Chickens are the most numerous, and economically important birds on the planet. Originally domesticated from a wild species known as the red junglefowl, chickens have been important in the human culture and diet for over 2000 years.
Understanding how to provide these birds with the right nutrition has been fundamental to our success as small-scale and commercial food producers. So what exactly do chickens eat?
Chickens are omnivores in nature and in the domestic setting. These adaptable ground birds feed on all sorts of different invertebrates and wild plants in their native range. Backyard chickens will make use of the same types of foods but most poultry farmers prefer to feed their birds commercially prepared products that contain all the energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins that these birds need in the right ratios.
Chickens can be fed a variety of different food sources, although grains should form the bulk of their diet. Grains alone do not provide all the protein that chickens require, however.
Many loving chicken owners also like to treat their birds from time to time, which can be a great way to supplement their diet.
Whether you keep chickens of your own, or you're curious about what these familiar farm birds eat, read this article to learn everything you need to know.
Domestic chickens feeding
Chickens are believed to have as few as 24 tastebuds, although modern science may indeed reveal a better ability to taste than previously thought. Chickens are very partial to some berries and fruit like watermelon, although these should not be provided in large amounts.
The easiest way to ensure that chickens get a complete and balanced diet is to provide a complete prepared commercial feed on a daily basis. These are typically sold in the form of pellets or mash and contain various ingredients such as:
Mash is made by grinding the various ingredients into a finer meal. Mash is a popular feed type, but it can also be used to produce pellets.
Pellets are made by using a binding agent and heat to hold the mash together and then processing it into short tube-shaped pellets of a manageable length.
A third form of feed, known as crumble, is made by grinding up pellets into smaller pieces. The resulting texture is intermediate between mash and pellets.
Continue reading to learn more about what chickens can and can’t eat.
Free range chickens grazing on the meadow
Any food source that lacks the minerals, vitamins, or protein that chickens require will be harmful in the long run. Moldy or rotten feed should never be given to chickens and food with excessive salt content is also dangerous.
The following common foods are known to be toxic to chickens:
Vegetables make a great supplement to a chicken’s regular diet. The following vegetables are safe for chickens if fed in moderation:
Lettuce can be a great supplement to a chicken's diet, in moderation
Domestic chickens love fruits, just like their wild ancestors. Chickens can safely be fed the following fruits and berries:
Feeding treats is a great way to add variety to a chicken’s diet. It is important to keep treats down to 10% or less than their total diet, however. Chickens can be fed fruits, berries, vegetables, leafy greens, and herbs as treats.
Chickens foraging for food
Chickens eat every day. They will feed throughout the day or until they have eaten enough to satisfy their daily energy needs. It is best to provide a continuous supply of food for your chickens, but they can be fed 3 or 4 times a day if this is not practical.
Chickens regulate their diets based on the energy content of their food. Environmental conditions also affect their energy requirements because birds need more energy to maintain their body temperature when it is cold out.
As a general rule, however, hens need about 1/4lb (100-150g) of feed per day.
Close up of two domestic chickens
Baby chickens are precocial, which means they feed themselves, rather than relying on their parents. They should be provided with food on their first day after hatching, even though they can survive for 2 days or so before their first meal.
Baby chickens need a food source with a finer texture and a higher protein content than adults. They will forage for small insects, greens, and seeds in nature or if allowed to roam freely.
Prepared chicken feeds for chicks differ from those for adult chickens. Young chicks can be fed starter pellets, crumbs, or mash, which usually have a protein content of 20-24%. Older chicks can be fed grower feed. Grower feed has a slightly lower protein content at 16-18%.
Mother hen with her chicks
Chickens drink water. They visit freshwater sources on a daily basis in nature so it is important that domestic chickens have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Chickens can drink between 0.05 and 0.16 gallons (200-600ml) of water per day, depending on the temperature and other factors.
Close up of four chickens drinking water from a bowl
Modern domestic chickens are descended from the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus). These birds eat a wide variety of foods, largely dependent on what is available in an area at any given time.
Wild chickens are omnivorous, feeding on various insects such as ants, termites, and beetles that they find on the ground or in low vegetation. They also feed on seeds, fruits, and other plant matter.
Wild chickens feed from the ground, scratching and pecking through dirt and leaf litter.
They are known to make use of seasonal food sources like seeding bamboo when available, but they are opportunistic and will feed on any appropriate food that they can find.
Wild chickens have even been observed to follow large mammals, taking the opportunity to catch insects that are disturbed as they walk through the grass.
Two Wild Roosters foraging for food
Chickens are not vegetarian. They are omnivorous, which means they need to feed on insects and other small animals as well as on plant-based foods.
Laying hens require a different diet than chicks and non-laying chickens. They require a slightly lower protein content than growing birds but need an extra calcium source. Feeding young chickens a feed designed for laying birds can be very harmful and even cause death.
Full-grown egg-laying chickens require feed with a protein content of 14-16%. They also need a steady supply of calcium for healthy egg shell production. Commercial layer feeds usually contain 2.5 to 3.5% calcium but natural substances like oyster shell grit, calcite, or limestone can be used as an alternative.
Hen sitting on her eggs
Chickens can eat bread in small quantities but it is not recommended. It has little benefit for the birds other than as an occasional treat and can cause a condition known as sour crop if provided too often.
Chickens love to eat corn. It is a healthy component of a chicken's diet but should not be their sole food source since it has a relatively low protein content.
Chickens can eat watermelon flesh, seeds, and even rinds. In fact, all parts of the watermelon are safe for chickens and this makes a great treat for domestic birds.
Wheat is a healthy grain for chickens. It contains nearly as much protein as corn but has a higher protein content. Chickens can be fed whole grain wheat. Ground wheat or flour can be messy and build up in the feathers of the bird.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox