It's important they have a balanced diet - which means a good quality feed and, once they've had a chance to eat that, some yummy but healthy treats.
This is a question I'm often asked. When raised by a broody hen in the wild or in a back yard, chicks will be introduced to 'treats' in the form of bugs and greens as early as a couple of days old. I personally don't give chicks treats until they're about two weeks old - and even then, only healthy treats and only in small quantities.
Some of my Wyandotte chicks (oh and one Sablepoot!) tasting lettuce for the first time.
Treats are not a balanced diet, and chicks need to learn what their 'proper' food is before they fill their tiny tummies with treats. Giving unlimited treats is like taking kids to a sweet-shop and telling them they can stuff themselves full of whatever they want.
Remember though, it's very important that as soon as you give your chicks anything other than a starter feed they will need to be given grit in a separate feeder - otherwise they won't be able to digest it. For tiny chicks a dish of sand is fine - they'll take it as they need it.
The problem is that there's a lot of information out there, not all of it accurate. Here's ten of the best chicken treats which you can trust are not harmful and will make both your hens and their eggs stronger and healthier. It's by no means a comprehensive list, but it's safe.
Remember though that, just like people, different chickens have different tastes. What some will love so much that they're willing to fight for it, others won't give the time of day to. It's all a question of trial and error, and discovering what works well for your flock.
Fruits are every bit as good for our backyard chickens as they are for us. Full of vitamins and low in fat, they're an excellent choice as a healthy treat. Make your hens an occasional fresh fruit salad and watch them blossom!
Planting a few fruit trees in your chicken run, or allowing your flock to free range in an orchard, works well as the hens will eat fallen fruit (the wormier, the better) and at the same time fertilise the ground. I have apple, pear, fig, peach and persimmon trees in my run and there's nothing I like more than to shake a few ripe fruit from the trees for them in the late afternoon sun.
If you don't have space for full size trees try dwarf varieties, buy fruit when it's in season (and therefore inexpensive) or see if you can do a deal with friends or neighbours for some windfalls.Any chicken favourites?
This will depend entirely on your chickens. Mine have a particular liking for figs and persimmon, but won't eat apples unless they're finely grated. Picky.
Some of my Red Star chickens foraging for dropped fruit from the Persimmon tree.
Any problems with fruit? Some people don't like to give chickens apples but the flesh itself is fine - apple seeds do contain arsenic but they'd need to eat them in massive quantities to have any effect.
A word about citrus fruits - You'll see a lot of advice about not giving these (oranges, lemons and grapefruit) to poultry but no scientific base for that advice. It's handed down by word of mouth and internet forums.
However, whilst the more compelling scientific research about this (see 1 and 2 below) demonstrated the presence of a chemical compound called 'limonene' in citrus fruits which is indeed toxic to chickens, all the studies found that while the peel - fed in very large quantities - "had a significant adverse effect on the performance and digestibility of nutrients", it did not kill the chicks.
Translated, that means that levels of different types of chemicals in citrus peel cause other nutrients such as calcium which is critical to egg development not to be as well absorbed by poultry which may make egg shells thinner. They also make it unpalatable to livestock, and my own experience supports that. None of my chickens
have ever wanted to touch any form of citrus fruit anyway.
If you have chickens and you have any kind of berry bush, expect to harvest only what your hens can't reach. Chickens love berries so much they'll strip a bush bare and for good reason - they know what's healthy to eat. Berries are like a multi-vitamin pill for chickens - but much more tasty. Packed full of vitamins A, B complex and C, they're also a good source of beta-carotene.
If you have space, plant some berry bushes in their run; they'll appreciate the shade as well as the fruits. Elderberry is particularly good at spreading. I also like to add berries to leaves (can you tell my chickens are a little on the 'spoiled' side?!) with a few sesame seeds added for their protein - good enough to eat myself. And (guilty sigh) sometimes I do share.
All kinds of berries are fine for your hens to eat, including the 'berries' of rose bushes (rose hips), hawthorn and blackthorn bushes which are bursting with vitamin C. They're particularly helpful in the autumn and winter when other fruits have largely finished and are more expensive to buy and, as an added bonus, the plants provide wild birds with some much needed nesting hedgerows.
Rosehips tend to be very hard so they're best either left to dry out, or grind them up before feeding. As a bonus, chickens love rose petals too so pruning in the summer means no flowers are wasted. Perfect.
I love rosehips - a good source of winter treats. Keep an eye out in those hedgerows for the wild varieties.
You may see some advice on the internet that berries are toxic to hens - they're not. What's toxic are the pesticides they tend to be treated with commercially. Avoid unpleasant chemicals by washing well any berries (or any other foods) you buy and not spraying your own bushes if you have them, and you'll be fine. Your chickens will thank you for the bugs, too.
