Ten best high protein foods to see your chickens through moulting in the autumn and cold in the winter.

Do you worry about how your poor hens are going to cope with losing all their feathers as autumn comes in?  Are you concerned that the flock won't be able to deal with the cold of the winter?

Worry no more!

This is a list of high protein foods your chickens will love which will see them through the times when they are in need of a bit of help.

It's very important to understand that chickens do not need a lot of high protein foods normally - in fact over-feeding protein can cause serious damage.  If you're giving your flock a good quality food, supplementing it shouldn't normally be necessary - particularly if they free range.  These foods should be given only when there is a specific need and in great moderation at other times.

So - when do chickens need some additional high protein foods?

Basically, when they're moulting and occasionally during a particularly hard winter.  Insufficient protein in a hen's diet can also affect the hatchability of her eggs.

Moulting is what happens to hens as autumn sets in.  They need to grow a new set of feathers to make sure they're in the best possible condition to keep themselves warm in the winter.

The new set pushes the old feathers out as they grow and hens can look anything from a little on the scraggy side to almost completely bald.  If you don't know what's happening, it can look very scary.

'Pin feathers' growing back on a moulting hen.  At this point that chickens need some help with extra protein.

Pin feathers growing in a moulting chicken.

Feathers are made up of between 85% and 90% protein, so the chicken puts all its protein resources into feather-making for the duration.  Egg-laying will slow down or stop and the hen can become listless and tired.  The 'pin feathers' pushing through are also quite tender so be careful how you handle a chicken at this stage.

Adding some extra protein into their diet at this time makes sense.  It's just like humans taking a vitamin supplement.

Winters can be hard on chickens.  Here in Italy we often have six feet of snow on the ground for several weeks and the flock has to be confined to the coop to stop them sinking into snowdrifts.  They're not able to forage in the same way they do at other times of year so the usual high protein bugs, worms and frogs (eeeewwwww!) don't form part of their diet.

A chicken in the snow survives better with high protein treats every now and again.

It's at those two specific times that chickens can do with a bit of help - and that's where a few high protein foods come into their own.

At other times of year it's fine to feed these foods occasionally, but only in very small quantities as treats.  We all like to 'spoil' our hens but remember, there is such a thing as 'killing with kindness' and it's known that obesity is one of the major factors in 'Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome'.

How much of these high protein foods is advisable for your chickens?

Use common sense here.  Many of them are high in fat, so it's not good to give more than a couple of handfuls between about 12 birds twice each week.  Some, though, like lentil sprouts, are low in fat and are fine to give as frequently as you want.  Where they should be used in great moderation I've made it clear under each heading.

This is a long list so if you're particularly interested in one or two sources of high protein foods in particular, just click on these links to go straight there.  They're listed in order of highest protein content first.  Otherwise, feel free to scroll down the whole list.

Hard boiled eggs - a high protein treat for chickens.

1.  Cooked eggs : 91% protein.

Eggs are the perfect whole food and yes, I know it sounds weird feeding chickens their own eggs as a treat, but it works.  You should never feed them raw eggs, however, because it can lead to them deciding to have a little snack all on their own.  The last thing you want is your lovely fresh eggs being eaten by your hens - and raw eggs have less protein anyway (about 51%).

But cooked eggs are fine - chickens will not recognise them as eggs at all because the texture and smell are quite different.  Mine prefer hard-boiled (chopped up for their convenience, naturally) and will be merciless with each other in their attempts to get at it first.  Scrambled eggs are also good but do not use milk to make them (water works just as well if you want to bulk them out a little) because chickens cannot digest milk properly.  And don't add any salt - chickens are not people.  They don't need it in the quantities we use it.

Interesting factoid : The old concerns about eggs having too high levels of cholesterol are now known not to be accurate.  For more information about the nutritional value of eggs, have a look at this page, which will open in a new window so you can come back here to finish reading.

Sardines - a high protein fish chickens love!

2.  Fish, or fish meal : 61 - 72% protein.

Particularly good are sardines or tuna because of their high levels of Omega 3 (unsaturated fat) oils, but any oily fish is excellent. 

I personally use fresh sardines which I'm lucky enough to be able to buy very inexpensively.   I feed them raw and either mash them or just slit them open.  Once open, they'll devour them within a matter of minutes - entrails and all.

Don't worry about the bones - they'll eat the very tiny ones but larger bones will be left intact.  If you feed something like a whole herring or mackerel you'll find all that's left will be the head and skeleton.  They pick the rest clean.

Fish can also be useful in hot weather - I freeze some large chunks and give them to the hens as a very occasional summer treat.

If you can't get fresh fish, tinned is a possibility but try to get fish in water or sunflower oil with no additives, in particular no salt.  Fish meal is another option and can be bought online.  It's processed, of course, and has added chemicals to stabilise it and prevent decomposition so I prefer not to use it - but it's a high protein option.

