A Guide to Chicken Treats and Eats
What is safe to feed my chickens?
One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, "Is it safe to feed this to my chickens?" The answer, the vast majority of the time, is "yes". As a general rule, chickens can eat many of the same things we eat. They are omnivores, so they will happily consume fruit, vegetables, grains, and meat as a healthy part of their diet, but there are some exceptions. Chickens should not be fed foods that are sugary or salty, and simple carbohydrates like bread, crackers, and fries should be fed only in moderation. Spoiled, rotten, or moldy food should never be fed to chickens, and a few items--like dried beans and avocado skins--contain toxins that could harm your flock. Also, just like us, chickens should never eat green potatoes, nor the green plants of tomatoes, potatoes, and other nightshade species, although the fruits of these plants are perfectly safe for chickens to enjoy. Just like us, the issue of chicken health and digestion is a complex one, so let's break it down into easily-digestible sections, starting with things that make great chicken treats.
Excellent Chicken Treats
To start with, let's look at some very good choices for chicken treats, and what makes them so appealing:
A readily-available chicken treat, sold at most farm supply stores, mealworms are the larval stage of the darkling beetle, and are typically sold in a freeze-dried form. They can also be purchased live from some retailers and breeders, and raised at home for a steady (mostly free) supply. An excellent source of protein, they aren't just tasty, but nutritious as well.
Leafy greens can include a wide range of vegetables, including most varieties of lettuce, cabbage, and kale. Iceberg lettuce should be avoided, as it contains no substantial nutritional value, but romaine, green and red leaf, arugula, kale, red and green cabbage, bok choy, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, and chard all make excellent, nutritious chicken snacks that will help your hens produce rich, dark yolks. Spinach should be fed sparingly, as it can affect calcium absorption and result in thin-shelled eggs. Also, if you feed your chickens or other fowl red cabbage, don't be alarmed by the inordinately colorful poops that will result.
Although the plant is slightly toxic and should never be fed to chickens, the fruit of the tomato plant is a fun chicken treat at all stages, green and ripe.
Zucchini, pumpkins, and other species of squash are delicious chicken treats that serve double-duty with their juicy flesh and protein-rich seeds. Contrary to popular belief, feeding your chickens pumpkin seeds won't act as a natural wormer, but it will make your chickens happy and keep them busy for a while.
Dried beans must never be fed to chickens (or any other animal, including us) because they contain a toxin called lectin. Cooked beans however are nutritious and will provide your birds with a protein-rich treat. Likewise, feel free to feed your chickens cooked lentils, peas, and other legumes.
The vast majority of fruit we eat is also safe for chickens. Strawberries, pears, apples, peaches, plums, grapes, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, and mulberries will all make excellent chicken treats. Chickens tend to turn their beaks up at citrus, but as there is some dispute over whether or not citrus is good for them, this isn't a bad thing. Don't worry about pits and seeds--chickens would have a difficult time consuming enough apple seeds to sicken themselves let alone cause death, and they are unlikely to attempt to eat large pits like those in peaches and plums.
Corn and Grains
Corn is a common ingredient in chicken feed and scratch, so it should come as no surprise that it is a safe and healthy chicken treat as well. Cooked or dried, chickens will enjoy it as an occasional treat. Other grains like milo, oats, and millet can also make good treats for your flock.
Sunflower seeds, especially black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS) make a great, protein-rich snack that can be fed to your chickens whole and in the shell. Often recommended for molting hens, BOSS will help encourage feather growth and egg production.
This may surprise you, but eggs and egg shells are very good chicken treats as well. In fact, hens will naturally eat any broken or defective eggs they find to recycle the nutrients and keep the nests clean, often leaving very little evidence behind except for a residue of yolk on the remaining eggs. If you feed eggs back to your chickens, it is recommended that they be cooked and cooled completely first--not to prevent egg eating, as is commonly believed, but to maximize the amount of nutrition your chickens can get from the eggs they eat. Eggshells should be rinsed, dried and crushed, then offered to the hens as an additional source of calcium. Leave crushed egg shell in a separate container to encourage them to only eat what they need, and not consume excess calcium in their feed.
