Chickens can be an absolute blast to observe. Toss a few worms or chicken treats out and watch them dance! Although a chicken will eat just about anything, you need to watch what treats get thrown into the scrap bucket.
Some things you might want to share with them can be harmful and even deadly. In this article, we’ll be checking out a few foods that are safe to share, some to avoid and a couple of fun chicken treat ideas you can put together to entertain your flock as well!
Pulling Hen’s Teeth
You might have heard the expression “like pulling hen’s teeth,” which refers to something impossible to do. Chickens don’t have any teeth. Rather, they simply consume their food whole and use their tongue to help push it to the back of their throat.
Because of their lack of teeth (and swallowing the food whole), chickens need small rocks or gravel in their gizzards to help break up the food. After the food is eventually ground up, it can pass on through the rest of the digestive system.
Before you start giving your birds extra chicken treats or table scraps, make sure you’ve worked out a properly balanced feeding plan for them. Their needs will vary depending on their age, kind of chicken (layer, fryer, etc.) and environment. Once you’ve made sure they have a regularly balanced diet, you can start to supplement and add a few extra treats in every now and then.
As the seasons change, so can your treat-feeding habits. During the winter, it’s good to focus on high-energy food that will keep your birds busy and warm. When summer rolls around, look for treats higher in water content to help keep them hydrated.
During the hot summer days, it’s fun to make a few frozen fruit cups for your birds. You can offer a mixture of leftovers from your fridge or expired produce from a local farm stand. Call around at the end of the growing season and see if anyone is about to dispose of leftover fruit or vegetables.
I once got several 5-gallon buckets full of cantaloupes from a local farmer, simply by making a phone call. Those were some affordable chicken treats!
Animals are fairly intelligent about not eating things that can harm them, but still stay cautious and avoid throwing out chicken treats that could be toxic. If you’re rummaging through the fridge, remember you can slice up leftover apples or pears to share with your flock.
Bananas or other fruits with a peel should be peeled and then fed. Leftover strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc. make great options to scatter around at snack time, too!
After a cookout or summer BBQ, don’t let the watermelon rinds be tossed in with the rest of the trash. Set out a 5-gallon bucket to collect them and feed to the chickens later. (The best ones are the rinds with a little pink left on them!)
The same kind of recycling can take place in the fall when people begin to discard their pumpkins or jack-o-lanterns. If they haven’t been covered in glitter, paint or anything else, ask around your neighborhood for any leftovers. Birds will enjoy this festive chicken treat.
Another fun snack for your hens is the occasional handful of popcorn. Just make sure it’s unsalted and left plain before sharing any with them, as too much salt can be damaging.
If you happen to have some raisins close by, feel free to scatter some of them around, too. Hens will love the extra little bite of something sweet!
Avoid These Leftovers
What kitchen scraps should you avoid? Rhubarb is something you should never feed your hens, as it contains the toxin oxalic acid in the leaves. If you have this growing nearby your chicken’s roaming area, try putting a sturdy cage over it covered with chicken wire. You don’t need to banish the plant from your farm, just give it some special protection.
Onions and avocados are two more things to avoid feeding your flock. Onions are thought to cause a weird taste in eggs, and avocados contain the toxin persin in their pits and skins. While the flesh of the avocado might be safe for chickens, I just play it safe and avoid feeding avocados entirely.
A Chicken-Friendly Garden
So what about some greenery from the garden? Lettuce for your birds doesn’t just have to come from the bottom of the bag in the fridge. If you raise a garden, make it a point to plant some chicken-friendly scratch greens.
This could be a blend of lettuce (any kind), spinach or kale. If cooked before feeding, chickens can also have green beans from your garden. (Avoid feeding your flock any dried beans though. They can cause serious health issues and even death.)
You can also create a garden that allows your birds to free-range directly in the patch. All you need to do is situate the coop next to the garden plot and erect fencing around the garden to keep them inside (unless your birds can free-range anywhere they please).
Remember to plant only chicken-friendly plants. Besides a large plot of scratch greens, you can also raise fresh peas, carrots or beets, as chickens will love their green tops.
If you’d like to have a garden you and your birds can enjoy, one thing that will help is to let them out of the coop later in the day. Allow for an hour or so of roaming time—just enough that they can scratch and peck around the dirt or greenery but not destroy entire plants.
This way, you both will have a chance to get something from the garden!
Unfortunately, though, if a chicken decides it greatly enjoys a particular plant, they can be pretty destructive. It’s best to either not get too attached to anything in your garden or make sure you put a chicken-proof barrier around the particular plant you want to save.
A sturdy tomato cage wrapped in chicken wire can keep out those pesky beaks, though!
