Sometimes you may be getting fewer eggs than you expect, even when your hens are laying well. This can happen if they develop the bad habit of eating their own eggs.
Egg eating can start by accident, sort of. Maybe a hen stepped on an egg and punctured the shell. Or maybe once when you were gathering eggs, an egg slipped from your hand, fell to the floor of the coop and broke.
Chickens, quick to eat anything that looks like food, voraciously lap up the white and yolk of the broken egg. Once a hen has tasted fresh egg and found it to be “good food” she may start breaking eggs intentionally in order to eat them. Once she’s learned to do that, other hens will learn it from her, and soon you may be very short on eggs.
So how do we prevent this? Or if egg eating has already become a problem, how do we cure it?
How to Prevent Egg Eating
It’s easier and more effective to prevent chickens from eating eggs than to cure egg eating once it has started.
First, make sure that your chickens are getting an adequate and balanced diet, with plenty of protein and calcium. Calcium helps form strong egg shells, which will be less likely to break. Lack of protein in a hen’s diet can make her more inclined to break and eat eggs.
We recommend that you keep a free choice feeder of ground oyster shells available to your adult layers, and use a good quality layer feed with at least 16% protein. If your chickens have access to table scraps or scratch grains, that will lower the average protein content of their diet, so use these in moderation.
Second, provide plenty of space for your chickens, both in the coop and in the nest boxes. Overcrowding in the coop can cause your chickens more stress and can lead to multiple problems beyond just egg eating. Overcrowded nest boxes increase the likelihood that a hen will accidentally break an egg.
Start with one nest box for every four hens, and adjust from there. You’ll know they need more nest boxes if you often see more than one hen crowded into a nest box at the same time.
Place your nest boxes in a darker area of your coop, where the opening doesn’t face direct sunlight. Hens prefer to lay in darker, more secluded areas, so this will encourage them to lay in the nest box rather than somewhere else, and hens are less likely to break open eggs in a dimly lit nest box.
Provide plenty of fresh bedding to form a soft layer in the floor of your nest boxes. This will help protect the eggs from inadvertently being broken.
Third, if you or the chickens ever break an egg in the coop or in an area they can access, clean it up quickly and thoroughly, before they discover it. Remove any egg-soaked bedding. If the broken egg is on the ground, use water to wash away and dilute the egg white and yolk so it can soak into the soil. Remove broken egg shells or at least crush them into very small pieces so they no longer look like eggs.
While we’re on the subject of eggshells, some people feed their chickens eggshells as a source of calcium. This can be done, but we prefer using ground oyster shells as mentioned above. If you do decide to feed egg shells back to your chickens, wash them thoroughly and grind them into very small pieces so that you don’t encourage a egg eating either by taste or by sight.
How to Cure Egg Eating
As mentioned previously, it’s easier to prevent egg eating than to cure it, and it’s not always possible to cure an egg eater.
First, practice everything discussed above in the “Prevention” section.
In addition, gather eggs frequently, as soon after laying as possible. Although this isn’t extremely convenient, checking for and gathering the eggs several times a day can make a big difference. The longer an egg is left in the coop, the more likely it is to get eaten, particularly if only one hen is the culprit.
Use artificial eggs (ceramic eggs work well for this or wooden eggs, or even white golf balls). Ceramic eggs look like real eggs but are much harder. Gather all the real eggs quickly, but leave a few ceramic eggs in the nest box. As chickens peck, trying to break these eggs, they’ll find them impossible to crack, and this will (hopefully) discourage them from eating the real eggs.
Try to identify the egg eater. It’s most obvious if you catch her actually eating an egg, but you may also be able to spot dried yolk on her beak, feathers or comb. Once you’ve identified her, isolate her from the rest of the flock and see if your problem with egg eating in the main flock goes away. Moving the hen disrupts her behavior somewhat and will help to break the habit. Gather eggs quickly and frequently from the isolation coop so that she doesn’t have access to any eggs. If you’re continuing to lose eggs from the main coop, then you may have more than one egg eater that needs to be isolated.
A suggestion from Pat Foreman, author of the book City Chicks is to block access to the nest box where you found evidence of the broken egg. To do this, you can block the entrance or put something bulky in the nest box to occupy it. This will change the hen’s routine somewhat, since she won’t be able to eat egg where she normally would, and according to Foreman, this can be successful in helping to break the pattern of egg eating.
If all else fails, cull the egg eater.