Flock Talk: What’s “Normal” for Chickens to Eat?

In this Q&A, an author and chicken expert advises readers on the various things chickens eat, and what to do with surplus eggs.

by Lisa Steele
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Q: My chickens spend a lot of time outside the coop in my backyard. I sometimes see them eating bugs, worms, grass and even a small mouse once. Is this normal?

A: Chickens are omnivores, meaning they can and do eat vegetables and meat. Wild chickens eat grain, seeds, vegetation, worms, insects and occasionally small rodents.

Giving your backyard or free-ranging chickens the opportunity to supplement their diet with grass, weeds, herbs, edible flowers, bugs and worms is very beneficial. Not only does it provide the chickens a varied diet and something to do so they don’t get bored, it makes their eggs more nutritious and taste better.

Generally, chickens know what’s OK for them to eat and what’s not, so I wouldn’t worry too much about removing any poisonous plants such as azalea, oleander and the like, but consider planting extra herbs such as oregano, sage, parsley and basil for them to munch. Some edible flowers such as nasturtium, marigolds and roses are great, too. As long as they have plenty of options, chickens usually steer clear of the toxic plants.

However, don’t treat your grass with fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides that could be harmful to the chickens. Among the benefits of free-ranging is that the chickens will do a good job eating the bugs and even some of the weeds for you. Of course, they also provide nice natural fertilizer—chicken poop—for the yard.

Although free-ranging and providing supplemental treats are great, these should come in moderation. You should still provide commercial layer feed for your chickens as well as crushed eggshells and oyster shell (for calcium), and some grit, which helps with digestion.

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Even though they’ll eat far less feed if they’re filling up on the greens and bugs, I still put the feed out. Chickens won’t overeat their feed, so you don’t have to worry about obese birds.


surplus freezing freeze eggs
Ana Hotaling

Q: Last year, our chickens laid more eggs than we could eat. We made as many quiches and baked goods as we could, and we gave away many eggs. What other ideas do you have for our excessive amount of hen fruit?!

A: Did you know that eggs are a super treat for your chickens? A complete protein, scrambled eggs make a nutritious addition to their diet (as well as yours).

Be sure to save the shells, too. You can crush them and feed them back to your chickens for a bit of extra calcium.

All that said: Make sure your chickens don’t know they are eating eggs. You don’t want them trying to eat their own eggs straight from the nest box. This could lead to disaster. As Phillip Clauer, a poultry extension specialist at Penn State, writes in “Prevention of Egg Eating,” “Egg eating by hens is a habit formed over time which is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to break. It is important you plan and manage your facilities so that the hen never gets the first taste of a broken egg.”

Be sure to break the shells into tiny pieces and thoroughly cook yolks and whites, so they look like a treat rather than something a hen just laid.

Keeping Cool

Q: I’m worrying about keeping my chickens cool in the summer, as last year was brutally hot. What are some things I can do to help them beat the upcoming summer heat?

A: While chickens can tolerate cold temperatures very well, once the mercury starts to rise, they can begin to suffer the effects of heat exhaustion pretty quickly.

To keep your chickens cool, make sure your coop has lots of windows and vents to allow a nice breeze in the evening while the chickens are sleeping. Also, provide plenty of shady spots for them to hide during the heat of the day, as well as access to fresh, cold water. If you work away from home during the day, consider freezing water in a loaf pan or large dish and then putting the ice block into a tub of water for your chickens so the water stays cooler longer.

Putting electrolytes in the water is also a good idea during a heat wave. Cooling, water-laden treats—such as cucumber slices, watermelon or berries—are good choices. Freezing chopped vegetables, berries or fruits in water using ice-cube or muffin tins also makes a nice cooling indulgence.

If you do suspect heat exhaustion—if you see heavy panting, chickens holding their wings out from their bodies, pale combs, listlessness, or unsteady standing or walking—bring the suffering chicken into a separate cool area and stand the bird in a pan of cool water. The water level should be deep enough to cover only her legs and feet.

Cooling the feet and wattle is the quickest way to bring a hen’s body temperature down, so putting your flock’s water in a deep tub in the summer allows the birds to dip their heads in or even stand in the tub to cool off. Incidentally, a chicken’s comb acts as a radiator, letting the body heat escape.

Email poultry-related questions to Lisa at chickens@chickensmagazine.com, subject: “Flock Talk.”

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.

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