Meat & Fish
Another healthy treat that often surprises new chicken owners is meat. Beef, pork, turkey, fish, or even (yes) chicken can be fed back to your birds as a source of protein. It is recommended that the meat be cooked before it is fed to your chickens, to reduce the risk of illness or parasites, but if you are confident about the source of your meat, the chickens will just as happily eat it raw. Your chickens may find meat on their own as well, actively hunting small prey like mice, lizards, frogs, and snakes. Avoid processed meats like bologna, sausage, etc. as the salt content in these products is very hard on chickens' small bodies.
Nuts and Seeds
Shelled pecans, walnuts, and other tree nuts make tasty, protein-rich snacks. Although a bit expensive to be buying from the grocery store, if you have a tree in your yard already producing these treasures, feel free to crack a few open and toss them to the birds. Your chickens will greatly enjoy picking the meat of the nut from the shell, and it can serve as an enrichment object.
Juicy and sweet, cucumbers make a great treat for chickens on a hot summer day, or a fun enrichment object to chase away the winter blues.
So-So Chicken Snacks
Of course, a lot of things that aren't dangerous for chickens aren't great for them, either. Just like us, chickens should be fed only small amounts of "junk" food to avoid obesity, especially since chickens who are becoming obese often won't show any outward signs. The foods listed below should be offered only in moderation.
A popular, traditional treat for fowl, bread is actually a poor choice for a regular snack. Because it is loaded with simple carbohydrates, it offers very little nutritional value and can make your flock obese if fed in excess.
Although potatoes themselves are not necessarily harmful to chickens, they are not typically very nutritious and can contribute to obesity if fed regularly. Many potato products, like fries and chips, are also loaded with salt which is hard on your chickens' kidneys. Of course, just like people, chickens should never eat any potatoes or potato skins that have turned green due to toxins in the plant.
The problem with processed food is that in addition to likely having a lot of salt or sugar in it, it probably also offers very little nutritional value. Feed leftovers of this nature in moderation to avoid potential health issues.
Many chicken owners like to serve their flock a warm bowl of oatmeal on a chilly winter morning, but proceed with caution. What is warm to us can scald their crops, so any oatmeal you feed your flock should be allowed to cool completely before being served to them. Also, since processed oatmeal is not as nutritious as raw oats, they should be fed in moderation as a treat only. Do not add salt or sugar to your oatmeal, for the reasons that have been mentioned already.
Yogurt and other dairy products are often fed to chickens to provide them with probiotics and protein, but since chickens lack the digestive enzymes to process lactose, it can result in some digestive distress. If you feed your flock dairy products, feed in moderation and look for products that have less lactose or are lactose-free. Also, avoid feeding your birds any sugary items like ice cream or sweetened yogurt, as the sugar can upset their systems.
If you have a package of mushrooms in the fridge that have progressed to that slightly-slimy, can't-bring-myself-to-eat-this stage, they're still safe for chickens to eat, but how much nutritional content they offer is questionable. For obvious reasons, it's not recommended to feed your chickens mushrooms you find growing in the yard unless you are an experienced mushroom hunter and know that they are safe to eat.
What NOT to Feed Your Chickens
A few food items are not only not good for chickens, but could sicken or even kill them. Here are some common items from the kitchen and garden that should never be tossed in the chicken run.
Although many chicken owners report that their chickens have eaten the flesh of avocados for years with no adverse effects, the pits and skins are known to contain a substance that is toxic to birds. To be on the safe side, never offer your chickens intact avocados, and use your own judgement on whether or not you want to risk them eating the flesh itself.
Moldy, rotten, or spoiled food
It should go without saying that when you're cleaning out your fridge, you shouldn't give your chickens the terrifying monstrosity you unearthed from the back of the produce drawer, but many people still believe it's fine to toss their birds food that has overtly spoiled or is covered in mold. Use your own judgement when giving your flock food that has started to turn, but remember that chickens are not invincible. If they consume food contaminated with the same molds and bacterias that make us sick--such as botulism or mycotoxin-producing molds--they can likewise become sick and die.
