Written by Nikkie, Oh Mowsie
Chronic egg laying is a serious topic for the owners of hens. It can be annoying at the very least for a human companion to deal with, but it's a HEALTH RISK for your hen. For breeders who allow their birds to over-lay, chicks can suffer the consequences by deformation, weak constitutions and high mortality if they are among the chicks of a second or third clutch. For hens, laying soft shelled eggs, calcium and vitamin depletion, impaction, egg binding and death can occur if chronic egg laying isn't addressed. During my time as a moderator here at Tailfeathers, one of the most common questions I've encountered here on the board is from those who need help for hens who are constantly laying eggs. This is a serious situation that needs to be addressed, so I decided to write this article for those who are going through this problem with their hens NOW and need a point of reference immediately, and for those who may not be right this moment, but who can rest assured that they'll know what to do in the future should the need arise.
There are a few species of birds that seem to be "at risk" for becoming chronic egg layers, namely: budgies (parakeets), cockatiels, lovebirds and finches. These birds in particular run the risk of laying eggs despite having mates or not, laying many clutches in a row, and laying large clutches. That doesn't mean that other bird species are exempt from egg laying concerns however. What it does mean is that if you do have one of the "at risk" species, you should be more diligent in egg laying prevention so as not to provoke her to lay in the first place.
Above: cockatiel egg
The Young and The Restless
Hens can come into maturity in some species as early as six months (perhaps even earlier in some of the smaller species), so keep that in mind. It's not uncommon for a hen to "lay an egg" to show off the fact that she's ready to rock. It may just be one solitary egg or perhaps two whether or not she has a mate. That's the first cue that this may be a bird to watch in the future. If she's laying eggs that young and that easily, signs are, she'll drop 'em like an automatic tennis-ball server when she's older. This is a good time to start some hormonal therapy to ensure she doesn't begin over-laying. This will be something you'll have to monitor her entire life.
The Mature & The Senseless
How sad: I've heard this story so many times. (I can't stand people who give away birds who are sitting on eggs. ::Sniffle: Q: I adopted a hen in a crappy cage and she's sitting on a clutch of eggs. I want to change her cage to a better one, but what do I do with the eggs? She's protective of them. A: Well, you leave the eggs with her until you know for sure they are not going to hatch, which is about 28 days, and then you remove them. Don't take her eggs away until she stops sitting or she'll lay more to replace them. THIS is the key. Once a hen has laid eggs, DON'T remove them! A hen can COUNT! Oh YES she can. Don't fool yourself into thinking that she cannot! She knows precisely how many eggs she has and if one is gone, she WILL lay another! That is the biggest mistake people make with eggs. If it is unwanted, they toss it. Egg chucking is the number one cause of over laying I can think of off hand!
Mature hens can, at any given time, decide to lay a clutch of eggs if their hormones shift into "drive", whether or not they have a mate. Now, for someone who has never seen this, it may seem "cute" to see your little hen playing "house" with her clutch, acting protective of her baby eggs, rolling them about, tucking them under her, and sitting like a chicken. BUT, it's not cute. Especially if she doesn't stop at just that one clutch. Keep in mind, once her hormones have shifted into "drive" and she's laid a clutch, chances are, she'll do it again and possibly AGAIN, and yet, AGAIN. The next thing you know, you'll feel like you're living at Foster Farms and the health of your bird is at stake with every clutch she lays.
Ah yes, the breeding birds. As if sitting on a clutch of eggs for 21 to 28 days isn't enough, upchucking into the babies' itty-bitty mouths for 6+ weeks isn't enough, why on EARTH would a hen want to turn around and double clutch? That is, lay another clutch right on top of the one that is about to fledge the nest? You got me! But, it happens and too frequently! In my mind, this is just as much the Daddy bird's fault as it is the Mommy bird, because after all, the Dad is there providing stimulus for the Mom to lay (AGAIN), but there you have it. She starts popping out more eggs. Oh man! And the whole thing starts all over again? And, sometimes again? (Yes, I've even heard of triple clutching). What a nightmare! If it goes that far, it's entirely owner fault because the birds should have been separated by that point, however that is this author's opinion of course.