Interesting factoid :  Many people won't give their chickens fish in case it taints the eggs.  In fact, there's no evidence at all that it changes the taste of eggs even when poultry is fed quite large amounts of fish in their diet.

Mealworms - a high protein food chickens love.

3.  Mealworms : 53% protein dried; around 30% live.

I know - Eeeeeewwww.   But if my chickens go crazy for cooked eggs, they will positively kill for mealworms.  

Scattered around the run they are an excellent way of encouraging your flock to scratch and forage; added into a nice mushy 'chicken porridge' they are a crunchy treat your flock will love. 

Don't overdo them though - no more than a few per chicken a couple of times a week.

Where to get them : I buy mine dried online which makes it quite expensive, but you can raise your own far more cheaply. I haven't been able to bring myself to do this yet (too squeamish) but if you want to give it a try, this is the most helpful series of videos I've been able to find which leads you through the whole process step by step.

Interesting factoid : scientists are currently advocating using mealworms for human food because they're easy and inexpensive to raise, and an excellent source of protein and fat.  They haven't quite caught on - yet.

Pumpkin seeds - an excellent winter treat for chickens.

4.  Pumpkin seeds : 31 - 33% protein.

Everyone loves this time in the autumn (Fall) when leaves are starting to turn and pumpkins can be found everywhere - particularly in the States. 

And as it so happens, the insides of all those pumpkins you and your family will be carving out for Hallowe'en can be put to good use - not just making pumpkin soup but to offer your flock one of the best high protein foods around. 

Wherever possible use the fresh seeds, not the packaged ones which are generally high in salt.  They do tend to lose their freshness and some of the nutritional value after a couple of months, so don't try stockpiling them, either.  You can either give them to your chickens exactly as they come out of the pumpkin (in fact chickens also love the flesh of pumpkins) or you can lightly roast them. 

To make it even better, they're also a great source of anti-oxidants which may help your hens fight off illness.  Don't rely on them as a de-wormer though - you'll see a lot of advice around the internet saying they're effective for this but there is no scientific evidence of it anywhere (that I've been able to find).

Interesting factoid : The Maya and Aztecs used pumpkin seeds as far back as 1300 A.D. for their medicinal properties, and pumpkin seed oil is widely used still in Mexican dishes as an inexpensive protein source. 

Sprouting seeds - and excellent source of protein for chickens and humans!

5.  Sprouted lentils : 26 - 30% protein.

Now, these are one of my all-time favourite treats and I use them all year round because as well as being one of the best high protein foods available, they're also very low in fat. 

Inexpensive and very easy to make, my chickens don't love them as much as some of these other high protein foods but they'll eat them nevertheless.

Want to know how to make them?  Just follow this link to my page about how to sprout them.  You can use other sprouts as well but I've always found lentils the most successful.

Interesting factoid : Use them yourself in salads throughout the year.  They're excellent nutrition for humans too  and their peppery taste really does add an extra dimension.

Cat food - a high protein treat for chickens.

6.  Cat food : 26 - 30% protein.

Anyone who has ever watched chickens fighting over a lizard or a frog knows that they are definitely not vegetarians.  They're omnivores - they eat both animal and plant life - and they adore meat.

Cat food - either dry kibble or tinned meat - is a controversial food for chickens.  Some people swear by it; others say it should never go near a chicken coop. 

Like all the other high protein foods it should certainly not be given regularly but only as a very occasional treat

There's no doubt at all in the minds of my chickens though - they adore it

Interesting factoid : chickens will take on even quite large cats if they think they can get to their food.  We once tried to entice some feral cats to live in our yard but they didn't stay - the chickens left them no food at all!

Sunflower seeds : a good source of protein for chickens.

7.  Sunflower seeds : 23% protein.

Very high in protein and always available fresh in the autumn, sunflowers are also very high in disease-fighting phytochemicals - perfect. 

Here in Italy they are harvested only when the heads are void of petals, drooping and the seeds have turned black which is when they are at the height of their nutritional value.  It's a sad sight, but a great natural food.

Scatter them dried in your run, use them in a treat block or, best of all, plant sunflowers in the Spring and let your flock help themselves to the heads when they're ripe.  Gorgeous colour all summer, nutrition in the winter.  Wonderful.

Interesting factoid : The tallest recorded sunflower measured 27 feet from top to toe and was grown in Germany.  A bit too tall for chickens to reach!

Fresh peas - another source of protein for hens.

8.  Garden Peas : 23% protein.

Peas have been fed to poultry for generations, either those classed as 'not fit for human consumption" due to being mis-shapen or too small, or those strains grown especially for animal fodder.

Easy to grow, they can be fed mixed with other veggies, or mixed into a treat block. 

If you don't have the space available to grow them yourself, don't use canned processed peas which are high in sugar, salt and additives.  Frozen peas are good to use; they're frozen so quickly that they may actually have more nutrients than those sold as 'fresh' in supermarkets.