Sugar and Salt
Chickens are not equipped physically to process large quantities of salt and sugar. If that leftover cake has gone a little stale, it's better to put it in the trash than in the chicken run.
Chocolate, Coffee, and other Caffeinated Substances
Although I am not certain why anyone would waste perfectly good chocolate in this fashion, it is not advised to feed your poultry chocolate. In addition to the sugar content, chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine--both substances known to cause health issues and death in a variety of animals. Likewise, coffee, energy drinks, and other caffeinated items should never be fed to the flock.
Yes, styrofoam. This is less of a recommendation to not feed your chickens styrofoam (because most people have the good sense not to) and a warning that IF your chickens find styrofoam, they will eat it. They will eat all of it. They can't help themselves, it's like chicken crack to them. If you have styrofoam coolers, fishing floats, halloween decorations, etc. keep them out of your chickens' reach or the chickens will eat them. Although I have never had a chicken die from consuming styrofoam, it is better not to take the chance. (Besides, who wants to have to replace all of their coolers every couple of weeks?)
The Questionable List
There are some items that are purportedly bad for chickens, but in my experience chickens will ignore anyway. Save yourself the trouble and put these items in the compost or trash instead of offering them to your flock.
Believed to inhibit proper calcium absorption, citrus fruits like limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines are not recommended for chickens.
Garlic and Onions
Unlikely to eat this if they have other, tastier options, hens who consume onions or garlic often produce funky-smelling poop and strong-flavored eggs.
For the same reasons that asparagus makes our bathroom visits unusually aromatic, asparagus should not be fed to chickens. Not that it matters much, since asparagus is one of the few garden plants chickens seem happy to leave untouched.
Raw Potato Peels
Uncooked potatoes are about as interesting to chickens as eating notebook paper is to us, but even so it's recommended not to give them the option due to the risk of eyes or green skin.
Of course, you don't have to buy the treats you feed your flock. Many wonderful, delicious snacks are growing right in your own backyard. Consider feeding some of the following to your chickens when nature provides:
- All varieties of clover
- Dandelion greens
- Lamb's Quarter
- Greater and Lesser Plantain
Your yard is also full of delicious, protein-rich goodies like grasshoppers, cicadas, crickets, and wild roaches. If you can't let your chickens free range to find these treats themselves, consider rounding up a few yourself and tossing them into the run.
If you decide to feed your flock grass clippings, be aware that doing so can pose a slight risk of crop issues due to the compacted nature of clippings from a powered mower. Monitor your flock for signs of impacted or sour crop, or forego giving your flock lawn clippings unless you can use an old-fashioned rotary mower to collect them.
When can I start feeding my chicks treats?
Another frequent question I get is, "at what age can I start giving my chicks treats?" The answer is that chicks can start eating treats from day one, as long as they have access to grit. "Grit" is small stones and pebbles that birds swallow to act as their teeth, grinding food up into digestible bits in their gizzards. Without grit, large pieces of food would sit in the chickens' gut and spoil before it could be digested, possibly sickening or even killing the bird.
In nature, chicks would find the grit they need naturally while foraging with their mother hen, but in a brooder, that grit has to be provided. Chick-sized grit can be purchased at most feed and farm supply stores, but it can also be found in the soil of your own backyard. Grit should be offered separately from their feed so that they don't consume it in place of their actual food and suffer from malnutrition as a result.
Your chicks will often turn their beaks up to a treat the first time they see it, unless they are particularly adventurous. In nature, it's dangerous to eat things you don't recognize, so the chicks will wait for guidance to indicate that a new food item is safe to eat. Tapping it with your finger and offering them small pieces of the new food item will help get the message across, and once one chick starts digging in, the rest will follow its lead.
If there's anything I didn't cover, or if you still have questions, feel free to leave a comment below. Happy chickening!