Most backyard chicken-keepers feed their birds kitchen scraps, but whether this is a good practice has been highly debated. Poor diet is one of the leading causes of various health issues in chickens. Good nutrition relies on feeding your flock a quality diet consisting primarily of commercial feed.
However, small amounts of safe kitchen scraps can provide a healthy treat if provided in moderation. If your chickens are packing on the pounds, you may promote weight gain by giving them too much of a good thing. Even healthy snacks can become unhealthy when you feed your birds too much.
Chickens can benefit from a certain amount and type of kitchen scraps, but it’s essential that what you give them is nutritionally balanced and not their primary food source. Feeding your birds too much or unhealthy scraps can lead to weight gain, which could cause them to stop laying eggs, among other things.
“Chickens should be fed a commercial diet,” says Richard Blatchford, associate professor of extension, small- to large-scale poultry, in the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis. “These have been formulated—and are regulated—to provide the full nutrition that chickens need. If you feed this diet, they don’t need any other feed source.
“That said, we know they eat other things if they range, like plants and bugs, even an occasional lizard or mouse. Kitchen scraps aren’t bad for them in moderation. Like us, chickens enjoy food that may not be the most nutritious and may eat that to the exclusion of the nutritious food. Think chocolate versus Brussels sprouts for people. Even foods that appear healthy—for us—can make chickens obese, which can lead to health problems and a decrease in eggs.”
Blatchford specializes in husbandry, behavior and welfare of poultry. He works with broilers, layers and backyard flocks. As an extension specialist, one of his primary roles is to provide the latest scientific information to stakeholders in poultry. He frequently speaks to groups about backyard flock behavior, especially nuisance behaviors, and helps them address these problems and fix bad behaviors.
If you want to feed your chickens snacks, there’s a right way to do it. One snack many people feed their chickens that isn’t actually very good for them on an everyday basis is scratch, which Blatchford calls “chicken candy.”
“Scratch is a high-calorie, no-nutrition food,” he says. “It’s made primarily of seeds, which are full of fat, and chickens love it. But it really shouldn’t be part of the daily diet.”
Dairy should also be avoided because birds can’t digest it, which can lead to diarrhea. Like people, diarrhea can cause dehydration, potentially leading to a whole slew of additional problems.
Blatchford suggests not feeding eggs back to your chickens that look like an egg. “This can turn hens into egg-eaters, and that’s very hard to stop,” he says. “There are also some plants that are toxic to chickens, but they tend to avoid them, and they don’t typically come in the form of kitchen scraps.”
When feeding chickens eggs and eggshells, crush them into small pieces that the chickens can easily consume. Once crushed, they can be mixed with other feed or provided in a separate dish.
While toxic plants shouldn’t be something found in your kitchen scraps, some parts of certain vegetables do contain toxins that can be harmful or even deadly to chickens. For example, the leaves, pits and skins of avocados contain persin, a fungicidal toxin that doesn’t affect people but can be fatal to chickens and ducks or cause respiratory problems, heart damage, weakness and death. Other produce to avoid include the following.
- rhubarb damaged by severe cold can contain oxalic acid (possible liver damage)
- raw potatoes and peels contain alkaloid solanine (fatal)
- leaves and stems of eggplant or tomatoes also contain solanine (fatal)
- green tomatoes and potatoes contain solanine and chaconine (drowsiness and death)
- undercooked or dried beans contain phytohemagglutinins (fatal)
- seeds of apples and pears and pits in peaches, apricots, plums and cherries contain cyanide compounds (can be fatal)
- caffeine and chocolate can cause increased heart rate, hyperactivity and cardiac arrest
Although onions and garlic aren’t toxic, they can flavor the eggs. Onions can also irritate a bird’s mouth, crop and esophagus and may cause ulcers. In large amounts, onions can cause hemolytic anemia.
Chickens are omnivores and will eat almost anything, but you shouldn’t feed them raw meat, which can contain harmful bacteria. Make sure any produce or commercial feed doesn’t have any mold growth, which can contain mycotoxins and make birds sick or worse.
When to Eat Treats
Flock-friendly snacks are abundant, so you have options if you want to give your chickens an occasional treat. Dark, leafy greens are healthy and may result in richer, darker yolks. Nearly all fruits are OK for birds in moderation. Just don’t forget to remove any harmful seeds or pits. You’ll find that blueberries, strawberries and watermelons are big hits with your birds.
“In the summer heat, cool veggies that are water-heavy, like melons, are good to offer to get the birds to hydrate,” Blatchford says. “In very cold temperatures, cracked corn can be offered to help the birds heat themselves. If your birds don’t have regular access to forage, you can give them greens.
