Making and Using Trapnests
For additional trapnest designs and a more detailed discussion of nest-trapping, see The Trapnest: Indispensable Tool for Improvement Breeding.
And do note, in case you’re considering building this type of trapnest: Though it is hands-down the best design I have tried, its construction as described below is not perfect. See “Improving This Trapnest Design” for modifications I plan to make to this design.
When I first started raising chickens, I remember seeing trap nests for sale from poultry equipment suppliers. Now, I can’t find them anywhere. So I made my own.
I’ve seen a number of designs for trap nests, including one in Rolfe Cobleigh’s Handy Farm Devices and How to Make Them, a useful book for the homesteader, first published in 1909. Modern homesteaders could enter “trap nest” into a search engine and find workable designs.
But my own design emerged during one of my father’s visits when we tackled the trap nest project. After mulling over a couple of designs I showed him, he concluded he didn’t much like either, and proposed, “Why don’t we do it the way Grandaddy used to put together his rabbit boxes?” I remembered my grandfather’s rabbit traps (or “rabbit gums,” as the old-timers called them), with which he caught hundreds of rabbits on his place. Despite some skepticism about turning a trap for rabbits into one for hens, I agreed to give it a try. The design has worked well for me—perhaps you’d like to try it as well.
The following description sketches the assembly of two units, each containing two separate trap nests.
- One sheet of plywood, CDX
- Small nails for edge-nailing the plywood and nailing on strips
- 8 – #10 2 or 2-½-inch self-drilling screws
- 2 – 8-ft 1×4 pine boards
- 2 – 24×12 inch pieces of ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth
- An additional few small pieces of hardware cloth, any mesh (optional)
- 8 – open screw hooks (about 2-½ inches or so)
- 1 – ½-inch dowel, 36 inches long
The above are the materials needed if starting from scratch. Buy ½-inch or 5/8-inch plywood, depending on which you are confident you can edge-nail effectively. However, many homesteads will have on hand enough scrap from other projects to piece together what is needed. I used some scrap ¾-inch plywood for the sides and backs, and ½-inch for the tops. The door stops, front perches, and nest fronts I cut from 1-inch rough-cut poplar. All the required strips I cut from “one-by” scrap. There’s no problem altering the suggested dimensions to accommodate the material you’re working with, so long as sufficient interior space is allowed for the laying hens. The nails I used were 4d 1-3/8-inch and 6d 1-7/8-inch coated sinkers.
(A) Start by cutting 2 – 12×24 pieces of plywood for the backs, and 6 – 12×18 pieces for the sides and middle partitions.
(B) I cut little windows into the sides of the nests, a step that’s probably not really necessary. I cut them in the four exterior side pieces only (not in the interior partitions), making the openings about 4×9.
(C) Cut 2 – 16-¼x24 pieces of plywood for the tops. Drill two 5/8-inch holes for the “trigger sticks” in these top pieces, 6 inches in from the sides and 6 inches in from the back. When drilling through plywood, the exit hole tends to be a bit ragged. Since you want a nice sharp edge to engage the notch in the trigger stick, be sure to start drilling into the side that will be on the inside of the nest. For good ventilation, you can add a few other 5/8-inch holes in the top as well.
(D and E) Nail the top onto the back and exterior sides, using the smaller nails (4d 1-3/8-inch), aligning as in the picture. Then nail in the interior partition in the middle of the box thus formed.
(F) You’ll want to switch to a somewhat larger nail (6d 1-7/8-inch) for some of the nailing in the next several steps. Cut one of your 1×4’s in half crosswise, then rip one of the resulting 4-ft pieces in half. From the ripped pieces, cut pieces that will stop the doors when they drop. Study the picture of this step carefully, because you can do it more easily than we did. We cut individual pieces that we inset into the spaces between the sides and interior partitions. Not only did that mean more cutting and fitting, but we had to toenail one of the inside ends. You’re much smarter than that, so you’re going to cut a single ripped piece to 24 inches, and nail it underneath the front ends of the exterior sides and the interior partition. (When you look at the picture, imagine the two interior cross pieces replaced by a single piece, and the ends of the exterior sides and interior partition sitting on top of it.)
