Chickens Will Eat It All! (So Be Careful)

What will chickens eat? Honestly, just about anything, so be careful of the few things that can hurt your flock of precious birds.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Jan Baborák/Unsplash

“Not again!” My son Jaeson caught me red handed as I put a rubbery zucchini and the remains of last week’s cantaloupe into our kitchen compost crock. It’s not that he hates seeing food go to waste (I certainly do!). Rather, he laments that our elderly produce’s final destination is not our compost heap but our chicken run.

“Those birds eat better than I do!” he complained.

Jaeson is actually quite correct in his observation, but not in the manner he intended. He grumpily meant that our chickens eat more of our groceries than we do. And he’s somewhat right. Our flocks do indeed benefit from our kitchen scraps, stale bread, unwanted leftovers, and shriveled fruits and vegetables.

Voracious Omnivores

My interpretation of Jaeson’s complaint, however, is that chickens do indeed eat better than a lot of humans, especially picky kids (aka Jaeson) who refuse to eat anything but pasta and pizza.

Chickens are omnivores that eat both plant matter and animal-based proteins. They’ll spend hours foraging for insects. And they’ll gladly eat any frogs, mice and snakes they manage to catch.

Chickens will also chow down on scrambled eggs, aging meat loaf and—yes—even leftover chicken.

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Nobody liked your tuna casserole? Your chickens will eat it. Grilled too many hot dogs? Your chickens will help you out with that, too.

Read more: Black soldier flies are a self-harvesting chicken feed.

Fruit Fanatics

Chickens also adore anything with seeds: melons, bell peppers, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, you name it. Stone fruit is a particular favorite. My hens just seem to know when I’ve eaten all I can of a peach, plum or nectarine and will polish the rest of the fruit right off the pit.

The little rascals have also swiped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pizza slices right out of my sons’ unsuspecting hands. Lesson learned: Don’t eat around the chickens unless you intend to share!

My birds are also rather fond of my holiday fruitcake, which is more than I can say for my immediate family. Chickens truly have remarkable palates!

Treat Seekers

Our birds are also very astute when it comes to recognizing where to find especially tasty treats. The moment one of our chickens sees us toting our kitchen crock in their direction, they sound the alert. Suddenly all of our birds dash out of their coops, gathering by the gates in anticipation of delectable delights.

We had to fence in our vegetable garden to keep the chooks from demolishing our salad greens, radishes, turnips, corn shoots and baby melons. I also discovered that the handful of Orpington hens that kept ranging into the woods weren’t being purposely dense. They’d discovered the raspberry canes that thrive there.

I’ve also lost track of how many times I’ve shooed chickens (and turkeys!) off our deck railing, which provided them with convenient access to our wild-bird feeders and their yummy assortment of bird seed.

Read more: Learn more about the 5 essential nutrients in chicken feed.

Forbidden Foods

Despite their voracious appetite for everything, chickens should stay away from several human foodstuffs which are safe for us but can be troublesome or downright dangerous for them. These include:

  • Avocado: One of the most dangerous plants for birds, avocado in all forms fruit, stem, leaf and seed—can cause myocardial necrosis (the death of cardiomyocyte heart tissue), toxicosis and even death when ingested.
  • Chocolate: Theobromine, a chemical found in chocolate, is extremely toxic to chickens, causing life-threatening arrhythmia, seizures and death. In addition to keeping chocolate in any form away from your flock, avoid using mulch that contains cocoa-bean hulls.
  • Raw Bread Dough: The yeast in raw bread dough thrives inside the stomach, where it multiplies, causing abdominal bloat and breathing difficulties. Furthermore, as the yeast ferments, it produces ethanol. This compound gets absorbed into the blood stream, leading to alcohol poisoning.
  • Raw Potato/Potato Peels: Solanine, a substance found in raw potatoes and potato peels, is toxic to chickens, causing vomiting, diarrhea and central nervous system disorders. Note: Thoroughly cooked potato is safe for chickens to consume.

While I may not be making a chocolate-avocado layer cake any time soon (neither my family nor my chickens will eat it), I do prepare potatoes frequently. And while he may grouse about our chickens getting lots of our leftovers, Jaeson has taken to eating his potatoes with peels on … his way of making sure our flocks stay safe.

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