One of the highlights of having chickens is their eggs: the novelty of different colours and the satisfaction of growing your own food. I’m sure I’m not the only one who waits impatiently for the first eggs laid by young pullets. Around the time they are 20 weeks old I start checking the nest box for the arrival of new eggs. I know that this age is touted as the standard for when pullets ‘should’ start laying and that may be true for production layers, but not for heritage breeds. I’ve only had two hens lay their first egg at that age. Most of my birds wait until they are six to eight months old; one didn’t lay until she was ten months old. All are normal.
A hen is born containing all the eggs she will ever lay in her lifetime (although not all of those ova develop and get laid). Her hormones and health status determine when she’ll start, and stop, laying.
Here are some tips to help you figure out who’s laying or not:
Point Of Lay (About to lay first egg)
- Reddened comb and wattles: A pullet’s comb will be larger and redder, which is a visual cue to the rooster that she is almost ready to mate.
- Squatting: When chickens mate the hen squats in anticipation for the rooster mounting her. Your pullets may instinctively squat when you approach or try to pick them up.
- Inspecting the nesting boxes: She will start to check out the nest boxes and might even sit in them without laying an egg.
- Camouflage: When hens lay eggs they sometimes toss sticks, grass or shavings on their back. It may seem an odd thing to do, but it’s a strategy to camouflage themselves from predators when they are vulnerable. You may start to notice this behaviour.
- Talking: She may vocalize more.
- Rooster Cues: If you have a rooster he may be paying her more attention (or vice versa).
- Wattles and Comb: Large, soft and red comb and wattles.
- Vent: If you examine the vent of a hen who is already laying it will be large, pink, moist and it may pulse.
- Pubic bone: A laying hen should have at least two fingers’ width between her pubic bones. Established layers will often have a much larger space between the bones.
- Legs: Carotene, the pigment used in yellow legs is diverted to produce yolk colour. As the laying season progresses colour may leach out of a hen’s legs as the nutrients get depleted out of her body. After she’s taken a break the normal colour returns. Many of my birds have slate coloured legs so this strategy doesn’t work for me.
- Abdomen: Her belly should be round, soft and pliable.
- Feathers: Egg laying takes a toll on her feathers, which may look more dull or ratty.
- Egg Song: This is a bit of a misnomer as it’s not so much of a melodic song than a loud clucking or even screeching. Once a hen has laid an egg she may announce her success over and over.
- Observation: The clues above may tell you which of your hens has laid, but not if she is currently laying. If you’re really interested in which of your birds is laying you can isolate them from other hens; use a coop camera or check out the nest boxes several times a day to see who is occupying them.
There are many factors that impact egg production. Things that contribute to temporary declines or stoppages include shorter days and less light; cold or hot temperatures; stress; molting; and being broody and raising chicks. Some folks view that as freeloading or slacking off when actually they are much needed breaks.
Illness or injury may trigger the end of a hen’s laying days, but the most common cause is simply age. Heritage birds may live for 10+ years and some hens will continue to lay sporadically past their prime. Expect a sharp decrease in the number of eggs your hens lay by the time they reach their third year.
No Longer Laying
- Comb and wattle: colour will shrink and fade.
- Vent: paler, smaller and less moist.
- Pubic Bones: The space between the pubic bones and breastbone, as well as between the pubic bones, deceases.
- Nesting and squatting behaviours cease.
- Rooster will not show the same interest in her.
I’m a firm believer in not pushing my hens to lay more than they do. They take long breaks at various points of the year and I accept that inconvenience recognizing that chicken genetics have been manipulated so that hens lay an inordinate number of eggs. That ability often pushes them beyond their capacity resulting in a variety of reproductive health issues: ovarian cancer, salpingitis, egg yolk peritonitis and egg binding. Sadly, at least 30% of laying hens will develop reproductive tract cancers.
My advice is to dismiss the myths that hens lay an egg a day, day in and day out, for many years. In doing so, you’ll be more realistic and patient with your birds.
It is true that production layers start laying early and lay lots, but unfortunately their life spans are also shortened because of it.
Featured photo: Daniel Livingston