(G) Now nail another of the ripped pieces, cut to 24 inches, across the bottom front, aligning as in the picture. This is the perch on which the hen stands as she looks into the interior—the perfect place to lay an egg. (I later rounded off the sharp edges with a wood rasp, and it’s nice to the hen’s feet if you do as well.)
(H) Cut nest-front pieces from (unripped) 1×4. The length will be 24 inches minus the thickness of your sides and interior partition, divided by 2. I was using ¾-inch stock, so I cut mine to 10-7/8 inches. Nail these pieces in place to serve as fronts for the nests, setting them 5 inches in from the front edge. We want the nesting material to be held behind this piece, so the hen will completely enter the nest before triggering the door. (If it triggers early and whacks her behind, she will become shy of the nest.) Note that in this case there is no alternative to toe-nailing the end of one of these pieces where it butts to the interior partition. If you have cut windows in the sides, at this point you can staple hardware cloth over the windows to keep smaller hens from escaping.
(I) Reader please note! From this point, the original information about ripping and mounting the “tracking strips” will have to be revised entirely if you make the modifications to this design noted below in “Improving This Trapnest Design.” Rip your remaining 1×4 stock into strips as needed. I used ¾-inch and ½-inch strips for the door tracks and for fastening hardware cloth onto the bottom of the nests, respectively. (Thus if you are using 1×4 nominal stock, you will end up with strips of actual ¾x¾, and ½x¾.) You will need approximately 14 ft of ½ inch strips, and approximately 22 ft of ¾ inch strips.
(J) Turn nest unit upside down. Cut ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth to 24 inches long and wide enough (12 or 13 inches or so) to span the bottom of the nesting areas (only). Secure the hardware cloth to the underside edges of the nest areas, using small nails and ½-inch strips cut to needed lengths. (Note that I always use ¼-inch hardware cloth for the bottoms of nest boxes, never solid bottoms. Finer, dustier material sifts out through the wire, I renew the nests with fresh straw from above, and the nests remain largely self-cleaning.)
(K) Cut ¾-inch strips into 16 – 16-inch pieces. Nail into place as in the picture, aligning the front strip with the front edge of the side or partition, and using a 1-inch spacer to ensure that the back strip is exactly parallel to the front strip. These pairs of vertical strips will define the “track” through which the door falls. (Strips need only be lightly tacked into place using the smaller nails—they will bear no load.) Attach some sort of “bumper” over the door stop (so the door doesn’t bang down too loudly and panic the hen). I used strips cut from an old bicycle inner tube.
(L) The unit is now ready to install. If you attach a cleat to the wall (say, a scrap piece of 2×4), it will be easy to install it by yourself. Otherwise, get a buddy to assist. (I was lucky to have a conveniently located structural member of the henhouse wall to serve this support function instead.)
(M) Attachment to the wall must be rock-solid. I used four #10 – 2-½-inch self-drilling screws for each unit. (By “self-drilling,” I mean screws such as deck screws not requiring pre-drilling of pilot holes.)
(N) Cut doors 12 inches high from plywood or any stock that you have that is ¾-inch thick. The width is determined by the thickness of material you have used for sides and partition and allowing ¼ inch clearance on each side within the door’s tracking slot. I cut mine to 10-½ inches. Drill holes in the exact center of the top of each door, and screw in a hook. Position another hook overhead, screwed into any accessible structural member of the building. The position of this hook is the most critical alignment in the whole setup: I used a plumb bob to ensure that the overhead hook was precisely perpendicular from the door hook.
(O) Cut a ½-inch dowel into 9-inch pieces for the trigger sticks. Use a saw to cut 5/16 inch through the dowel, 3-½ inches from what will be the lower end. (This cut is made with a saw because the “shoulder” we are shaping here must be well squared, in order to engage the edge of the trigger hole without slipping.) Drill a 3/16-inch hole near the other end of the trigger stick. Using a knife, whittle a notch that starts about 1-½ inches toward the upper end and comes down to the inside of the “shoulder” of the notch. (See picture.)
