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What Do Chickens Eat?

Chickens jumping for sunflower seeds

Have you ever wondered, if everything ‘tastes like chicken’ then what do chickens actually eat? Well…I think everything tastes like chicken because chickens eat pretty much everything.

Chickens are omnivores, meaning they will consume both plant and animal matter. You can find them eating a whole host of insects, seeds, berries, grasses and even mice. When it comes to these birds, the menu is pretty much wide open.

And their choice of dining seems to be dictated by preferences I have yet to understand. They will happily claw and peck their way through a cow patty – looking for grubs to eat – but yet, grab a french fry, taste it for a second and then spit it back out. (I love french fries!!!)

These birds will also consume bits of dirt and rock, gulping it down without hesitation. And don’t even ask me what happens to the toads they find hiding in the yard.

So to recap, they’ll eat dirt and get manure all over their face, but they won’t eat a french fry. (It does boggle the mind.)

What Do Chickens Eat Naturally?

This can be sort of a trick question. As their caretaker, I want my flock to eat healthy food and so it’s easy for me to think in terms of what may be natural to their environment. However, the average backyard chicken is not the result of natural selection, but rather the result of careful selective breeding.

Domestication has changed the original jungle fowl considerably. And as such, today’s breed of chicken would most likely not survive without direct support from their human benefactors.

With regards to the original, a chicken’s ancestry will trace back to a tropical bird known as the Red Jungle fowl. Their diet consists mainly of insects, berries and seeds. Today’s domesticated chicken will also feed on these things, but requires more in the way of nutrition as they are bigger and have much higher nutritional requirements.

To help us understand this, think of the Black Australorp. This breed of chicken is fairly common for homesteaders as it has both excellent egg output – laying roughly 250 eggs a year – as well as enough size to provide meat for the table.

It’s been my experience that Australorps do fairly well at foraging and have a pretty good rate of survival against predators – relatively speaking.

That being said, I doubt very much that I would see the normal egg production if I did not provide them with a specially formulated feed. The amount of calcium that goes into an egg shell is pretty notable. It would be very unlikely that these birds would be able to find enough calcium in their environment to produce all of these shells. This deficiency would put the bird’s health at risk.

Will Chickens Eat A Praying Mantis?

This past summer, we had a large population of Praying Mantis insects in the garden. Even as a youngster, I’ve admired these bugs, with their cool fighting stance and dangerous looking forelegs. But with our flocks being primarily free-range, it was only a matter of time before the two faced off.

An adult chicken has the capability to catch, kill and consume a large Praying Mantis. However, it should be noted that an aggressive Praying Mantis might be able to intimidate the would-be-diner. My son and I witnessed this first hand.

Spying one of these cool predator insects, I called my 7 year old over to take a look. We both ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over the bug as it twisted its head around to watch us. Unfortunately, several members of the flock noticed us and came over to take a close look.

Immediately upon their arrival, the Praying Mantis reared up on its hind legs ready to fight. With wings spread and forearms to the ready, this insect performed a sort of hypnotic dance. I can tell you, my son and I weren’t the only ones impressed.

The chickens watched this warning display with notable focus and despite the insect being a ‘yummy bug’, they elected not to go after it.

It surprised me that this little insect could face down a flock of chickens. That being said, the Praying Mantis did not escape its fate entirely as later that evening, we saw a large green bug hanging out of one of the chicken’s beaks.

Will Chickens Eat Dead Bugs?

With only a beak instead of hands, chickens will peck at a lot of things. It’s simply a part of their process. And when something ends up in their beak, sometimes they let it go and sometimes they consume it. It all depends on what the bird feels like doing at that moment.

Chickens will consume anything that grabs their attention, including dead bugs. One thing that I have noticed, however, is that they do seem to prefer juicy living bugs over dried dead bugs.

In my garage, close to the chicken feed, is a bag of dried mealworms. This is something that is quite often fed to poultry as it is high in protein and has nutritional benefits for the birds. I use it as sort of a distraction/entertainment for chicks living in the brooder. This small pen is good for maintaining the heat these chicks need, but offers little in the way of stimulation. I have found that tossing a few mealworms in gives the chicks a chance to practice their foraging skills by scratching at the bedding.

In the lack of living insects to chase, mealworms are a definite treat for the chicks. However, should you throw a small grasshopper in the brooder, the mealworms will be quickly forgotten as the chicks will drop everything to pursue the active treat.

Will Chickens Eat Worms?

After every rain, I can always count on a number of worms being out in the open. And with our flock being free-range, it’s only natural to assume that the chickens would take advantage of this. However, their actual level of excitement might surprise you.

Chickens are fully capable of eating worms, though their level of interest in this treat varies from day to day and from bird to bird. I’ve seen chickens get really excited with a worm they discovered in the garden and I’ve seen other times where they could care less. They’ll peck at it and then decide that they’d rather go looking for crickets instead.

So contrary to whatever Foghorn Leghorn might have told you, while a chicken can eat a worm, they don’t always want to.

What Should You Feed Your Chicken?

Chicks in the feeder

What you feed your domesticated chicken depends on what your chicken’s specific needs are. And this will vary on the bird’s age, as well as, their purpose. Here is a very general and brief synopsis of what you should feed your chicken.

  • Chicks – For these small adorable fuzzballs, there is ‘Started Feed’ – a crumble feed high in protein. This is necessary as chicks grow phenomenally fast and as such have significant requirements in their diet. Failure to give these little chirpers what they need is likely to lead to a loss of chicks.
  • Egg-layers – For the hens giving you delicious eggs everyday, there is the ‘Layer Feed’. This feed has a reduced protein content, as the birds are no longer putting on large amounts of bulk and consequently, do not need high amounts of protein. They do, however, need lots of calcium – which a good layer feed provides.
  • Meat-birds – These breeds of chicken have been bred to grow very large and very fast. And as such, they require lots of protein. A special ‘Broiler Feed’ is necessary in order to sustain their massive growth.

For an in-depth look at how to feed your flock, check out ‘Feeding Chickens.’