Avoid Planting These Plants
As you incorporate plants in your garden and landscaping, remember to watch out for ones considered toxic. In the garden, these would include any plant deemed a nightshade, meaning that it contains solanine. This includes tomato plants, peppers, eggplants and potatoes (peels and unripe, green potatoes). Both ripe, red tomatoes and peeled, cooked potatoes are fine to feed chickens, though.
Cabbage on a Hook
This is a fairly popular idea for simple chicken treats. Awhile back, I decided to conduct an experiment with a head of iceberg lettuce and a cabbage to see which the chickens preferred. Gathering supplies, I carefully twisted an eyehook into the bottom of each head.
I didn’t need to predrill a hole or measure twine. The hook screwed in nicely and seemed especially solid in the head of cabbage. I took some old baling twine and eyeballed a nice length to hang the heads from the top of a clothesline pole.
The clothesline runs right next to the garden and chicken coop, where a majority of the birds like to spend summer days. Decades-old lilac bushes fill the fenced-in run as chicks and other poultry playfully dart around the pen. A fluffy, golden-colored Buff Rock hen has dutifully taken on the role of mother to seven black little jellybeans. Rouen ducklings scuttle around as she comes over to investigate where the lettuce and cabbage hang.
Once the discovering something cool and delicious, she began clucking in her motherly voice and the ducklings popped up around her feet. She pecked off a piece or two and the lettuce fell to the ground.
Before long, a whole group of hens (and a turkey or two) gathered around. The lettuce hung, haphazardly getting pecked to shreds, while the cabbage nearby didn’t get a second glance.
Later, I went back out to see the birds’ progress. The lettuce, now just a small clump, lay on the ground. The cabbage showed just one hole in a leaf. If we decide to serve this treat again, the choice offering certainly won’t be a head of cabbage!
Frozen Tomato + Cucumber Cups
The next project we undertook: making some frozen little cups of fresh tomatoes and cucumber for the poultry. I gently rinsed a fresh cucumber and five Roma tomatoes under a cool faucet.
Taking the ’cuke in hand, it was sliced lengthwise and then chopped into small pieces, as were the tomatoes. After gently stirring them together, I spooned them into a muffin tin until just level full, then filled each muffin cup with water just to under the brim. Then we set them flat in the freezer until frozen solid, waiting patiently to share with our feathered friends.
Later that afternoon, the cups were frozen, and we headed outside to see what the birds thought of them. The previously mentioned cabbage was found still fairly intact, the lettuce had been eaten almost to the core and the chickens were game for another food tasting. I tossed a frozen veggie cup out to the girls and the excitement began. Soon, hens were running and pecking, ducklings were dabbling. Even the geese questioned what they were missing out on.
You could also mix up cups with an assortment of berries or other fruit. Just fill them level with fruit, top it off with water and freeze. This is a great way to get some extra fluid in your birds during a hot season.
Freshly Dug Earthworms
Here are some chicken treats so simple they might be overlooked (and even free, depending on where you live)—freshly dug earthworms! You can even delegate this job to the kids if they’re bored and looking for something to do outside.
It’s a very easy task. Just find a few rocks to turn over and then take a small trowel and dig a little. If this doesn’t turn any little wigglers up, pour some water over a shady area of soil, wait an hour or so, then start digging.
If there is a stream or pond nearby, go work up an area of soil on the bank near it. Gather up the wriggling creatures, then share them with your grateful hens. (This is even more fun for them if you dig in their pen or nearby so they can peck and scratch at the dirt as you turn it up!)
The longer you’re a chicken-keeper, the more you’ll learn about what works to feed your flock and what doesn’t. Keeping an eye out for anything that could be harmful, experiment a little and see what they enjoy the most.
If you get a little extra time and want to design an entire garden full of chicken treats for your feathered friends, send us a picture! I’d love to see your poultry-paradise.
What About Dairy?
Maybe you’re wondering if dairy safe to feed your chickens? According to author and chicken-keeper Gail Damerow, in The Chicken Health Handbook, liquid milk is made up of 87 percent water, with the rest being protein, fat, carbo-hydrates, vitamins and minerals.
It’s considered fairly safe to give to your chickens as a supplement in moderate amounts. Avoid giving too much though. It could lead to fat laying hens or other health issues.
If you’re looking for a fun project to get the kids involved (or just need a little extra greenery in your windowsill), try sprouting some grain for your chickens! It’ll provide them with a great snack and something different—especially during winter. You can sprout a variety of grains at home, but we’ll just be focusing on wheat for today.
To get started, rinse and then soak your wheat overnight in warm water.
The next morning, drain and set the wheat inside another container with small air holes poked in the bottom.
Leave it open on top to allow for plenty of airflow.
Rinse two to three times daily, allowing several hours to drain between each rinse.
Within two to three days, your homegrown chicken treats should be sprouted, but you can wait up to five or six days before feeding it.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Chickens magazine.