Why do hens lay different coloured eggs?
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you need a cockerel for hens to lay eggs?
How far away should perches be?
Do you need a cockerel for hens to lay fertile eggs?
Egg colours depend on the breed of hen.
What size of hen house do I need?
Most hen house manufactureres will say how many hens a house is suitable for - the maximum may be suitable bantams. As a rule of thumb we go between 1/2 and 2/3, so for a house thay houses 12 - 15, we would put 7 - 10 in ther. Overcrowding can cause stress, which is a major cause of illness in hens.
Far enough for hens to perch without touching the hen in front or behind. Chickens like to nudge up to each other on the perch but should still have enough space in case they need to cool down.
Low - certainly lower than the perches - and set back to avoid soiling from perching hens. It's difficult to keep nesting boxes completely free of mud or mess but it can be minimised by cleaning out anything that needs to be removed first thing in the morning. If perches are too low, or nesting boxes too high, hens can choose to roost in the boxes, which can leave them very messy. Avoid that. Some poorly designed hen-houses still have this basic fault but if yours has this problem, it's best to remove and replace perches a few inches higher. There isn't a great deal you can do if the nest boxes are too high, unless you can rebuild that entire wall.
Should nest boxes be low or high in the hen house?
Can I eat fertile eggs?
Should we provide extra warmth for hens in very cold conditions?
Unless you've got new ex-battery hens, no. They can keep themselves warm. Houses do need to be as draught-free as possible while still maintaining air-flow.
How do you cope with mud in winters as bad as last year was?
It's a serious problem because wet feet means wet bedding and nesting boxes, neither of which is healthy. We found ourselves changing bedding far more than ever before last winter. Don't put hay or straw into pens as it just soaks up the water and within days is stagnant and smelly. We made that mistake once and paid for the error by having to rake out hay & straw made ridiculously heavy by the amount it had absorbed. Wood-chip works - lots of it - and we also found hens readily took to platforms and climbing frames of some kind (we put an old pallet into the pen and leaned it against the corner post). Putting drinkers and feeders on concrete slabs helps, too, as these are the areas that get muddiest.
What is meant by a dust-bath?
Hens clean themselves by burrowing into dust bowls that they either find or dig for themselves. They can bathe together or apart, flapping wings to send the dust showering over themselves and anyone next to them. This also discourages external nasties like lice. In wetter times, we also provide them with bucket loads of ash from bonfires.
Will hens destroy the lawn and eat flowers and vegetables?
How vigilant do I need to be over the threat of foxes?
If a lawn is small and there are no other distractions hens can damage it quite significantly, digging up grass to find bugs etc. They will eat currants or other fruits and like fallen apples or pears. They will also be interested in some leaf plants in the garden and mine follow me around if I'm digging just in case they spot a worm or some kind of tasty snack. Best to fence things off and use netting.
Foxes will attack at some point if you keep hens for a number of years. It's traumatic to find your dead, and sometimes badly wounded or just stressed birds around the pen after it's happened. Foxes leave dead birds because they can't carry them away all at once but kill to provide food for future meals, so will come back to collect. They hunt mostly but not exclusively at night, dawn and dusk, so it's vital that keepers don't forget to lock away birds. Foxes can and do attack in the daytime, especially when they have young to feed. It's up to you how you want to deal with the risk. Electric fencing is one option, or high fencing with the bottom either dug well in or lined with logs, bricks, slabs or any other deterrent placed around the base - this lengthens the distance foxes have to dig to get under the wire. We have a hen-hut, then an enclosed inner pen with wire & wood roof, then a large outer fenced-off grass area with a gate. We've not had a fox attack for some time but we live with the knowledge that it will happen one day. Foxes steer well clear of humans and don't like human scent and the more often you are near your hens the better, but nobody can be there 24/7, and foxes are, as the legend goes, cunning enough to pick the moment. Alpacas and llamas as guard animals are another alternative. They are said to work well. In the end it's a case of balancing how you want your hens to live with how much you want to protect them.
What other predators should we worry about?
