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Breaking a bad habit

PUBLISHED: 10:25 06 March 2014

Caught red-handed - the egg-eater is wearing egg shell on her beak.

Caught red-handed - the egg-eater is wearing egg shell on her beak.

Julie Moore

Chickens will sometimes eat their own eggs. It is a nasty habit and important that you take action to stop it. Julie Moore offers advice

The remnants of an egg-eating frenzy.The remnants of an egg-eating frenzy.

There is no doubt about it, egg eating is a nasty habit and difficult to break too.

Often starting quite by accident with a broken egg in a nest box, a curious hen pecks at it and, discovering it to be extremely tasty, devours it. She’ll then break eggs as soon as they are laid to satisfy her cravings. Other hens will quickly follow suit and, before you know it, the whole flock are joining in the egg-eating frenzy. Egg-eating is a habit that should be curtailed as soon as possible after discovery, not least because your egg supply will rapidly dwindle.

Finding broken egg shells and small traces of yolk in the nest box are all tell-tale signs that an egg-eater is present. From experience, my egg-eater normally leaves no trace of egg shell, only a damp patch in the nest box — clearly the eggs were too tasty to leave anything behind! I found the guilty hen walking around wearing egg shell on her beak. As I keep a daily record of eggs laid, when there was a sudden drop in production, my suspicions were aroused. Whilst many sources recommend culling the culprit, there are a number of strategies you can employ to beat the egg-eater without resorting to such drastic measures.

But firstly, let’s take a look at why chickens eat eggs. After all, we know how tasty and nutritious freshly laid eggs are, so we can’t really blame them for dining on fine food.

Egg-eating may all start innocently as a hen explores a nest box, steps on an egg and inadvertently breaks it. Thin-shelled eggs are often a sign of an inadequate diet. Calcium is the primary mineral that makes up an egg shell and when not supplied in the diet, the hen doesn’t have the basic materials needed to make the shell and will rob calcium from her bones to make up the deficit. If there is an imbalance in a hen’s diet, she will seek out alternative food sources to make good the nutritional deficit. Eggs are a great nutritional source.

Eggs can be broken in nest boxes for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s important to ensure that there are enough nest boxes for your flock otherwise you may find hens jostling for position in a nest box which may result in broken eggs. Likewise, broody hens will take up nest box space that laying hens need. They’ll also intimidate other hens when standing their ground, protecting their eggs — this is when eggs are likely to get broken. As it’s quite common for a laying hen to join a broody in the nest box, eggs are likely to get broken. Insufficient soft bedding materials in nest boxes can cause eggs to crack on the hard floor when they are laid.

Laying hens like privacy, choosing to lay eggs in enclosed, dark, quiet places. If nest boxes are exposed or positioned in brightly lit areas, hens may become nervous and start pecking at eggs. Hens can also become stressed if they are disturbed in the nest box which may lead to breakage.

So if you think you have an egg-eater amongst your flock, it’s time to identify the culprit.

The first step is to eliminate the possibility of burglars by checking that your coop is fully predator-proof. Rats, weasels, magpies and crows are all egg thieves, but don’t rule out the possibility of humans stealing your prized eggs too. Ensure that your run is secure and any mouse / rat holes are blocked to prevent access to the eggs. By keeping a clean and tidy coop, it will be easy to spot droppings from rodent intruders. If your coop and run are both fully secure, the egg-eater is likely to come from within your flock.

Now for a spot of undercover surveillance. Keep a note of the activity around nest boxes during the peak laying period. You’ll find that the egg-eater is likely to loiter around the nest boxes waiting for their next meal. Alternatively, web-cams are becoming much more affordable and easier to set-up with features such as infra-red and auto record upon detection of movement becoming the norm. The software can even send an e-mail or SMS to you when it detects movement in a predetermined area of view, perhaps around the nest box openings, alerting you to any action.

Eating eggs is a messy business and difficult to conceal. You’re likely to spot the culprit wearing egg yolk on her beak, face and feathers.

The best way to deal with an egg-eater is to collect eggs regularly, thereby eliminating any temptation — if the eggs aren’t there, they can’t be eaten.

Provide a properly balanced diet containing adequate levels of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D to ensure strong egg shells. Giving crushed oyster shell as free choice will help to strengthen the egg shells of all layers and reduce the chance of thin-shelled eggs being broken accidentally. Provide a balanced layer feed for laying hens and limit treats to avoid nutritional deficiencies.

Ensure that there are enough nest boxes available. You should provide one nest box for every three hens. Even so, you may still find that they all want to use the same box at the same time! The nest boxes should be large enough for a hen to stand comfortably and turn around easily. Adding a lip of around 8cm across the entrance to the nest will help to prevent litter and eggs from falling out when a hen leaves the nest. You could also try roll-out nest boxes which roll eggs out of the nest when they are laid, thus removing any opportunity for an egg-eating frenzy.

Nest boxes should be lined with sufficient soft bedding to prevent freshly laid eggs from cracking on the hard floor. Materials such as straw, pine shavings or shredded paper are all good options.

Hanging nest box curtains in your coop will create a private and dark environment for your hens to lay their eggs. The curtains will help to hide eggs from open view. If passing hens can’t see any eggs, they won’t be tempted to investigate — out of sight, out of mind!

If you have a broody hen sitting on hatching eggs, move her to a separate area away from laying hens. Any broodies that aren’t sitting on hatching eggs should be broken to free up nest box space.

Place decoy eggs, such as ping pong balls or plastic eggs in nest boxes. The idea being that your hens will get tired of pecking at plastic and the habit will fade.

Use a 10ml syringe (these can be purchased from any chemist) to fill blown eggs with mustard and seal with a dab of paraffin wax. See Box Out on how to blow an egg. The hens will quickly learn that eggs aren’t quite so tasty after all! You could also fill a blown egg with food colouring. You’ll easily spot the egg-eater — just look for the hen with colouring on her face.

If your hens aren’t free-ranging, ensure that there is adequate space in the coop and run for them. Don’t let confined birds get bored — hang up cabbages or apples on sticks for them to peck at instead of eggs.

By implementing a few changes to your routine and coop décor, even the most ardent egg connoisseur can be beaten.

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