(P) Time to put it all together. Tie a string between the hole in the top of the trigger stick and the hook in the top of the door, running it through the hook above the door. (Strong braided string that will not stretch is best—e.g., mason twine.) The length of the string will depend on the position of the upper hook, of course. Hook the edge of the notch in the trigger stick into the trigger hole, and suspend the door from the upper hook, hanging within its tracking slot. Door should hang slightly above the upper edge of the top of the nest box, so the hen’s back will not bump it as she enters the nest, triggering premature release. Note that the weight of the door creates tension on the string, which keeps the trigger stick securely notched in the trigger hole.
(Q) See picture of the lower end of the trigger stick in the “set” position from the inside. As the hen begins her self-important little ballet settling into the nest, she is certain to bump against the trigger stick, knocking it loose and allowing the door to fall into blocking position.
Using Trap Nests
Nest-trapping is simple: The door falls shut when the hen enters the nest, leaving her trapped until you release her and make a note of her achievement. You don’t need to nest-trap all the time—that would be far too time-consuming. Just set up a schedule for trapping and stick to it. For example, you might trap for the same three days of each week during the month when you are selecting your breeder hens. Check the nests frequently throughout the day, especially the mornings—at least every hour, more frequently as you have more hens in relation to the number of trap nests. (If “urgent” hens lay in the litter, there go your carefully accumulated records.) Use the same nests for both trapping and regular laying (with the doors removed). The hens will get accustomed to using them, and laying cycles will not be disturbed by a change of nests. You can code each egg in pencil when you release the hen, or make a note on a sheet you keep by the nest—whatever makes record-keeping easy.
If the upper hook is not precisely positioned overhead, the door will not fall straight and may jam in the tracking slot. If changing the position of the hook doesn’t solve the problem, you can box in the sides of the tracking slot with thin strips, ensuring that the door cannot veer to one side as it falls.
If you find it difficult to get the trigger stick to stay locked in the trigger hole, try passing the string from the trigger stick through an additional hook overhead (before it continues on to the hook over the door). In this case, however, you do not want the overhead hook to be in line with the trigger hole. Position the second hook at enough of an angle to notch the trigger stick securely in the trigger hole.
If hens fly up to the front perch, they may jostle the door, triggering premature release. A preliminary step up to the nest will ensure a less jarring approach.
Doors can be left in the closed position at night if your chickens like sleeping in the nests. A lightweight slanted cover can be put into place on top of the nest unit at night to prevent the birds’ roosting there.
Improving This Trapnest Design
This trapnest, featuring a door that drops only when triggered by a hen entirely in the capture space, is the closest to one-hundred-percent effective I have found. However, its construction, as described in the above step-by-step, could be improved. Look carefully at the expanded picture “(P) Doors Set” above (click on the thumbnail). Note how the tracking strips prevent any wobble of the door’s fall front-to-back. However, above the level of the sides of the nestbox itself, the tracking strips do not constrain movement of the falling door side-to-side. Even if the hook overhead is absolutely centered over the door, even the tiniest deviation in the door’s fall left to right can cause the door to catch on the edge of a side, or to wedge against the side of the track farther down. As well, the length of the string has to be so precisely calibrated as to require a tedious amount of fiddling to get it right.
I recently modified my “rabbit box” trapnests by “boxing in” the track through which the door falls entirely. I made U-shaped tracking assemblies of wood strips, and fastened them to the nestbox front to create a tracking slot. The channel assemblies are long enough to fully contain the door, both when it is suspended in its set position, and at every point along its fall. Sketched below are two views of the modification I made, one from the side of the nestbox, the other looking down on its front from above.
I am including photographs, drawings, and detailed construction instructions for this modification in the revised edition of my book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, which I am told will be available in September, 2022.