanently...)
Cause #2: Your hens just haven't figured it out yet
When young, new hens first begin laying, it can sometimes take them a while to figure out where to lay. The first time my favorite hen laid an egg, she was cranky and restless all day, and walked around complaining loudly and arguing with the other girls. She couldn't seem to get comfortable anywhere, and didn't understand what her instincts were telling her. Finally, she simply dropped her first egg into a mud puddle where she was standing. Kerplop! Boy, she was put out by that annoyance, poor dear! After a week or two of being very mad every time she had to lay, she finally figured out what her instincts were telling her and how to use the nest boxes.
Some hens resist learning to lay in nest boxes, simply because they may prefer to lay in a different spot that is appealing for some reason we can't figure out.
Solution: Birds are creatures of habit, so if this is the case, you will have to make your nest box very enticing. Hens typically prefer dark, quiet, out-of-the way places to lay, and if they see other eggs in the nest, they will be even more encouraged to lay there. So start by adding golf balls or wooden nest eggs to your nests, to help your chickens identify the nest as a safe, attractive place to lay. Additionally, make sure your nests are in a quiet spot in your coop, and that they're positioned lower to the ground than your roosts (or else your hens may be tempted to sleep there).
Cause #3: Your hen found someplace more attractive to lay
Sometimes a hen that has been laying contentedly in a nest box for a while will suddenly decide to lay her eggs elsewhere, for instance in a "hidden nest" outside in the yard or run. This can make you think that your hen has stopped laying, but the truth is that she might just be laying elsewhere in a new, preferred spot. You don't usually want them laying eggs outside in a spot that you may not be able to easily access or that can attract predators of eggs, like snakes. On the other hand, if where your hen is laying is a safe easy spot, it may be fine with you.
Solution:You might try keeping your hens closed into the coop for a few days to get them used to laying inside again. One of our hens reliably laid her eggs in the barn in a one of the mangers for a while. We just picked them up there. When the winter came, she decided that the trudge to the manger just wasn't worth it, and began laying inside on her own again.