What to Do When Your Hen Is an Egg Eater
Eaten Out of House and Home
Generally speaking, hens will not break open a good egg and eat it. But once in a while, egg-eating rears its ugly head in a flock and can be extremely difficult to stop. For those who depend on their chickens for eggs, egg-eating can be devastating. Not only does it virtually eradicate the number of eggs an owner is able to collect, but it can be emotionally jarring to witness your hens tear into an egg with voracious appetite.
Whether your goal is to prevent egg-eating from the beginning or to break an existing habit in your flock, there are several steps you can take to make sure that your hens' hard work ends up in your kitchen and not in their bellies.
Dispelling the Myths About Egg Eating
First and foremost, it is crucial to address the many myths about egg-eating. Believing misinformation on the subject will be directly counterproductive to the goal of preventing or breaking the habit, so we will begin by clearing up some misconceptions.
• Eating a raw egg will not cause egg eating
Chickens are hardwired to know the difference between a good, intact egg and a broken, cracked, or flawed egg. They will instinctively gobble up any egg they find broken, but generally will leave good eggs untouched, so much so that if you place a cracked egg and a whole egg side-by-side on the ground, the hens will devour the broken egg and completely ignore the intact one. This instinct helps them keep nests clean, as well as recycling the valuable nutrients in the egg.
So if you accidentally drop an egg while you are collecting and the hens devour it, do not panic. They are only doing what they are supposed to.
• You probably won't need to cull your whole flock
When we first acquired chickens, my father told me that once chickens start eating their own eggs, you may as well cull the whole flock and start over. This conventional wisdom is from an era where chickens were typically confined in cramped, uninspired coops and fed meager diets--a perfect recipe for habitual egg-eating behaviors. Generally speaking, chronic egg-eating will be limited to a specific hen, though others may learn the habit from her if it is left unchecked. Worst case scenario, if proper preventative measures are taken, you may have to cull one or two birds, but not your whole flock.
• Just because you find half-eaten eggs in your coop does not mean you have an egg eater.
Many a chicken owner has panicked upon finding opened, empty shells in their nesting boxes, certain that the chickens were to blame. As a general rule, a hen who cracks open an egg to eat it will eat the shell as well, leaving little to no evidence behind. If you are finding opened shells in your nesting boxes, the most likely culprit is a rat, opossum, or skunk and not your birds themselves.
On occasion, hens who eat eggs will favor the contents and leave the shells, but it is not typical chicken behavior.
• A lull in egg production is not a sign that you have an egg eater.
Chickens slow down in laying for a variety of reasons. They will stop laying when they are broody, when they are molting, or when the days become too short in winter. They will also stop laying if they are too hot, stressed by predators, or not getting enough water. Unless you catch a hen in the act of cracking open an egg for breakfast, there is little reason to assume that a drop in egg production is a result of egg eating behaviors.
The Causes of Egg Eating
There are three primary causes for egg-eating behavior, aside from the aforementioned instinct to eat broken eggs:
• Nutritional deficiency
• Mental disorder
The vast majority of the time, egg eating behavior is triggered by one of the first two circumstances, and as a result, is a curable habit. If boredom and nutritional needs have been ruled out as culprits, then the hen in question is likely mentally ill and cannot be fully broken of the practice. Even if this is the case, you may not necessarily need to cull her if you can afford to invest in roll-away nesting boxes that will tuck eggs away safely out of her reach. Such nesting boxes can be purchased ready-made or built at home using plans and diagrams.
If egg eating is the result of one or both of the first two possibilities, then the habit can be broken, but it will require a fair amount of effort. First and foremost, you must address the cause of the egg eating behavior, and then you will need to break them of the habit. This may prove challenging and will require some patience on your part.
If the egg eating is caused by boredom:
Enrichment and entertainment for chickens is often overlooked in coop design, but planning a coop that will keep your chickens mentally occupied and engaged is the first crucial step in preventing egg-eating behaviors, as well as other undesired habits like bullying, feather picking, and neurotic behavior. Chickens need puzzles to solve, and without anything else to figure out, they may create their own challenges by trying to crack open eggs to get to the contents.
Hanging treat balls, hiding scratch in piles of leaves, and breaking up the visual space in the coop are all ways you can mitigate boredom in your flock and reduce the risk of egg eating behaviors. For more ideas and information about keeping chickens engaged while in confinement, please see my article on the subject.
If your hens free range daily, this it is fairly safe to rule out boredom as a potential cause for the egg eating behavior, although once again, you should make sure the shortage of eggs is actually due to egg eating and not some other cause, like a hidden clutch somewhere in the yard.
If the egg eating is due to nutritional issues:
Another major cause of egg eating is a simple nutritional deficiency. Some hens require more calcium or protein in their diet than their feed provides, particularly when stressed or molting. Without alternative sources for these nutrients, they may resort to eating eggs to get by. You can help mitigate their cravings by providing oyster shell on the side for calcium and treats like mealworms or meat scraps to boost their intake of protein.
Hens who pick and eat feathers--whether off the ground or off of each other--are likely suffering from a protein deficiency. If you notice your chickens eating feathers, try offering extra protein in whatever form is available to you and see if that mitigates the problem.
If the egg eating is due to mental illness...
Just like with people and all other animals, chickens can suffer from mental illness. Once in a great while, a hen will develop a neurological issue wherein she will feel compelled to break open and eat eggs, and no amount of effort on your part will ever cure her of that. You can cope with her behavior by installing roll-away nesting boxes or by culling her from the flock, but her inclination will always be there.
Culling a hen from the flock may mean having her processed for meat, selling her to someone else with full disclosure of her bad habits, or simply confining her to a separate pen where she cannot raid the nests of her flock mates. It is important that you do not allow her to continue her bad habit in the presence of the rest of the flock, as healthy chickens may pick up on the habit from observing her.
Breaking the Habit
Once egg-eating has been confirmed in your flock and the cause of the behavior has been remedied, you will need to break your birds of the habit. Here are some steps to end the cycle of egg-eating in your flock:
• Darken the nesting boxes
Chickens can't eat eggs that they can't see. Putting curtains on your nesting boxes will not only make laying hens feel more comfortable while they're working, it will help hide new morsels from hungry eyes.
• Put fake eggs in the boxes
Ceramic or wooden eggs, golf balls, and other hard, egg-shaped objects will help discourage egg eating. Habitual egg eaters will peck futilely at the hard surface for a time before giving up, perhaps trying their luck with another "egg" in the nesting box before finally moving on to more fruitful endeavors.
• Collect frequently or install roll-away nesting boxes
Removing the temptation of delicious eggs entirely is by far the best course of action to preventing egg eating. When coupled with the above-mentioned advice, it will usually prove sufficient for preventing any further egg-eating behaviors.
Other advice, such as filling empty eggs with mustard, has proved to have mixed results. While some hens are discouraged by the mustard, other hens seem to actually enjoy the taste, which can prove entirely counterproductive for your goals.
Did we forget anything?
If you have any questions or would like to add your own input on the subject, please feel free to leave a comment below. We look forward to hearing from you!