We've had buzzards kill in the past. They need room to swoop, so suspending things like washing lines across the top of the pen prevents that. Hanging objects like unwanted cds or dvds on the lines also distracts them. We've also had a stoat attack but as they're opportunists who are expert at squeezing through tiny spaces, you'd be unlucky if this were anything more than an isolated incident.
Should I clip a bird's wings?
No set answer- it depends on your circumstances. Some breeds can fly over a high fence, particularly if spooked, so it may be of benefit to you to clip their wings (e.g. if they can fly on to a neighbour's property). We don't have that problem so don't clip them. In the event of a fox attack hens with unclipped wings can take refuge in a tree.
Why are my hens roosting in a tree rather than the hen-house?
Could be that they just like to do that, but you should also check that they are not avoiding the hen-house because it has a mite problem or is unclean.
Can I feed kitchen scraps to hens?
No, as much as hens might love them, it's against the law. If you use a balanced feed they don't need anything else and if they're free-range they will find their own extras.
Why are eggshells soft or brittle?
Lack of grit in the diet is the usual reason unless a hen has just started laying, when its body is still sorting itself out. Make sure, if this happens, that the hen has access to grit. If it isn't possible to offer it through natural means, you can usually buy a pot of it from your normal food supplier.
Do cats and dogs attack hens?
Not usually but it will depends, in the case of dogs in particular, on the breed and temperament of the animal - and how/if it's been trained. We've never had it happen and have both cats and a dog. Obviously you can't leave young chicks vulnerable if cats are in the vicinity - we don't keep bantams, but presumably cats and terrier-type dogs could attack them. A dog who isn't used to hens can try to play with them, which can cause stress whether or not the dog actually catches one. Best to introduce a dog to the hens gently - and on a lead. You never quite know how a dog will react. One of our cats went too close to a cockerel once and got his nose badly scratched so steers well clear now.
Is it useful to have a cockerel even if you don't want to breed?
It can be. Somehow a cockerel seems to keep a flock together and in some kind of order - and some say hens are quieter with a cockerel around. That said, nobody should underestimate the noise a cockerel can make. One of ours has a habit of making loud, prolonged conversation with cockerels on a smallholding about a mile away - at 2.30 a.m!
How do you persuade a broody hen to break the habit?
We don't, because we believe hens are healthier if allowed to behave naturally. However, extra hens or chicks isn't a matter of concern to us. If it would be a problem to you, or the loss of eggs during broody times is important, confine the broody hen in a box with a grilled floor. I'm told it works well.
How soon should I take chicks off heat?
As soon as they've feathered up, it's ok to do that, unless the weather is unusually chilly, in which case it's advisable to give them an extra couple of weeks. Some old-fashioned keepers tend to put them in pens early to help them toughen up but it depends on the weather as to how much of a risk that is. As a rough guide 6-8 weeks should be ok. If they're under a good broody hen, she will usually decide
Should I wash eggs?
How do hens manage to lay such hard eggs?
Opinion varies with some insisting on yes, some on no. Some don't wash for fear of infection, some prefer to wash with warm water or anti-bacterial cleansing solution diluted in warm water. Some wash before the eggs are stored, some after storing before use. We've changed our minds, tried one way and the other and generally used some common-sense - and to our knowledge haven't poisoned anyone yet.
Simple answer is they don't. The eggshells harden the moment they hit air.
How long do eggs take to hatch?
The book says 21 days but it can be longer. We show a bit of patience if day 21 comes and nothing's happened - and often it works. We've had them hatch as late as day 25 in the past.
What feed do I give hens, and when?
Don't overfeed. First thing in the morning and late afternoon is best. Stick to good quality balanced feed. In winter we add some corn to generate warmth to help a little in the overnight temperature drop. Feed chick-crumbs to somewhere around 8-10 weeks, then growers pellets, then adult food/layers pellets/etc at 18-24 weeks depending on the breed. Feeding layers pellets too early can cause damage to vital organs, so take care.
We'll be glad to put up any other questions on this area of the site, with our answers, if you think it useful.