Safe Feeding and Chicken-Proofing your Yard
I am often asked questions regarding foods and plants that are poisonous for chickens. There is a very long lists of plants that are potentially poisonous to chickens. And I say potentially because the chickens have to actually eat these plants or eat lots of these plants to experience the adverse side effects. If you look at those poisonous plants lists, you’ll almost definitely see plants that are currently in your yard. Many of the plants that are on the lists of ‘poisonous to chickens’ are also on the lists of ‘deer resistant’ plants.
I have actually planted hundreds of plants that are poisonous to chickens around my yard because they are deer resistant. But like the deer, my chickens don’t touch them, which I considered an additional bonus as chickens can cause mass perennial destruction pretty fast! Chickens are smart and savvy and have hundreds of years of foraging instincts behind them. They may take a tiny taste of a poisonous plant, but they have a good ability to determine its safety or lack there of. However, one must realize that this allowing of your birds to make choices and freely range and forage is dependent on one very important factor – the amount of space.
If the chickens don’t have a lot of space and are confined to a small enclosure and that enclosure has a high percentage of a poisonous plant, then your chickens out of desperation or simple boredom will probably eat too much of it. The same goes for chicken tractors – don’t park it over a patch of field that is full of foxgloves or daffodils! And certainly don’t purposely feed confined chickens plants from the ‘poisonous to chickens’ lists!
But that is how those lists should be utilized and approached. It is not about eradicating every daffodil from your yard. It is instead about being aware of the plants that are potentially poisonous and not forcing any concentrated attention on those plants.
Be diligent and keep watch in early spring in northern areas where the vegetation is pretty scarce until the weather warms up more. With scarcity, your chickens may be more inclined to try the poisonous plants as they are desperate for some greens. In the spring, I find that my chickens eat lots of thyme and oregano as those herbs are some of the first new greens coming up. Oddly enough, the flavor of the thyme and oregano can get into the eggs. So as you scramble up your eggs, you smell thyme and oregano as if you added the spices to them!
Shepard’s Purse is one plant I would eradicate from my yard if I were selling eggs. It is not poisonous, but if your chickens eat enough of the seedpods, the yolks inside their eggs will be colored green! Pretty scary for customers but kind of fun for Dr. Seuss fans!
I would also get rid of the poisonous members of the nightshade family. My chickens eat a lot of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants from my garden, all of which are nightshades, but all of which are also safe and fine foods for them. But other nightshades produce fruits that look like tomatoes and that are very poisonous especially when eaten in quantity. I would recommend that you eliminate plants like horse nettle, deadly nightshade (bella donna), jimson weed, and datura.
But again, your chickens will largely ignore most of the plants you see on the poisonous plants lists. Concern is needed in situations where the chickens are tempted to pay attention to plants because of confinement or scarcity of other plants. This is similar to how your cat or dog won’t usually eat plants when outside but won’t leave the houseplants alone.
Also, chickens are creatures of habit and get very used to and trusting in what you feed them. I find that when I bring out a bucket of chicken scraps they all clamor to eat whatever I brought and really don’t think about it like they would if they came upon something while foraging. So be aware of that and careful about what you present to your birds to eat.
Potatoes: I avoid feeding my chickens green potatoes or lots of raw potato skins. If you really hate throwing away the skins, you can spread them onto a cookie sheet and bake them up a bit before giving to your chickens.
Mold/Rot: Avoid feeding anything with mold on it, or stuff that is really rotted.
Saturated Fat: Birds have trouble digesting large amounts of saturated fat. Avoid foods with very large amounts of fat, although small amounts of fat from fish, meats, and even avocados, are fine for chickens. Just keep it in moderation.
Raw, Dried Beans and Peas: Dried beans and peas can contain a natural insecticide called phytohemagglutinin, which can be harmful to chickens if they eat a large quantity. Beans and peas should always be soaked and cooked or sprouted before feeding to your birds.
And a word on amounts: Balance is important to maintain. Many foods that are usually perfectly ok to feed your birds can become life threatening if fed in very large amounts. Keep everything in moderation and with as much variation as possible.
I am careful to only feed my chickens organic foods. Birds are sensitive and smaller than humans and many pesticide dosages that are deemed acceptable for a full grown human are not safe for a 5-pound bird. This concept goes for any food that is not healthy. If it is not good for you, it is especially bad for a smaller bird!
There are some things that you should eradicate from your yard beyond plants to truly chicken -proof!
Styrofoam: Styrofoam is very dangerous for chickens to consume, and they tend to eat it like crazy if they find any. Be careful with packing peanuts and keep an eye out on windy days that Styrofoam doesn’t get blown into your yard from a neighbor’s garbage can. I once left my tabletop incubator outside to dry after cleaning it, and then saw the chickens starting to attack the Styrofoam sides! Saved it and them just in time!
Screws, staples, other metal bits and pieces: Chickens are attracted to shiny things and will pick up a screw or staple. These things will not digest properly, and often won’t pass through either. These bits of metal can puncture the digestive tract or cause leaching of the metal into the birds’ system, leading to poisoning.
Peeling Paint: Paint chips are very alluring to chickens and contain all sorts of chemicals and if old enough, lead.
Strings: Always be watchful and carefully gather and discard the strings from feedbags! Some chickens have a tendency to try to eat such strings, and they can cause all sorts of digestive issues.
The compost pile: If your chickens can access your compost pile be careful about what you put in it! Coffee grinds and tea bags are not good foods for your chickens to eat! And be careful about other gardening things that your chickens may have access to. I had a big jar of beer in my garden for trapping slugs and found my chickens all eating the alcohol-soaked slugs one day!
And finally I want to warn you against using cedar shavings or cedar chips as bedding. Pine Shavings are great to use and very safe. But Cedar contains a lot of phytochemicals that are not good for chickens, and that can cause health issues both from contact with the cedar and breathing in the gases that cedar expels.