Interesting factoid : Three quarters of a cup of ordinary garden peas has more protein than a tablespoon of peanut butter and none of the fat.  Feed your chickens peas as treats, not peanut butter!

Parsley - a good source of protein.

9.  Parsley : 21% protein.

Used often as a garnish or a flavouring for sauces, parsley tends not really to be considered as a herb full of protein and other nutrients - but it is. 

You'll see some information on websites claiming it's poisonous to chickens - there's no evidence of this although some books cite the roots as being toxic.

The Italian flat-leaved strain in particular is a good source of calcium and anti-carcinogens as well as protein - and as an added bonus, it's very low in fat.

Parsley is immensely easy to grow and, although my chickens will never touch it on its own, they demolish it when it's mixed into other high protein goodies.

Interesting factoid : There's an old English superstition that transplanting a parsley plant beings bad luck, so be sure to plant yours where you want it to stay!

Oats - a good protein-rich food for chickens.

10.  Oats : 10 - 17% protein.

I'm including oats here because, although it's not as high in protein as other foods, oats are often used in different recipes to add bulk and bind together different ingredients. 

As well as protein they have calcium, iron and soluble fibre.  Chickens won't eat a lot of them but as part of a good, balanced diet they're indispensable.

Try to avoid the 'quick' variety which are processed and therefore have less nutrients and more sugar and salt.  Go for whole oats and, if possible, organic.

Try soaking oats in water before feeding them to your chickens - it makes them easier to ingest and it's a good way of making sure they're keep hydrated either during the hot summer months or in the winter, when water may freeze over.

I also make up a 'porridge' by heating oats with water - not milk, as chickens have trouble digesting dairy products - and feeding it warm on a cold winter's day.  I'll serve it either on its own or with some left-over veggies added and my flock absolutely love it.

Oats made into warm porridge are a hit with chickens in the winter.My flock adore the taste of warm porridge on a cold winter's morning.

Interesting factoid : You may find, if you feed oats to your chickens, that they seem to become calmer and less jumpy.  That's because the high fibre content makes them feel full - the same kind of feeling humans get after a large Christmas dinner!

What about commercially produced high protein food?

high protein chicken foods

This isn't a favourite of mine, to be honest.

If you feel you don't have the time to grow or make high protein feed for your chickens you can always buy it.  However, be aware that at around 16%, the level of protein is not as high as most of these natural foods. 

It is also high in corn content, which is low in nutrients, and has added chemicals to extend its shelf-life.

Having said all that, a lot of people swear by it and their hens appear to love it. It can be bought online from Amazon.com by clicking here or on the picture - but only in the United States.

And finally - remember ...

  • These high protein foods are not to be fed as a substitute for a good quality chicken feed but as an occasional treat.
  • Do be careful not to overfeed and do not give these treats as a matter of course all year round.  Restrict them to moulting and to hard winters.  Overweight chickens will develop various health problems and won't be good egg layers.  
  • You will still need to supply oyster shell, grit and water.
  • Remember that hens are creatures of habit.  New foods will be eyed with great suspicion at first, until your flock decides those strange looking fish pieces or mealworms aren't going to kill them after all!

"Will it kill me?"  Give your chickens time to get used to new high protein foods.

A chicken wonders whether some new high protein food will kill her!

Want to learn more about any of the subjects below? 

Just click on any of the pics below to go straight to that page.

Click for a recipe using high protein foods for healthy, happy hens.
Grit and oyster shell - why they're crucial to a chicken's diet. Click here.
Click here to see my list of ten healthy treats for your chickens.


I always strive to present advice based on information which has been proven and peer tested scientifically rather than that from 'word of mouth'.  These are the articles I have studied for the information on this page.

Health Canada : 'Nutrient Value of some Common Foods'.  March 2013.

Mayo Clinic : 'The Calorie and Protein Content of Common Foods'.  2012.

Mealworm.org : 'Mealworms - Recipes and Nutrition'.  2014.

National Academy Press : 'The Nutritional Requirements of Poultry'.  1994.

National Sunflower Association.

R. Hoenselaar;  Pub. National Centre for Biotechnology Information, US National Library of Medicine :  'Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: the discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice'.  August 2011.

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.  This includes meats, vegetables and any kitchen scraps and it applies to all backyard chickens, however large or small the flock and whether or not you sell their eggs or meat to others. 

Furthermore the sale of dried mealworms for consumption by chickens is also illegal, although you will still find the product on internet sites labelled 'for birds'.  This is related to concerns about the product being imported from countries where quality control is not high.

I have yet to inform my flock that they are illegally eating their most preferred treat.

Some links on this page are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase a product through them I receive a small commission. There is no extra cost to you.  This helps me keep the information on the website free of charge.  It also helps support my family and my chickens!  Because my integrity and your satisfaction are very important to me, I only recommend products I have purchased or would purchase myself and which I believe would benefit you. To learn more please see my affiliates disclosure document.

You are here : › High protein treats

If you found this helpful, please take a few seconds to share it - thank you!

Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.