So now you have the most common scenarios for laying. Now I will discuss preventative measures for all three.
The first cause of laying is external stimuli. If you can figure out what it is and remove it, you're on the right track.
Cover That Cage!
Most birds are stimulated by daylight. So, if you cut back on the hours of daylight they get, it "tricks their internal clocks" into thinking that it's winter time (hence, not breeding season). Most avian veterinarians recommend 10 to 12 hours of dark, unstimulated rest for birds who are in a hormonal frenzy. So, COVER THAT CAGE. My vet even takes it a step further for hens that are really into laying those eggs. Place her in a smaller cage that is easily transported and at bedtime, move her to a room where it's nice and quiet (no TV, phones ringing, foot traffic, etc.). Cover her up and maybe leave a small night-light on to prevent frights. If she has eggs, fine, take her eggs with her because she should not be parted from them. If you don't have a room that is not quiet, a walk in closet will work too (as long as it's not too hot and stuffy). Leave the door partially ajar and leave a light on in the room, or place a "stick-up" night light in the closet with your henny. If you're worried about her having a fright, put a baby monitor in with her so you can hear her. In the morning, remove her from the bedroom or closet and bring her back out to be with the family, but make SURE she gets that 10-12 hours of QUIET, uninterrupted sleep where no one disturbs her. Use this as a guide: If you have to be up at 6 am to go to work, cover her at 6 pm and get her up with you at 6 am. That's 12 hours. Do this for 6 weeks (the four weeks she's on her eggs and two weeks afterwards) to turn her clock around. Gradually slide back the hours until she can sleep in her normal area, but never allow her to get any less than 9 hours of sleep. She'll always need that.
Cold Showers Work for Birds Too!
Well, okay, not COLD showers, but you get the drift. If your bird is hormonal (which she is if she's laying eggs), give her nice, drenching, lukewarm showers (if she likes showers) or at the very least, spray her down good with a plant mister. Get her good and wet. It's good for her feathers and it will help with her hormones.
Fat Bottomed Girls
Is she packing on the grams lately? Red beans and rice haven't missed her? Probably because she's eating enough to feed her AND a bunch of chicks. She's in hormonal mode and she's thinking ahead. So cut out the treats and millet, and cut back on the amount of food she gets to ONLY what she will eat in a day, but make sure the food she gets has lots of CALCIUM in it. DO NOT skimp on her cuttlebone and mineral block however. And I stress, she needs to have BOTH in her cage. When a bird is producing eggs, she's putting 30 % of her body's yearly calcium supply into her eggs. So, she needs to recoup it somewhere. A cuttlebone does not supply enough calcium so give her the mineral block as well, but it's not considered "food", so don't take it away. Now when I say cut back on her food, I mean the seeds and pellets. I don't mean her veggies. She can have all of that she wants. But no birdy junk food! She needs to think that she's in for a long lean winter and that there's no extra to feed chicks. If she's in that frame of mind, she won't go into "make babies" mode.
Home Sweet Nest
What is in her cage that she either a) masturbates on, b) shreds up for nesting material, c) hides behind or in, d) uses as a nest box, e) has bonded with. REMOVE IT!!!! While she is in "nest mode", her abode needs to be pretty sterile. A few toys that she cannot shred up for nesting material, her food cups, some utilitarian perches and THE GRATE. Sorry, but yes, if it's not there, PUT THAT GRATE BACK IN. Her cage needs to be functional but not exactly "nesty like" so she won't feel comfortable enough in it to set up housekeeping. Put the eggs (if she has them) on the cage floor (on top of the grate) and if she's interested enough... she can sit on them right there. The idea is to get her to lose interest in the eggs and the whole idea of nesting so she won't lay another clutch. Period. Every few days, rotate those perches around, move the toys here or there and maybe relocate the food cups. "Shake things up a bit". The sense of uncertainty will also discourage nesting behavior. It seems mean, but her health is much more important that Martha Stewart for birds at this point. You can always redecorate to plusher accommodations later, and just remember that if you observe her going into "nesty" mode at a later date, start with hormonal therapy by covering the cage and getting her cage back to the basics for a few weeks. Whatever you do, DON'T give her a nestbox if you see her laying eggs! She doesn't need it! You will be making things worse. She needs to sit on her eggs ON the grate.
