What Can Chickens Eat – Backyard Poultry

By Dr. Stephenie Slahor.

Advice on what and what not to feed your chickens.

Leftover salad from dinner, the leafy tops from vegetables, that plastic bag of “something” in the back of the refrigerator — well, they might become “give-it-to-the-chickens” food. Let’s face it, we like to be thrifty, and we don’t like to waste food, but consider that temptation to toss something to our feathered “composters.” Sure, they might enjoy the treat for its variety from the regular diet of grains and those occasional insects (except ants — chickens don’t like those). But there are good and bad foods. Your veterinarian can give you guidance, and farm stores might have pamphlets or books to help, too. So do your research on what chickens can eat and be careful with those scraps. Here’s a look at some pointers that can help.

Feed Only Occasionally

Chickens can tolerate very small amounts of cheese or cottage cheese but avoid serving a chunk of cheese or a big blob of cottage cheese. Www.ChickenAndChicksInfo.com states large amounts of dairy products will cause stomach and digestive problems in chickens. Very small amounts of cheese can be fed, but only as a treat and only occasionally.

Just like cheese, chickens can tolerate only tiny amounts. It seems that dairy products and chickens don’t mix!

Limit how much salt chickens are offered. They need some sodium, but not tons. If the popcorn is plain and free of butter, artificial flavorings, or salt, it can be fed.

Grapes and Raisins
Chickens seem to love these, but the saponins in the skin of these fruits can be harmful if eaten in quantity. Just sprinkle a few of these sweet treats in the run once or twice a month.

Anything beyond a small amount can cause anemia in chickens. Some researchers say avoid feeding onions at all. Onion flavor can also creep into your chickens’ eggs — probably not the taste you want! Although some people say they notice no difference in the taste of meat or eggs if the chickens have been eating onions, others say it’s noticeable. LearnPoultry.com recommends feeding only very small amounts of onion, once or twice a month, at most. Onion skin should be tossed out — it has no nutritional value.

Technically, chickens are omnivores and will eat meat when it’s available. It should only be cooked meat and given in very small amounts — a few bits of that leftover roast. Processed meats like ham, wieners, or sausage shouldn’t be fed. Processed meat products (including fast food) are too high in salt, preservatives, unhealthy fats, and nitrates/nitrites that make them poor poultry food choices. Trimmed of fat, meat such as pork or beef is better, but chickens won’t do well on a diet that has too much meat. Just avoid feeding the fried, breaded, sauce-covered, or otherwise “enhanced” meat, says petkeen.com.

Chickens enjoy occasional treats to supplement a balanced diet.

Modify These Foods Before Feeding Them

Always remove the pits and seeds before tossing the chickens any fruit. Apples and cherries have cyanide (poisonous!) in their seeds, and other fruits’ pits and seeds can clog a chicken’s crop.

Cooked beans, pulses, and legumes are fine, but never uncooked. (See the section below on saponins.)

Lawn Cuttings
Be sure no insecticides, weed killers, or fertilizers were put on the lawn. They’ll be poisonous to your birds. If you’re certain the clippings are free of such dangers, use only the shortest clippings. Long ones can clog the crop on chickens.

Some of us raise our own mealworms to provide the flock with nutritious protein. But if you don’t raise your own, beware of the freeze-dried ones from a store or online source. Research where and how mealworms are raised and stick with a source you know is safe. Better yet, raise your own mealworms. The British Trust for Ornithology states mealworms aren’t worms, but the larval stage of a beetle. They occur in nature in undisturbed damp grain or cereal products but can be raised for a steady supply if placed in a dark and undisturbed area, where there’s a steady, moderately warm temperature. A bag of wheat bran or oats provides both bedding and food for them, along with some moisture from such things as apple slices, shredded carrots, cucumber, or other vegetables. The Stanford News reports that mealworms can consume toxic, additive-containing plastic and have no apparent ill effects. Although used for protein-rich feed supplement, the chemical additive eaten is apparently kept or perhaps “biodegraded” in the mealworms’ bodies.

Still, many chicken raisers might prefer to keep food for the flock that isn’t polystyrene or other chemicals and, instead, choose items and treats that are natural.

Foods to Avoid

Fun for your guacamole or added to your turkey sandwich, but ALL parts of an avocado — whether skin, pulp, or seed — are toxic to birds, including chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys because of the persin that is present. Persin is also toxic to dogs, cats, rabbits, cows, goats, and horses. Humans can tolerate some amounts of persin, but it does foster apoptosis — a process that kills cells or causes them to grow uncontrollably like cancer cells. While humans can tolerate low concentrations of persin, if domestic animals consume it, it’s toxic and dangerous according to the ASPCA’s Poison Control report about avocados. In Fruits of Warm Climates, Julia F. Morton states that not all varieties of avocado are equally toxic, but that deaths, hyperactivity, anorexia, and other reactions occurred in a variety of animals fed any parts of avocado. Best to avoid avocados with your chickens!