Known as the 'cruciferous' vegetables, this group is also known as "super-veg" because they're so healthy. I have to admit, though, that these are not the kind of healthy treats any of my chickens have ever really loved in the same way they love strawberries, for example (no different to kids, then!) but they're packed full of vitamins and disease fighting phytochemicals.
Of the three, cabbage has the most calcium (6.3% as opposed to 4.3% in broccoli and 2.4% in cauliflower) which is good for the egg-layers in your flock, and slightly more vitamin C. But to be honest, any of these has a good level of anti-carcinogens and is a good choice of healthy 'treat' for you and for your chickens.
Broccoli florets mixed with some grated carrot and cucumber slices - a healthy summer dish; chickens will love leftovers as a treat.
I tend to spoil my hens by giving them just the florets as they seem to find the stalks too tough to handle, and I give them raw, usually mixed with other healthy treats to make it more enjoyable (do you get the impression my hens are treated rather well??!).
Leftovers are fine (although for European regulations please see bottom of page) but boiling does allow a lot of the vitamins to leach out into the water.
To make them more interesting to your flock, try hanging raw veg from a suet feeder (without the suet), particularly if your birds are confined to their chicken house during harsh winters. It provides hours of fun - they'll have a go at pecking them all day.
You can get 'specialist' chicken treat feeders but to be honest I use a couple of large sized wild bird suet feeders (well washed) like these below, which work in exactly the same way and aren't as expensive.
Carrots are so easy to grow that even I can do it - just spread a line of seed and watch them sprout. I do mine in a raised bed and add some sand to compost to give them their ideal growing medium. Lift when the tops begin to poke through the soil.
My carrots may be hairy and weird shapes, but they're inexpensive and full of goodness!
Off the scale in terms of Vitamin A and with no fat at all, carrots are well known for their anti-carcinogenic properties for people and can also help to make your flock's egg yolks a deeper shade of orange.
Add them to other fruit and veggies on this list, grate them, serve them as leftovers, add them as some veggie goodness into a high protein winter feed - carrots are very versatile and chickens love them. They also love the feathery tops so don't waste them. I scrape the tops onto the compost heap I keep in the chicken run and my girls (and boys) are all over them straight away.
In many parts of the world dandelions are considered a weed, but they're so popular in the part of Italy I live that, believe it or not, dandelion plants are sold at the local plant nursery and sell as soon as they're put on the shelves.
It's not unusual for people to use dandelion leaves in salads during the summer months and for chickens, they're a feast. The flowers are also one of the greatest sources of nectar for honey-bees.
So it's actually good to encourage lots of dandelions to grow in your chicken run.
If your hens are anything like mine they'll only eat the younger, tender leaves and sometimes the petals. They dismiss the older leaves, presumably as too tough or too bitter, or both.
Dandelions have virtually no fat and are an excellent source of Vitamin A, potassium, iron and calcium, so good to throw into any high protein feed you're making to add value. Or just pull them up from your garden and toss them to the chickens. They won't last long!
Try as I might to keep them planted, my pots are always used as spas.
The problem you're likely to have with flowers is trying to keep your chickens away from them. As well as eating the petals, they love nothing more than to use the pots for dust bathing in and will dig out the plants to make way.
As long as they haven't been sprayed with insecticide (if your flowers aren't home grown, check with the florist wherever possible) brightly coloured flower petals are always a favourite healthy treat for chickens.
Used for centuries in Chinese medicine for their healing qualities, the benefits of flower petals include the ability to heal skin (marigolds); antibacterial properties and ten times more Vitamin C than a lettuce (nasturtium and rose petals); the ability to strengthen the immune system (chrysanthemum and echinacea) - the list is almost endless.
And of course, they attract bees and bugs, keeping the eco-system balanced as well as our chickens' diets.
Mine have always seemed to prefer bright orange and red flowers, in particular marigolds (which make their yolks a lovely shade of dark orange), roses, chrysanthemums and nasturtiums, which they'll eat both head and leaves of.
Their tastes change during the course of the year and they'll always go for the younger plants if they can - but petals are a target at any stage.
Four of my laying hens play "Kill the swinging lettuce" - a healthy way for them to get their treat!
Not one of the tastiest nor the most nutritious treats, but I give lettuce for a different reason - to keep my chickens fit.
Particularly in the winter months or in the wetter parts of Spring and Autumn, when the hens aren't as active at foraging in our clay soil, a hanging lettuce makes a great boredom-beater and chicken gym at the same time. I call the game "kill the swinging lettuce" and it keeps both my flock and me entertained for, literally, hours.
