Most every animal-keeper knows the value of treats, and chicken-keepers are not an exception! Treats can provide a great bonding experience between poultry and humans, and can even be used for training.
For example, researchers wanting to better understand chicken behavior and cognition train chickens to peck at a certain object by rewarding them with a treat. Similarly, backyard chicken owners can train chickens to come when called by using treats as a reward. This can be a great way to consistently get backyard flocks to return to the coop at night.
For success in training, positive reinforcement tactics with treats is key. Just like with dogs, punishment-based training methods are counterproductive. This is especially true for chickens since they have reactive prey instincts.
Chickens have a behavioral and physiological response when they anticipate getting a treat. This anticipation of consuming a treat is linked to the reward centers within their brain. One experiment (“Effects of haloperidol, a dopamine D2-like receptor antagonist, on reward-related behaviors in laying hens,” Moe et al., Physiology & Behavior, 2011) found that chickens increase their head movement and remain alert, with their head and neck stretched, when they anticipate receiving a treat.
In fact, the more desirable the treat (for example, if the treat includes mealworms or insects vs. whole wheat) the more they showed head movement, as shown in another experiment (“Effects of signalled reward 482 type, food status and a µ-opioid receptor antagonist on cue-induced anticipatory behaviour in 483 laying hens [Gallus domesticus],” Moe et al., Applied Animal Behavior Science, 2013).
Nutrition & Chicken Treats
Even though poultry feed is considered a complete and balanced diet, treats can be a very beneficial supplement. Poultry feeds are formulated based on the protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals of various ingredients.
Chicken treats can provide additional, more flexible nutrition.
Supplementing your flock with treats gives you the ability to tailor their diet based on what they need most. For example, most chicken-approved kitchen scraps can be a great treat for a flock. However, fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs have limited nutritional value because of their high-water content.
These types of fresh food scraps can help keep a flock hydrated. Oftentimes, however, the water content dilutes most of the nutritional benefit. Dried fruits and vegetables are more shelf stable than fresh, meaning they’re more nutrient-dense and provide a higher amount of nutrients, especially vitamins and minerals.
Insects are highly beneficial and a poultry favorite, which is why they’re often included in treats! Birds are omnivores and love snacking on insects—those they catch in the coop and garden and the dried insects found on store shelves.
In general, most insects and their larvae are a good source of protein and fat and are highly digestible, although they can have a varying nutrient profile. For example, the macronutrient (carbohydrates, fat) profile and amino acid digestibility between black solider fly larvae and mealworms are similar. However, black solider fly larvae tends to have a much higher amount of calcium and a slightly lower level of crude protein than mealworms.
When it comes to insect treats, safety and sustainability should be taken into consideration as well. For example, black solider fly larvae are more sustainable to grow than other insects. They have a mechanism in which enzymes are secreted to aid in the digestion and absorption of nutrients, allowing their growth cycle to be relatively shorter and more efficient.
Another factor that affects the safety and nutrient value of these insects is how they are grown and processed. If the feed fed to black solider fly larvae contains heavy metals, this can lead to heavy metal accumulation in the larvae. Heavy metal poisoning affects the health of our chickens, and these minerals can also potentially contaminate their meat and eggs.
Salmonella can also be a concern with dried insects. When salmonella was introduced during mealworm production, it resulted in contamination and remained within the larvae through processing, as shown in “Salmonella Typhimurium Level in Mealworms (Tenebrio molitor) after Exposure to Contaminated Substrate,” Jensen et al., Frontiers in Microbiology, 2020). Selecting insects grown in countries that have strict feed and treat safety regulations, such as the United States, help to ensure the insects are safe for our birds to eat.
More Than Corn
Offering treats to poultry isn’t a novel idea. However, the variety of options for the type of treat is!
Historically, scratch grain was considered the original poultry treat. In the early 20th century, poultry were primarily fed by scattering grain on the ground, thus the term “scratch grain.” Generally speaking, the term referred to corn, wheat and other grains.
Now, because of the progress of nutritional science and poultry nutrition, treats have come a long way. Scratch grain is still available as a treat, but the definition has expanded to include a variety of ingredients such as corn, barley, oats, wheat and more.
These ingredients are high in carbohydrates but may not necessarily be balanced in other nutrients, such as protein and minerals.
The carbs in scratch grain are a good energy source for our birds, especially with colder temperatures. But the inclusion of other ingredients, such as insects, can increase the nutrient value and take the treat from good to great! A balanced blend of ingredients such as black solider fly larvae, mealworms, dried fruits and vegetables, and/or herbs can offer the most nutrient-dense option and provide the best value.
Researchers and backyard poultry-keepers agree that chickens enjoy treats, especially highly palatable ones! They’re an effective, positive way to train poultry while also offering a solution for boredom and fun interaction. However, like most things, moderation is key when feeding treats, and treats should not make up more than 10 percent of a flock’s diet.
To best support your chicken flock, consider supplementing their diet with treats that offer functionality and nutritional value. You may even discover that they prefer different treats during different times of year or based on what’s happening in their environment. When you find the right treats for your flock, everyone—keepers and birds alike—will be that much happier and healthier.
Mikayla Baxter, Ph.D., is the Digestive Health Products Manager at Perdue Animal Nutrition. This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.