Most of the time, if your poultry has appealing nesting boxes, they will contentedly leave their gifts for you and go about their business scratching for insects and seeds, bathing in the dust, etc. Occasionally, one or two will develop a very bad habit of eating eggs.
How does this happen?
It usually starts with something as innocent as accidentally breaking an egg and then investigating it. If the ladies get short on calcium (either because they choose not to eat their lay ration or their free choice crushed oyster shell runs out), the shells of the eggs may get thin and not support the weight of one of the heavier hens using the box.
The hen pecks at the contents running out the shell and quickly determines it to be delicious and nutritious. It sounds cannibalistic, doesn’t it? It’s not really and birds know a good thing when they find it too.
At this point, the problem can still be corrected usually. Chickens are not very bright and if it’s a one time event, they may forget about it or never make the connection. You may find a crushed egg with some of the contents coating it.
The real issue is if it happens more than once to the same bird. She will begin to make the connection to the delightful contents when she sees the eggs other birds lay. She will eventually peck any she finds to get into them. Often you will not know it has even happened for a while, because she will usually eat the eggshell also.
Before long, you have a big problem. Others will observe this and begin fighting over the eggs even if there is only the one who has figured out how to get into them. In no time, your chickens are recycling all their own eggs!
How do I know if I have this problem?
If you notice a decreased number of eggs ( or none) for several days in a row and it’s not molting time, suspect you have a villain in the crowd. When you feed them and can get them close up, check the feathers around the head and neck. If they appear stiff or splattered with yellow, you have probably found the culprit(s). Buff Orpingtons are the hardest to tell since their feathers are the same color as the yolks.
What to do?
Our experience has been that once a chicken is a confirmed egg-eater, she never reforms. She is destined for the soup pot. When this has happened in our flock, it seems to always be Buff Orpingtons or White Rocks, possibly because they are some of the heavier birds. We have one of each breed awaiting their date with dumplings right now.
Some people claim you can break a chicken of this habit by “blowing out” an egg and refilling it with cayenne. The hen is supposed to be cured when she pecks into that one.
Other people say that frustrating her with ceramic or wooden eggs will do it. We haven’t found success that way.
Prevention is the way to go
As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
- The best things you can do to prevent the problem from ever happening is to collect eggs at least twice a day. I realize this can be hard, especially if you are working away from home. The shorter amount of time they have with the eggs, the cleaner they will be and the the less opportunity they will have to develop this habit.
- Crowded birds are more likely to eat eggs also. If you are having this problem in a coop or “chicken tractor,” consider reducing the number inside.
- Be sure your birds have enough food and a variety of things to peck at. For example, if they are on grass with bugs and greens to scratch for, they are less likely to turn to eggs.
A final note- this habit is not limited to chickens. We have raised different breeds of turkeys for years. Most of our flock was sport-killed in a matter of minutes last year even though they were “safely” within their portable coops. A pair of dogs (pit bulls or mixes from their appearance) tore the pens apart.
After all that effort and expense, we were left with one breeding trio. (In some future post, maybe I can tell about our experiences raising turkeys). Turkeys are not the prolific layers that some other kinds of birds are, so I didn’t notice right away. Eventually, Joe and I compared notes and determined that neither of us had gotten any turkey eggs in a while. Then one day, I caught them in the act of eating one. These were older birds that had produced our fertile hatching eggs, so they were not young and tender anymore. Now we have 28 quarts of turkey soup!