What Can I Feed My Chickens?

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Red sweet corn, drying on the porch.

Story Time!

A few years ago, back when Lindsey and I were still going to college, we decided to pack up for a quick weekend trip to see her parents — y’know, just a nice relaxing visit, right?

Well, somehow during our visit, I found myself armed with a dust mask, a shovel, and a broom, mucking out their chicken coop…

I’d like to say that I got roped into doing it, but the truth is, I actually volunteered… (I’m kinda weird that way.)

I had always wanted chickens, and I saw this as an opportunity to sort of “test drive” them. I thought it’d be a good chance to find out if I really wanted chickens.

It’s pretty obvious what conclusion I came to (since we now have a couple dozen of the silly things running around the place) — but the reason I bring this up, is because of what happened when I was cleaning out my in-laws’ coop so many years ago…

I was almost finished with the job, when I inadvertently demolished a mouse nest with my shovel. The little mouse made it out of the wreckage unscathed, but, after seeing his home destroyed, the poor little thing ran for its life — right into the chicken yard where the girls were waiting!

Now, I had always kinda thought chickens were more or less vegetarians. Sure, they’d scratch up the occasional earthworm, or eat a grasshopper now and then — but most of their diet came from grains and legumes and other plant-based stuff, right?

Certainly, they wouldn’t go for any actual meat!

I was dead wrong, and unfortunately, so was the mouse!

Those old chickens had that poor little guy ripped to shreds and swallowed in no time flat — and they probably would have scarfed him down even quicker if they hadn’t stopped to play their little game of “keep away” first.

So when someone asks “What can I feed my chickens?” — I think to myself: You can feed your chickens just about ANYTHING, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD feed it to them!

That being said, it’s actually easier to make a list of what NOT to feed your chickens, because there are some things out there that can be potentially harmful to your ladies.

So, without further ado…

Foods You Should NOT Feed To Chickens:

Chocolate

First of all, I would never even dream of wasting precious chocolate on those feathery moochers of mine! I mean, their palates are more geared towards mealworms and maggots — I doubt they’d even appreciate chocolate.

But more importantly, chocolate contains an alkaloid called Theobromine, which is toxic to chickens (as well as dogs and cats, in case you were wondering).

I’ve been told that even relatively small doses can be lethal, but I can’t confirm that one way or another.

Avocados

Avocados are a little more controversial.

Although it is a matter of fact that they contain a fungicidal toxin called persin, some folks will say that it’s only the pits and the skins that you have to worry about — the flesh is fine in moderation.

Other people will tell you to steer clear of avocados altogether.

We don’t really have a problem with it. Around here, our avocados get slicked up so fast that there have never been any leftovers to feed to the chickens anyway!

Apple Seeds

Have you ever heard the rumor that apple seeds contain cyanide?

Well, although they don’t technically contain cyanide, the rumor actually isn’t too far off… Apple seeds (and pits from cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, etc.) actually contain a substance called amygdalin — which, when digested, goes all sinister and ends up producing a small amount of cyanide.

To tell you the truth though, I’m not actually convinced that a chicken’s digestive tract is even capable of hydrolyzing the amygdalin. But I’m not a chemist; I’m just some chicken guy writing about my own experiences. 😉

All I know is that our chickens ate quite a few apple cores and peach pits last fall, and we haven’t had any of ’em drop dead yet.

Still, proceed at your own caution.

Dry Beans

I read a really interesting article the other day.

Apparently uncooked dry beans are extremely toxic to both people and chickens alike — due to a protein called phytohaemagglutinin. (That’s quite a mouthful!)

According to the article, a chicken can die from eating as few as 3 or 4 beans, with death occurring in as little as an hour.

Very serious business!

I wish I would have known that last year when we were harvesting our black beans… I dumped 2 or 3 buckets full of empty hulls into the chicken coop — and I specifically remember watching our ladies picking out the individual beans, and enjoying them immensely!

True, none of our birds got sick — but I don’t think I’ll be giving our chickens any beans this year. Better safe than sorry, right?

Onions

There are a lot of folks out there who will tell you to avoid feeding onions (and leeks, shallots, chives, garlic, and any other members of the “Allium” family) to your chickens.

The primary reason for that are thiosulfinates.

To make a long story short, thiosulfinates oxidize the hemoglobin in a chicken’s blood — which can lead to some pretty severe cases of anemia.

However, your girls would have to peck their way through a lot of onions in order to really cause a problem.

Honestly, I’m not terribly concerned about it. We still add onion skins, tops, etc. to our chicken bucket every once in awhile, and we’ve never had any problems. Plus, the chickens seem to really enjoy it.

I’ve also heard a few claims that onions and garlic will make your eggs taste funky — but we’ve never noticed a difference…

Green Potatoes

When I was a kid, remember hearing somewhere that green potatoes were poisonous.

It kinda freaked me out, actually.

I mean, if you can’t trust your potatoes, who can you trust?!

I was pretty young at the time, but I would even go so far as to inspect each individual potato chip, front and back, before I’d eat it!

Fortunately, I got over that fear relatively quickly — but there is some truth to it.

When potatoes are exposed to light for an extended period of time, they start to realize that something isn’t quite right — so they go into full red alert and ramp up their internal preservation processes. This results in high accumulations of chlorophyll and solanine, particularly in the skin of the potato.

Now, the chlorophyll is totally harmless, and is actually the substance that’s responsible for the green color. The solanine, however, can cause all sorts of health problems for you and your chickens.

But I’ve got to level with you… I’ve eaten lots of potatoes with green spots, and I’ve never experienced so much as a stomachache. I may be playing a deadly game of potato roulette, but I’m just not very concerned about it.

Occasionally, I’ll even cut the green spots off and (*gulp!*) give them to our chickens!

We haven’t seen any ill effects. But, like most of the items on this list, be aware that green potatoes are potentially harmful.

Citrus

Citrus is one of the more controversial foods in this list.

There are some accusations that the high acidity in citrus fruits leads to thinner eggshells. Other people claim that citrus will slow egg production… There are even tales of citrus causing diarrhea and feather plucking!

I haven’t found any scientific studies about it.

Our chickens always seem to turn up their beaks at the orange peels we give ’em — so all I can tell you is to proceed with caution.

Moldy Stuff

There are a lot of molds out there. Some of ’em are beneficial (think penicillin), but others are definitely NOT beneficial.

In fact, feeding your chickens moldy food can lead to a whole bunch of problems — everything from respiratory problems to liver cancer.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with giving our chickens a rotten pumpkin now and then, or maybe a piece of bread that has a couple of blue spots on it. But I’d definitely think twice before giving them a bag of spoiled and moldy feed.

Fortunately, we live in a pretty dry climate, and we keep our feed in a nice waterproof plastic barrel — so we’ve never had a problem with moldy feed.

Closing Disclaimer:

I AM NOT A CHICKEN EXPERT!

Nor am I a biochemist (that would be my wife).

Although I have done several hours worth of research for this blog post, I still don’t know much about chicken physiology — nor do I understand all of the mechanisms at work in toxicology.

Basically, I am not qualified (in any way, shape, or form) to tell you what you should or shouldn’t feed to your chickens.

All I have to offer is my own personal experience.

And as luck would have it, my “personal experience” just happens to include feeding several of these potentially toxic substances to my beloved chickens (before I knew they were bad, of course). 😉

I’ve actually learned quite a bit from my research though — a lot of stuff that will help us keep our ladies as happy and healthy as possible.

That’s really what we’re aiming for.

At any rate, this list is just a small sampling of potentially harmful foods. If you are looking for something a little more comprehensive, you should definitely consult with a veterinarian.

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