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Lay Mrs. Hen Lay!

Updated Sunday 11th June 2023, first published Saturday July 6 2013

The incredible egg and what triggers your hen to lay it

Yay! The shortest day has past and from now on the days will be lengthening out and delighting us with more daylight hours.

It is the increasing daylight hours that will trigger your pullets and hens into the lay. Roll on spring. Age of course is also a factor. For pullets in the heritage breeds point of lay (POL) can be anywhere around 24 to 32 weeks or longer for the slower maturing breeds. It is also important to bear in mind when your pullets were hatched during the season. In our experience those hatched out early in the season (June/July) will come into the lay in late summer (January/ February) whilst those hatched out from November onwards will often mature in late autumn. These late hatchers will wait till the days start to lengthen and think about laying late winter or early spring. The commercial hybrids on the other hand are programmed to be laying machines. They are designed to come into lay around 18 to 24 weeks depending on the season. We have found daylight hours do impact to some extent on when they commence laying. Those that are POL when the length of the day is long (summer) come into lay sooner around 17 to 18 weeks and winter POL birds are usually later around 22 to 24 weeks.

There is a pea-sized gland inside the brain of our chickens called the pituitary gland. When the chickens eye perceives increased daylight it does not go unnoticed by the pituitary gland. This controlling gland is then stimulated and produces a hormone that is carried via the bloodstream to the ovary which sets egg production in motion. So as the longer days arrive with more sunshine and warmth so the laying gets underway. A hen lays eggs during daylight hours, typically between 7am and 4pm, producing no more than one egg about every 25.5 hours. 

Chickens need 12-16 hours of light, either natural or artificial, to produce consistently. One reason why chickens lay eggs less frequently in the colder months is that there are a fewer number of daylight hours. Through the winter, heritage poultry have normally no interest in breeding. There are good reasons for this because, in the wild, the reduced day light, general lack of food and cold weather are not suitable conditions for breeding. Most birds also go through the moult during this time, this period of rest is important to replenish reserves and prepare for the new breeding (laying) season ahead.

Chickens can live for many years and continue to lay eggs for many of these years. However, after two or three years many hens significantly decline in productivity. This varies greatly from bird to bird. Good layers will lay for about 50 to 60 weeks and then have a rest period called the moult. Even commercial hybrids after their first season of lay (12 months) will show a drop off in production and undergo a partial moult.

Here at Appletons we dont light up our hen houses and pressurise our girls to lay all year round under artificial light. We let nature take its course; so, as we all wait for the daylight hours to lengthen, we thought we might egg-cite you with a few interesting things about the humble egg and the magical hen that lays it. Plus, we have added into the mix some silly questions we have been asked about eggs over the years.

How is an egg made? 

Chickens are amazing! When your hens are laying well, they will produce a new egg every 25.5 hours. This is a very short time to create something as complex, as perfect and as tasty as an egg. An egg is made from the inside out.
The yolk is made first, and then wrapped in a layer of egg white, before being neatly and beautifully packaged up in an egg shell. The beginning of an egg is the tiny ova which takes a week to grow into a proper egg yolk. If you cut a boiled egg in half and look at the yolk, the dark rings were layers made during the day and the light layers during the hours of darkness.
When the yolk is ready it is released along the oviduct. The first part of the oviduct is where the egg white (albumen) is added. The egg white mainly consists of protein, water and minerals. Then the egg carries on along the oviduct where it grows two connecting strands at the top and the bottom called chalaza, which anchor the yolk to the shell keeping it in the centre of the egg.

The next stage is for the shell membranes to form around the white. After this the egg continues down into the uterus where the shell is added. The shell is made from calcium carbonate. The shell is a great bit of design, it is on average only 0.3mm thick but it is incredibly strong. The colour of the shell depends on the breed of chicken and on the individual chicken itself. Some hens lay white shelled eggs like the Dorking and the Araucana lays a blue shelled egg, but the colour of the shell does not affect the taste.

How does a hen lay her egg?

As a rule, chickens lay in the morning, but each day a little later. Sometimes the last egg of a series is produced in the early afternoon. When it gets too late, they take the next day off. That is why on some days we do not get an egg from each hen. The hen approaches her chosen nesting spot in a very determined yet hesitant way, and finally enters. There she gets comfortable and sits quietly for a long time, often for half an hour or more. She closes an eye, can chat quietly to herself, and possibly re-arranges the shavings, and then finally she gets more exited. Now and then, the hen raises her tail and spreads the feathers of her bottom.

 These movements increase gradually. Under her tail, between the feathers, is a small opening with a ribbed rim called the vent. Suddenly the hen stands up with her feet wide apart, tail raised, bottom feathers spread out, and back feathers upright. As her vent opens a little, you begin to see a red membrane. As the hen lowers her bottom, her vent widens rapidly, and the rim is stretched further. The membrane forms a pinkish dome around the egg which is not yet visible at this stage. The vent is now wide open, and the ribbed rim has become narrow and far stretched. Through the opening bulges a pink hemisphere of tissue revealing distinct blood vessels. Its top is pointed downward where a new opening arises. The egg appears as a much lighter-coloured disk. The hen strains at intervals. Each time, the egg protrudes a little further out. As it does, the membrane opens to form a red collar around the wider, middle portion of the egg. The membrane will protrude a little way from the ribbed rim. The moist egg pops out.