“However, moderation is the key here, as you don’t want to upset their nutrition intake of the commercial feed. Any food can become unhealthy if given too much. Water-heavy scraps can cause too much water intake and lead to runny feces. Even fruit and veggies can lead to a hen becoming obese.”
Blatchford typically warns bird owners that anything with seeds can pack on the pounds quickly. Although you can give them as an occasional treat, it’s vital to provide them in limited quantities.
“Scraps should not be a daily part of a diet but more like a treat now and then,” he says. “Make sure the birds eat the scraps, as they will mold if left around, and that’s bad for the birds.”
How to Snack on Scraps
Knowing how often to offer scraps to your chickens can be tricky, and you’ll likely find varying advice on the best interval. Blatchford says there really isn’t any hard rule when it comes to frequency. However, he believes a few times a week is fine.
When it comes to timing, you’ll also find various advice on when to feed scraps to your birds. Because the bulk of their diet should come from high-quality commercial feed, some long-time bird owners advise feeding scraps later in the day when they’ve likely already eaten most of their daily feed.
Blatchford doesn’t believe the time of day matters as much as making sure the scraps you’re giving the birds are as fresh as possible. He still emphasizes the importance of limiting their intake, no matter when you provide treats.
“Use the treats sparingly,” he says. “Use them not as part of the diet but as part of improving your interactions with the birds. Be there actively handing out the treats, not just tossing them out on the ground and leaving. This will create positive interactions and make a better experience for the owners and the chickens.”
Besides enjoying the active engagement, you should never give more scraps than your chickens can eat in a single feeding. “If there are leftovers, toss them out, as you don’t want mold to grow,” Blatchford says.
If you decide to feed scraps to your birds later in the day, another thing to keep in mind is not to leave any food out after they roost for the night. Leftover food can attract mice, rats, raccoons, opossums, skunks and predators such as foxes and coyotes.
Many wild animals carry diseases that can be harmful to your birds. They may also steal eggs and attack baby chicks. Larger predators will attack adult birds and can decimate a flock ill-prepared to defend themselves.
Why Obesity Matters
Weight can be a big issue for backyard birds because owners of smaller flocks tend to feed them too many treats. Everyone loves seeing their birds race to them for a special handout, such as some yummy berries or vegetable scraps. But being overweight can lead to all sorts of health issues, including problems with the reproductive system, egg binding and heat exhaustion or stroke. An unhealthy diet can also cause heart and liver problems that lead to death.
“Obesity is linked to several health conditions, like ovarian cancer and fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome, both of which are common causes of death in backyard chickens,” Blatchford says. “Obesity puts a strain on the hen’s body, and this will cause a drop in production. It may also cause the reproductive system to work harder and that can cause issues like tumors or fatigue.”
It can be challenging to recognize early warning signs that your chickens may be getting too fat. Unless you’re checking their body condition regularly, you could miss subtle weight gain, then suddenly realize your birds have put on an unhealthy amount of weight. However, one sign you might notice sooner than weight gain is a drop in egg production.
Overall, you must ensure your backyard flock receives a balanced diet daily. Make sure they’re primarily consuming a high-quality layer feed with scraps provided as occasional treats that help you build a better bond with your birds. Stick to healthier snack options fed in moderation.
You can typically worry less about feeding them something harmful (they tend to avoid things that would make them really sick) and pay closer attention to the amount of treats they eat. Like most creatures, chickens will choose treats over nutritional feed, so it’s up to you to keep the snacks in check.
Off the Menu
If you’re ever unsure if a food item in your scraps is safe for your chickens, err on the side of caution and don’t give it to them. Many things that are OK for people to eat aren’t safe for chickens and can even be toxic and life-threatening. The following is a partial list of items commonly recommended not to feed to chickens:
- anything high in fat, salt, sugar or preservatives
- anything containing artificial sweeteners, including xylitol
- anything overly processed, such as bologna and deli meats
- apple seeds
- coffee and coffee grounds
- green tomatoes
- leaves of tomato, potato, rhubarb and pepper plants
- uncooked beans, potatoes or rice
- moldy or rotted produce and other foods
- pits of apricots, cherries or peaches
Even something considered a healthy treat can have negative consequences when you feed your chickens too much. If you’re looking for healthy scraps to give your birds some variety while still primarily feeding them a nutritious commercial diet, the following is a partial list of food items that are safe for chickens in moderation.
- berries, including blackberries, blueberries and strawberries
- cooked meats and fish
- leafy greens, including lettuce, cabbage, spinach, kale, collards, carrot tops, etc.
- most fruit, including bananas, melons, apples without the seeds and peaches and apricots without the pits
- most vegetables, including squash, cucumbers, corn, peas, ripe tomatoes and cooked potatoes
- oats, quinoa and cooked rice
- plain unsalted popcorn
This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.