Bread and Pasta
While not necessarily toxic or dangerous to birds, there’s very little nutritional value in bread or pasta. They just “fill” your birds but won’t really provide the vitamins and minerals they need.

After squeezing your lemons, oranges, or grapefruits into juice, you might be tempted to throw the pulp to the flock, giving them an extra helping of vitamin C and essential oils. But some studies indicate that citrus can cause disruption of calcium absorption, which results in soft-shelled eggs, according to www.HeritageAcresMarket.com. However, other studies from the Journal of Animal Physiology shows that adding citrus to water can help finish broilers with added meat volume. Avoid feeding the peelings as they might be treated with preservatives or other chemicals and may even be too tough to peck.

Coffee Grounds
The grounds can clog the crop of chickens, and the caffeine can be harmful. “Caffeine isn’t good for chickens,” says Heritage Acres Market. Feeding coffee grounds or scattering them in the garden where chickens can forage gives the chickens methylxanthines — the “buzz” humans feel from caffeine. Calcium absorption, adverse effects on the immune system, and problems with nervous, respiratory, or circulatory reactions could be fatal, so avoid coffee grounds as treats or where the chickens might forage.

Nightshade Plants
These plants include eggplant, bell peppers, sweet peppers, hot peppers, potatoes (not yams or sweet potatoes), tobacco leaves, goji berries, paprika, pepino (although this is the Spanish word for cucumber, pepino melons are NOT cucumbers), pimentos, tamarillos, tomatillos, and tomatoes, and all are harmful to chickens.

If you’re feeding processed food, read the label because some have potato starch, tomato sauce/paste, or Xylitol and shouldn’t be fed to the flock. The same for those cold fries in the bottom of your bag from the fast-food place — they’re a no-no. Besides being potato-based (nightshades), they’re too fatty and salty for chickens.

Sweet Treats
Cakes, candies, chocolate, ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt, and pies are what we call “junk” food that causes weight gain and does little or nothing for nutrition. They aren’t foods for chickens either.

Foods with Saponins
Saponins are found in uncooked oats, soybeans, quinoa, licorice root, peanuts, chickpeas, spinach, yucca root and trunk, bracken, and such flowers as clematis and baby’s breath. Rinsing, cooking, or processing won’t reduce saponins in foods, except somewhat for oats. Saponins seem to interfere with or disrupt metabolic and endocrine functions and may be linked to what’s known as “leaky gut,” according to a report from the National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. The result’s that some saponins increase the permeability of intestinal cells, inhibiting nutrient transport.

Foods with Oxalic Acid
Oxalic acid is present in spinach, rhubarb, beet tops, endive, kale, and chard. Oxalic acid can interact negatively with calcium absorption. An occasional small treat of these vegetables may be fine, but they shouldn’t be a steady food or snack. Oxalic acid binds with calcium or magnesium to form insoluble salts which can ultimately lead to kidney failure, according to a study reported by the National Library of Medicine.

Wild Mushrooms
Yes, some look enticing when you’re on a hike or clearing out a part of the yard, but you won’t eat them because they could be poisonous, and the same precaution applies to your birds.

Moldy, Spoiled, or Rotten Food
It may seem thrifty to get some use out of inedible foods, but they can cause sickness or disease. Besides, do you want to eat your flock’s meat and eggs if they’ve been eating moldy or rotten stuff? If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t give it to your chickens.

Maggots or fly larvae such as meal worms are often used as a protein feed source, or protein supplement. Large studies have indicated that maggot meal can reduce the use of commercial feed, especially when finishing broilers.

• British Trust for Ornithology www.bto.org
• The Stanford News www.news.stanford.edu
• Heritage Acres Market www.heritageacresmarket.com
• The Chicken Scratch website https://cs-tf.com
• www.hort.purdue.edunewcrop/morton/avocado_arts.html#Toxicity
• https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
• https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22548678

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., is a writer and lecturer. Coming from a farm and ranch background, she has enjoyed the company of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, mules, donkeys, chickens, geese, turkeys, ducks, tortoises, rabbits, dogs — although not necessarily all of them present at the same time! Her hobbies include travel, snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, horse/mulemanship, rockhounding, and the natural sciences. And she is a member of the Lions Club — although hasn’t (yet) kept lions!

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