If you’re new to chicken-keeping, you might want to know what’s good for your birds to eat.
In Disney’s classic, Cinderella, the animated chickens eat whole corn that’s tossed right on the ground.
Is that what chickens eat? What about kitchen scraps? Is the store-bought chicken feed really the best thing for them? Do chickens eat bugs?
The mainstay of a healthy diet for chickens is formulated chicken feed and garden vegetation, but chickens need variety in their diets, a mix of grain, protein, and calcium. Chickens will eat most insects, but not all.
When it comes to a good chicken diet, the key word is variety.
What Will a Free-Range Chicken Eat?
A free range chicken will eat just about any insect, from grasshoppers and crickets to flies, mealworms, earthworms, spiders, and even ticks and termites.
They won’t eat bees or bitter bugs like box elder bugs and Asian ladybeetles. You probably wouldn’t want to eat something with a stinger or a noxious odor, either.
Our chickens are great at keeping the bug population down, with two caveats:
- Bugs like cockroaches are drawn to chicken poo, and
- Some bugs, such as black-flies and gnats, like to nest in chicken feathers at night.
You can keep the nesting kind of pernicious flies away using mesh netting like you have on your windows. Just put it wherever there’s a vent opening in your coop.
You can also mix into your coop some diatomaceous earth, tiny white rock that pierces the exoskeleton of insects and kills them.
And you can keep the poo-loving kind away by keeping your chicken coop and chicken run clean. Make sure your coop is far enough away from your house that any bugs drawn to the coop don’t come into the house.
What can you do with the poo? Lots of people like to scoop that chicken poo into a compost bin with soil and worms. Just keep your compost bin hidden away from your chickens because the earthworms that churn compost are their favorite. They will eat them all if they can get at them.
According to cluckin.net, chickens scavenging for earthworms naturally will not overdose on them, but if you’re farming worms to feed your chickens, be careful not to overdo it. Variety is important in a chicken’s diet.
Weird chicken fact: chickens actually need to eat a little grit or gravel, too. The grainy dirt will sit in their gizzard and help them grind up the food they eat. Who needs teeth when you have a gravelly gizzard?
If your chicken run is already gravelly or rocky, you don’t need to buy grit, but otherwise you can find chicken grit at any feed store and even Walmart in some places.
A free range chicken will eat vegetation, as well. You will want to protect your growing garden and lead chickens to plants that are okay for them to feast on.
Kitchen Scraps for Chicken Snacks
You’ve probably heard that having chickens around is a good way to avoid throwing so much food waste away in the kitchen. It’s true.
Chickens can eat some kitchen scraps, including banana peels, apple bits, and crushed eggshells for extra calcium.
Pro Tip: Crush those egg shells until they are unidentifiable. If you get lazy and feed them shells that look like egg shells, your chickens can learn to peck at and eat their own eggs. Nobody wants that.
If you don’t give your chickens a little calcium from time to time, they can start to lay rubbery eggs. Nobody wants that, either.
Some things should not be fed to your chickens, like apple cores with the seeds and any citrus. Onions (from the toxic allium family) and potatoes (from the nightshade family) are also not a good food for chickens.
According to Grit.com, most root vegetables are okay, including sweet potatoes.
You could even plant things in your garden with the intention of feeding them the grated leftovers. They love grated carrots, parsnips, turnips, radishes, and sweet potatoes, if you want to spoil them while giving them nutritious food.
A Worm Farm For Your Chicken Farm
If you like to do things organically, and the idea of feeding your chickens some high-protein snacks nature made is appealing to you, consider raising mealworms from the darkling beetle.
You can buy these commercially, both dead for a quick snack, or alive so you can raise them on your own little worm farm.
Keeping mealworms is not a full-time job but it is a time commitment. You’ll need to check on your bin or bins of worms and regularly feed them through their various stages.
Mealworms, also known as darkling beetles, go through four transformational stages in their life cycle:
They subsist on a diet of grain, like oatmeal, but will also eat vegetation and rotting food. They’re not so picky.
You could also choose to raise black soldier fly larvae instead.
Over at The Happy Chicken Coop website, they have a complete guide to growing your own worms for chicken feed.
There are even experiments being done to grow some types of worms in manure, an abundant resource. (See video)
Eating Where They Poop?
A few things to think about with feeding chickens on the ground, rather than in a feeder off the ground, include the sanitation factor. Salmonella and other bacteria can live in dusty and poo-covered areas.
While chickens do naturally eat worms and garden bits off the ground, they don’t naturally do this in the same place they poop. Only in confinement is that necessary, and it can be dangerous.
Keep any feed and scraps off the ground and in a feeding container when you can, and be sure to clear the chicken poo out of the coop and run regularly because they will peck.
Off-topic fact: I learned from the Morning Chores blog that chickens will pick at sheep poo if the two animals are kept in the same area, and help control parasites like sheep worms and fly larvae. In return, the sheep provide some bit of protection because having a large animal in the same pen may deter some predators.
Chickens Around the World
It’s pretty amazing how many different food sources chickens have. Some people even feed their chickens scrambled eggs or dishes of milk for extra protein.
I bet you could travel the world from chicken coop to chicken coop and find very different practices wherever you went.
For instance, China is a big exporter of mealworms from the darkling beetle larvae. In the U.S. commercial worm farms tend to produce more black soldier fly larvae instead.
But no matter where chickens roost, whether in the Netherlands, China, or the United States, one thing remains constant in our fine feathered flocking friends.
Chickens love to eat bugs.