Sometimes it will come out blunt end first, sometimes pointed end first. For a few seconds after the egg is laid, a small red cone still remains outside, but it is retracted almost immediately and the vent is closed again. The bird stands high above the egg and rests, beak open and panting after her heavy work. The entire process (from rising to dropping the egg) is quite fast and is finished within half a minute. Therefore, it is hard to observe. After a while, the hen looks back, inspects the egg with her beak and leaves the nest under a loud series of cackles.

1. Ovary, 2. Infundibulum, 3. Oviduct, 4. Magnum & isthmus, 5. Uterus, 6. Cloaca

Why do hens leave the nest after laying? 

All chickens lay eggs in a series - never more than one per day. If the eggs are not collected, and a good number of eggs are allowed to collect in the nest, the hen may eventually stop laying and start brooding. When the hen leaves the nest after laying an egg, it cools which suspends the development of the embryo inside. This egg and the rest will not develop until the hen takes up residence 24/7 on her nest and starts her brooding. Her body heat coupled with moisture from her skin and the instinct to turn her eggs will hopefully prove fruitful and result in newly hatched chicks 21 days later. So, the idea is all eggs commence development together and hatch together (usually within 48 hours of each other). This is why it is important for the hen to leave the nest after laying because if she went broody when she first started laying then theoretically all her chicks would hatch a day apart and she would leave the nest with the first few hatchlings and abandon the rest. Isnt nature wonderful!

Why does a hen cackle after laying her egg? 

The ancestors of our domestic fowl are the jungle fowl and they were and still are forest dwellers. They live in small family groups called flocks. They scratch under the canopies in the leaf litter and forage for invertebrates, bugs, worms and berries to eat. When a hen goes to lay her egg in the nest the group may wander away through the undergrowth searching for food. The hen's cackle serves to renew the contact with the group as if to shout "where are you? The rooster (with the other hens) would answer "here we are! Our chickens like their ancestors still cackle today.sometimes we suppose proudly adding to their call Wow you should see the whopper I laid today!

Frequently Asked Questions

Nest Box Rules

  • Have enough nest boxes. One box for every 5 hens is the general rule of thumb. Chooks like to share laying boxes so it is not necessary to allocate a box per chook.
  • Make nest boxes private and appealing. Ensure that your nest boxes are in a dark, quiet corner of the coop. Hens have the instinct to lay their eggs in a safe space. Boxes should be raised off the coop floor and preferably secluded. Sometimes a partial curtain over the nest box entrance for added privacy can make a big difference. We use thick black plastic sheeting and staple this over the nest box entrance. We then cut a v shape at the entrance to the nest box and cut the rest of the curtain into strips. This gives the hen a peek-a-boo hole to enter with the easy option of pushing out again. The black plastic can be easily removed when cleaning, re-stapled and reused.
  • Make nest boxes comfortable. Line them with soft, untreated wood shavings. As the hens frequent them the shavings get depleted and hens tend to avoid them. The eggs are also more inclined to get broken. So refresh regularly with shavings.
  • Gather eggs early and often. Best to collect eggs daily or if you can manage it collecting in the morning and late afternoon. Twice a day collection ensures clean eggs, and also discourages dirty, broken and eaten eggs.14
  • Keep nest boxes dry and clean. If there is chicken poop in the nest boxes remove it when collecting the eggs and replace with fresh shavings. Likewise, if a hen has broken an egg, clean up the mess quickly and thoroughly, removing all wet or soiled shavings. Broken eggs if ignored can lead to egg eaters and egg eating is a learned behaviour and very hard to break. Usually the best solution to stop egg eating is to dispatch the culprit.
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Appletons tip to discourage hens sleeping in nest boxes

Here at Appletons we recommend when you first bring your young perching pullets home and settle them into their new hen house remove the nest boxes or cover the nest boxes with a piece of cardboard. This will stop the young pullets huddling in the nest boxes or roosting on the edge of them. If they only have the perch available then they will roost on the perch. Once pullets have got into the habit of roosting on the perch they will return to the same spot each night. At POL uncover the nest boxes, fill with shavings and add a pair of fake or brood eggs. For naughty hens that persistently foul the next boxes we recommend covering over the nest boxes at dusk and physically placing the hens on the perches. This might need to be done for a week or so until the hen/s gets the hang of it.

Do fake eggs in the nest box encourage hens to lay? 

Yes! Here at Appletons we use fake eggs (we like the wooden ones) to encourage our girls where to lay. When POL pullets get ready to start laying place a couple of fake eggs in one of the nest boxes to show them where to lay. This will give them the idea that the boxes are "the place" to lay their eggs. Hens are often visit the nest boxes that eggs and hens are already occupying.

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