In the past decade, there have been a handful of times that I’ve looked out my kitchen window, expecting to see nuthatches and chickadees at the wild-bird feeders hanging on my deck, only to find one of my hens precariously perched on the deck rail, happily gobbling up bird seed. I was amused at first. But the hilarity curtailed quickly when I realized how much bird seed my Orpington oinkers cost me.
I eventually switched to squirrel-proof—and poultry-proof—feeders, which solved that situation. Still, whenever I haul out the sacks of feed to refill the wild-bird feeders, my chickens suddenly dash towards the deck, hoping to get some seeds scattered their way.
I shared this story with an old friend not too long ago. Karen doesn’t keep chickens, but her deck is literally bedazzled by all colors, shapes and sizes of wild-bird feeders. She smiled as she visualized my Buff Orpington hens gorging themselves at my tube feeder. She then asked me, “Well, why not?”
Why not? I schooled my expression and changed the subject. But once I was home I practically ranted at my husband, Jae, about this exchange.
Feeding chickens bird seed, I remarked. Can you imagine? Jae just looked at me and replied, “Well, why not? They’re already eating it.”
When he saw my bewildered expression, he continued that surely it would be easier to just buy more sunflower and safflower seed than to buy those plus starter and grower and layer rations.
Two thoughts sprang to my mind.
One, my husband obviously was not reading all of my articles. Two, if Jae thought feeding our chickens a diet of bird seed was acceptable, then there surely must be other flock owners who might harbor the same mistaken notion.
Here are a trio of reasons why wild-bird seed is not an acceptable substitution for poultry feed.
Read more: Provide winter shelter for wild birds!
Depending on the manufacturer and the type of feed — starter, grower, or layer rations — a 50-pound sack of chicken feed costs approximately $17 (at least it does here in Michigan). A 40-pound bag of black-oil sunflower seed, however, costs $27. That may not seem like a huge difference, but it adds up. A 200-pound poultry-feed purchase comes out to $68, while a 200-pound sunflower-seed purchase totals $135. The wild-bird feed prices out at twice the cost of the poultry feed.
Migratory birds can carry and transmit such infectious bird diseases as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and exotic Newcastle disease (END) to backyard flocks. Research conducted by a team including Sonia Hernandez (professor of wildlife disease at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine) detected 14 wild-bird species—all considered at high risk for pathogen transmission—regularly entering backyard chicken coops to share the food and water meant for the flocks and a total of 72 species intermingling with chickens.
One can only assume that the rate of contamination would only increase if backyard flocks were fed a diet intended for wild birds.
Poultry feed is scientifically formulated to provide chickens with the nutrition they need for proper growth and development at each stage of their life. Without the right balance of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, poultry can fail to thrive, suffer from deficiency-related conditions, and become incapacitated if affected severely enough.
It is crucial to provide chickens with the right diet to keep them healthy. It is for this same reason that our flocks cannot be fed scratch grains or any other supplement as their main nutritional source.
In addition to not having the right nutrients, wild-bird feed is also high in fat and calories, neither of which are good for domestic chickens. A handful of sunflower seeds tossed to a flock every now and then as a treat is fine. Feeding chickens nothing but wild-bird feed can start them down a dangerous path of bad health … or worse.