Guys and Dolls
Does she have a boyfriend who sings to her? Does she have a bonded mate who has made her a mom several times over? Aside from the tips above, which all apply to the "bonded female" as well as the single female, you've also got consider that a hen can bond to a person as well as another bird. It can cause hormones to go crazy. So... whether your bird is attached to a human, a vacuum cleaner or another bird, you may have to separate that object of affection from your hen for a time, or at least, limit contact. Now with a human, it's easy to understand that while hormones are in full swing, there are things you just should not do: Don't pet her back, scratch her too much or do any of the things that make her tail go up in the air and cause her to squeak like an un-oiled wheel. A vacuum cleaner is an inanimate object whose feelings don't matter. Just stick it in the closet and run it at night when the cage is covered. But, a male bird will likely scream and cause a ruckus if separated from his beloved. No doubt, the hen will be most unhappy as well. Sadly, the MALE bird (sorry guys but it's true) is the WORST on female hormones. Putting them into separate rooms usually doesn't help because he'll just scream his fool head off and she can hear him. It makes them both miserable and the hormones "may" abate some, but the anxiety level increases (not just in the birds, but people as well). So, ick. But, you STILL have to separate the birds. Often times, you have TWO hormonal birds to deal with. My advice is this: place the birds in side by side cages where they can still see one another but cannot have physical contact, (no preening, no displaying, no looking for nest sites together within the cage). It eases A LOT of anxiety if they can just see each other. At night, cover both birds at the same time and make sure they BOTH get the required 12 hours of dark sleep. Remember that Dad is hormonal too and the same rules apply for him as they do for Mom. Cut back on Dad's food as well as Mom's and give him the same shower therapy. In the end, both birds will calm down. Dad will likely settle down and in turn, he won't stimulate Mom to lay with his courting behavior. *In the case of double clutching or triple clutching- A mom will not feed chicks while she's laying another clutch. In this case, separate mom and the eggs. Leave the chicks with dad as he's likely to be the one feeding. DO NOT cut back on Dad's food at this time, and MAKE SURE Dad can still see mom and that she's close by in another cage. Be prepared to intervene and handfeed the existing chicks in case Dad becomes upset and decides not to feed the chicks anymore.
After you've read this article, along with the Coping with Hormones article, you should be prepared for knowing IF your birds are becoming hormonal, and what to do to make sure egg laying doesn't start, and if it does start, how to prevent it from getting out of hand. Hormonal therapy is the key to success. Sometimes, however, birds are stubborn and require a little more intervention. If you've tried all of the tips mentioned above and your bird still lays clutch after clutch, it is time to consult your veterinarian. Most small birds are not candidates for surgery (spaying) unless an egg is stuck inside (egg-bound).
Above: X-ray of an egg bound cockatiel
There are a few methods for removing eggs that are impacted but they should only be attempted by an avian veterinarian. If the egg is trapped in the cloaca, sometimes just lubricating the cloaca and applying a massage and gentle pressure is enough to pop the egg out. Other times, more invasive techniques are needed, ranging from carefully drilling the egg and removing the contents inside, and then collapsing the egg and extracting it, to surgically removing the entire egg if it is lodged further up.
Preventative egg laying techniques provided by your vet usually include the use of hormone injections. This can be a costly solution, but lifesaving. Some have reported that Lupron injections don't always work, but most veterinarians agree that Lupron, if used in conjunction with home hormonal management like the tips described above, will keep your hen from over-producing eggs in the future.
My six cockatiel hens, Patchie, Taxi, Teika, Trinny, Tiggy and Paris, who are all in varying stages of their egg laying lives, wish everyone at Tailfeathers the best and hope that their experiences help other hens as they embark on the mysteries of becoming mature, healthy hens. And, as a note, I would like to thank Hehot for his witty inspiration to this article. Even in the serious tone of this article, life needs a smile.