Even baby chicks can play the swinging lettuce game!
Here's how it works.
Take one lettuce. Tie it with a long piece of string round its base, and tie the other end around a handy tree branch, washing line or anything else it can swing freely from.
Make sure it's just out of reach of your chickens' heads. Don't put it too high - you don't want damaged legs or feet. Just enough that they have to work to get to it.
When I first use this with baby chicks I make sure the lettuce doesn't swing - their legs aren't developed enough yet and they need to get the hang of it before we try the swinging version!
Now let your chickens at it. Trust me, if you've never tried this before it will have you helpless with laughter.
Such good fun to watch - kids love it.
And all the time, you're making sure your girls, or even your baby chicks, get some exercise.
These two are excellent ways of keeping chickens hydrated during very hot periods. They love both the seeds and the flesh and will spend hours digging away at a watermelon 'bowl' until they've completely gutted it.
I put the remaining husks on my compost heap where they rot down and provide some beautiful rich soil for next year's plantings. Nothing is wasted.
Both melon and watermelon contain Vitamin C and extremely high levels of antioxidants which are known to help prevent cell damage in humans. Watermelon in particular has very concentrated levels of the antioxidant lycopene.
The best type of melon in terms of the highest level of nutrients is the Canteloupe, which has astonishing levels of Vitamin A and has been proven (3) to reduce the stress on kidneys in animals (although the research was not directed specifically at chickens).
Levels of antioxidants increase the riper the melons become, and they are also very stable so health benefits don't decrease with refrigeration.
Hallowe'en? Tired of pumpkin pie? Too much pumpkin soup? I have a solution - give your hacked-out pumpkin flesh to your chickens!
Pumpkin seeds are one of the best high protein treats your chickens can have, but there's no need to remove them from the flesh - just give your hens the whole lot.
If you're carving Hallowe'en lanterns, save the flesh when you remove it from the pumpkin, or just carve one large hole in the side and give your flock the whole pumpkin to peck at.
No pumpkin flesh was wasted in the carving of these pumpkins - it all went to the chickens!
High in Vitamins A and C, pumpkins also contain a high number of anti-oxidant carotenoids which aid cell regeneration and the level of potassium in a pumpkin is even higher than a banana (which, incidentally, chickens also love) and helps in energy generation.
A great healthy treat for autumn, then, when pumpkins are in season, hens are moulting and the colder weather is setting in.
One word. Lycopene. Tomatoes are full of it.
What's so great about Lycopene? It's an anti-oxidant which in humans is thought to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of degenerative eye disease and even lower the risk of some types of cancer.
Luckily, chickens love it. Or at least, they love tomatoes, which amounts to the same thing as tomatoes have the most concentrated levels of lycopene of any fruit or vegetable.
You may see some internet-based information saying that tomatoes are poisonous to chickens. Not so. It's the plants themselves you should keep your flock away from because they contain a poison called 'tomatine' - a form of another known poison called 'solanine' - although even this is controversial because tomatine can also be found in the fruits and is, in any event, found only in tiny doses in tomato plants.
My view? Better safe than sorry. My hens get sensible amounts of ripe tomatoes - large amounts can cause the 'runs' - but I keep them away from the plants themselves.
I like to present information which I've been able to verify by scientifically proven sources as well as by my own chickens, so that it's as safe as possible for you and your hens. The following are some of the resources I used when researching this information about healthy treats for chickens.
Cuypers, Paul : 'Feeding your chickens berries'. Pub Aviculture Europe, 2014.
Jurgens et al : 'Poultry Nutrition and Feeding'. Pub. Animal Nutrition Feedbook, 2014.
(1) L.D. Ojabo et al : 'The effect of feeding sun-dried sweet orange fruit peel on pullet chick performance'. Pub. Research Opinions in Animal and Veterinary Sciences, 2014.
(2) Oluremi, Ngi and Andrew : 'Phytonutrients in citrus fruit peel meal and nutritional implications for livestock production'. Pub. Livestock Research for Rural Development, 2007.
(3) George Mateljan Foundation : 'World's Healthiest Foods', 2001 - 2014.
Bloom, Jessi : 'Free Range Chicken Gardens : How to create a beautiful, chicken-friendly yard'. Pub. Timber Press Inc., 2012.
Please note : I am required to tell you that in Europe, EU regulations state that chickens should not be fed any foods which have been in a kitchen, whether the kitchen is a professional or a domestic one and even if the food has not been prepared there but only 'passed through'. This includes meats, vegetables, fruits and kitchen scraps and it applies to all backyard chickens, whether or not you sell their eggs or meat to others.
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