In some ways chickens are just like people. Put a bowl of potato chips next to a plate of carrot slices and cauliflower chunks and invite friends over. Odds are the chips will disappear fast, while veggies linger on the plate.
People have food preferences. So do chickens. Anyone who has managed a flock quickly learns that hens gobble up some snacks with enthusiasm, while leaving other seeming delicacies untouched. It’s a reality that defies science.
Scientists have examined the taste buds of many bird species and learned they don’t have many. Depending on the species birds have somewhere between 50 and 500 taste buds located toward the back of their mouth. In contrast humans have about 9,000 taste buds scattered about the mouth and tongue.
Bird taste buds are so far behind their beak that once they begin eating something it’s on its way to the crop before they can taste it. Spitting out something distasteful isn’t an option for birds the way it is for humans and mammals.
Science indicates that the taste of chicken feed doesn’t much matter, since hens don’t appear to have a well-developed sense of taste. Birds from chickadees to chickens disagree. Scatter a few handfuls of a mixture of sunflower seed, cracked corn, and safflower seed on the ground and chickadees, cardinals, and many other wild birds will immediately chow down on the sunflower. They won’t show interest in the other seeds until every sunflower seed has been consumed. Somehow, they know the difference.
Chickens do the same thing. They love sunflower seeds, mealworms, and such delicious kitchen scraps as squash seeds, fish bones, tomatoes, bread, stale cookies, and other human foods. Yet they’ll treat citrus fruit with disdain and shun other favored human foods that would seem delicious. Try this. Place a handful of sunflower seeds alongside the same amount of cracked corn in the coop. See which seed disappears first. You likely will find that the sunflower seeds will disappear before any hen even pecks at the corn. They’ve made the right choice. Sunflower seeds contain nearly double the protein of corn.
It’s not certain whether chicken food preferences come from taste, experience, or memory. Memory plays a role. Chickens are intelligent and don’t forget. Once they’ve sampled delicious table scraps, for example, they’ll come running with enthusiasm when they see their human caretaker approaching with a small bucket of goodies from the house. Even without a bucket in hand, when we, or even people the hens do not know, approach the coop they come running over. They have learned that people mean treats.
In some ways chickens are unlike people. Most humans will choose potato chips over carrot slices, even though they know vegetables are more nutritious and healthful. In contrast, chickens prefer the most nutritious food, although they may occasionally delight in snacking on stale doughnuts.
Most chickens get nearly all their dietary needs from commercial feed, with kitchen scraps and sunflower seeds only occasional snacks. It’s why providing the best commercial feed is vital for their good health and nutrition. That creates a dilemma. Visit a farm store and a flock owner will discover a confusing array of feeds at varied prices. How do you figure out which is best?
It’s partly easy. For example, chicks and rapidly growing young birds need a high protein diet. Once they begin to lay, they need less protein but more calcium. All feed companies produce starter/grower mixes meant for young birds and layer mash for hens. Large print on feed bags clearly shows that it is designed for growing or laying birds.
From their choosing the best feed gets more complicated, as most farm stores sell grower, layer, and specialty feeds made by different companies at different prices.
Usually, the least expensive feed is a store brand that generally meets the minimum nutritional needs of chickens but lacks special ingredients that often make it more palatable or nutritious.
People concerned about human nutrition carefully examine the label on a loaf of bread, frozen pizza, or nearly any other food in the grocery store. They buy the one they feel is the healthiest based on ingredients and nutritional levels listed in the label’s fine print.
The same practice works well for chicken feed. Every feed bag lists ingredients, usually on a paper tag attached to the bag. An easy and somewhat inconspicuous way to compare chicken feed ingredients is to snap a photo of the labels in the store of all feeds of a certain type, such as layer. Later on, at home, it’s easy to scan the photos and compare ingredients. As a general rule premium feeds contain longer lists of ingredients that can make the feed more appealing to chickens, while providing nutrition superior to bare bones feeds.
Premium feeds often contain marigold extract. It comes from the common yellow flower. Eggs laid by hens fed a ration lacking this bold color lay eggs with pale yolks, which may be just as nutritious as bright yellow yolks but don’t look as good in the frying pan or on the breakfast plate. Some feeds, including NatureServe, also include essential oils that add a healthful boost to the feed.
We put a sample of the NatureServe feed to our chickens and it rapidly disappeared. They like it. It also looks very good. We've studied ingredient labels of many brands of feed and like what we see in NatureServe.
Which feed to buy is a matter of choice and dollars, but most families who tend a small flock of chickens want the most nutritious and tasty food possible, for themselves and their trusty hens. Credit: Rich and Marion Patterson