It’s fun to pamper your flock with treats and toys, and it’s good for your chickens’ happiness as well. Chickens, especially birds kept in confinement, that aren’t provided with physical and mental stimulation are prone to behavioral problems such as bullying, cannibalism, egg eating and feather pulling. Free-range chickens benefit from treats, too.
Chickens are smart and quick to learn things, but they need a reason to want to do it. Treats are the way to your chickens’ hearts, whether you treat them in an effort to teach them something or just because you enjoy watching them savor the goodies you give them.
Menu Dos and Don’ts
Chickens can safely eat the following.
- bread, crackers: in moderation, nonmoldy
- breakfast cereal: no sugary products
- broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower: Hang whole heads or entire plants where chickens can pick them, or tuck pieces in a suet cage to hang on the fence or wall.
- carrots: raw in chunks, cooked and foliage
- cheese, including cottage cheese: in moderation due to fat content.
- corn: cracked raw kernels, on the cob, and canned, raw or cooked
- crickets: Buy them live at bait shops and pet stores.
- cucumbers, pumpkins, summer squash, zucchini: especially large, overripe ones containing lots of seeds. Slice or crack them open to expose the goody inside.
- eggs: scrambled or boiled and mashed
- fish: cooked and deboned
- fruit: bananas without the peel; all kinds of berries, melons, apples, pitted pears, peaches, plums, cherries and so on
- garden pests: potato bugs, cabbage worms and slugs
- grits: cooked
- leafy garden greens: all kinds
- mangels, turnips, rutabagas: raw or cooked
- meat scraps: but avoid fatty, salty meats
- oatmeal: raw or cooked, no salt, no sugar
- pasta, rice: cooked
- peanut butter
- popcorn: popped, not raw
- sunflower seeds: in the shell or otherwise
- suet: in moderation
- tomatoes: mature but never unripe ones, raw or cooked; cherry tomatoes especially
- weeds, wild flowers: plantain, dock, dandelions, chickweed, clover, lamb’s-quarter, violets and wild strawberry to name a few, but know your plants before you feed them. Some wild things, such as nightshades and poke, can kill poultry.
- yogurt: plain or flavored
Do not feed your chickens the following:
- raw potatoes, raw potato skins or potato vines from the garden
- green tomatoes or tomato vines
- immature eggplant or eggplant vines
- dry beans or peas
- uncooked rice
- stone fruit without the pips removed
- onions, garlic
- raw eggs
- rhubarb stems or leaves
- citrus fruit of any kind
- sugary foods such as candy and chocolate
- highly processed foods
- excessively salty leftovers
- any part of an avocado
Feeding asparagus can make eggs taste funny, so feed it in small quantities if at all. And don’t feed rotten items to your chickens with the exception of mushy but non-moldy fresh fruit.
Now that you know what to feed, you need to know how to feed.
Feed treats later in the day, after chickens have filled up on their usual fare. Otherwise, they’ll eat the treats and eschew feed they need to eat to grow and to lay eggs. For the same reason, only feed them enough to clean up in 10 to 20 minutes. If there are leftovers, give them less food next time.
Don’t feed treats every day. They’re supplements, not everyday fare. That’s why they’re called treats, after all.
Suspend large items such as head lettuce, broccoli stalks, cabbages, rutabagas and the like at chicken height and let them peck to their hearts’ content.
Place goodies in a Kong-type dog toy or a dog treat ball, and let your hens push it around. Or make your own treats dispenser by cutting or drilling holes in a 1- or 2-liter soda bottle. Size holes designed for the treats you plan to provide. Or drill small holes in plastic Easter eggs and fill them with scratch or seeds, then roll them so your chickens can chase them.
Chop fruits and vegetables into chunks, place them in suet cages, and hang them on fences and walls. Thread chunked or whole fruit and vegetables on a length of rope, loop it, and tie it to a wall or fence. Fill an onion bag with similar goodies or screw an apple to a corkscrew and suspend it or tie it to a fence.
Hide treats under loose straw or piles of leaves and let your chickens have at it.
Make a handy feeder by cutting lengths of rough-barked tree branches and smearing their fissured surfaces with peanut butter, mashed banana, applesauce, suet, yogurt and similar gooey treats. Or smear the goodies on pinecones; that works, too.
Give your birds a cooling treat by filling muffin tin cups with sweet corn, frozen peas or finely chopped fruit, then add a little water, freeze and serve in a shallow pan of water. You can also feed frozen corn, peas, broccoli florets, berries and similar frozen goodies in pans or trough feeders or scatter it so chickens can chase it. Float frozen berries in your chickens’ drinking water. A frozen chunk of beef tallow or a bunch of berries or mealworms frozen in a block of ice makes mighty fine eating, too.
Serve whole pumpkins, melons and overgrown zucchini and cucumbers by quartering them or breaking them open and letting your chickens do the rest.
Pop popcorn and dice fruit or veggies into smallish pieces; string them on thread, alternating popped corn with the rest, and hang garlands where chickens can find them.
Fill a hanging basket with yummies and suspend it in your chickens’ coop or run.
Create a wholesome smoothie by blending pumpkin seeds with a dash of water, and then stirring in chicken scratch, chopped fruit or vegetables, mealworms, dried or fresh herbs, whey, yogurt or buttermilk. Or add those ingredients to cooked oatmeal or grits. Your chickens will love it!
Most chicken toys incorporate treats, such as canine Kongs and treats dispensers mentioned earlier. Others are standalones, such as an acrylic mirror placed at eye level in your chickens’ coop, where they can preen and admire themselves. And they will!
Another fun toy is a children’s xylophone mounted at chicken-head height. Show your birds how to “play it” by smearing peanut butter, mashed banana or another squishy food on the keys so they peck them. Bells are popular peck-at items, too.
Chickens love shiny objects, so hang old CDs and DVDs where they can peck them.
A few big logs or a pile of tree branches provide fun places to climb and roost both in and outside the coop. Again, smearing the bark with a tasty treat makes them even more alluring to chickens.
Chickens enjoy dust bathing, and it helps control external parasites, too. Fill a large tire or a children’s wading pool with sand for a quick and easy dust bath.
Make a chicken swing by drilling two holes in a 3-inch diameter dowel rod or branch, then using outdoor rope to suspend it about 6 inches from the ground.
Finally, play with your chickens. Begin handling them as chicks. Feed them from your hands. Encourage them to perch on your shoulder or sit in your lap. A friendly human to climb on and cuddle is the best chicken toy of them all.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Chickens magazine.