Chickens enjoy some free range time of their coop in Fort Kent hunting for insects and fresh grass shoots. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

If there is one thing backyard chicken keepers have in common, it’s a deep love of the individual hens and roosters in their flock. When it comes to their birds, there is not much they won’t do for them, especially when it comes to feeding and treats.

That’s not always a good thing, according to animal health experts.

There are thousands of chicken treat recipes on the internet using everything from whole grains to cooked oatmeal. Many are aimed at increasing caloric intake in the winter to help birds stay warm. Others provide something for them to do when cooped up inside.

But many are a waste of ingredients at best, and potentially fatal to birds at worst.

Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine veterinary diagnostic laboratory, has done many necropsies — animal autopsies — and has seen firsthand what happens when humans go overboard in feeding or dispensing treats to chickens.

“Some of the saddest necropsies I do are when a well-loved bird has died suddenly,” she said. “One day they are fat and happy and the next they are dead.”

More often than not the birds have died from fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome.

“This is a situation in which the birds are killed with kindness,” Lichtenwalner said. “They get too many junk calories for what they are doing physically and they store a bunch of fat in their livers.”

The liver has too many important jobs to serve as a fat-storing depot, Lichtenwalner said.

“The liver is a factory for all the enzymes the body needs, including the ones that make blood coagulate,” she said. “So the liver gets very fragile and if your chicken gets bumped or something hits her she can bleed out from the liver.”

Instead of feeding chickens leftovers and other foods not intended for birds, keep your chicken treats ultra-basic.

“I am someone who thinks simple is better for the avian GI tract,” Lichtenwalner said. “I am a fan of using cracked corn in moderate amounts to keep your birds occupied and happy scratching around.”

Overall, chickens are pretty easy to keep happy, Lichtenwalner said, and there is not much their humans need to do to make them happier.

“Anyone who has chickens enjoys watching them forage around,” she said. “Foraging is what chickens like to do with their time.”

In general, according to Lichtenwalner, people food is not good for chickens as birds evolved to eat a different diet than their human companions.

“Birds are curious and interested in everything,” Lichtenwalner said. “So they may act like any food you toss them is the coolest thing ever and really go for it.”

In addition to causing liver issues, overfeeding or giving inappropriate treats to chickens can disrupt the common and very important microscopic flora and fauna living in a chicken’s GI tract.

“Chickens spend a lot of time early in their life getting the right combination of bacteria, fungal and protozoans that live inside them to be happy,” Lichtenwalner said. “If we do things like feed them lots of sugar or yogurt or overdo it with any foods we mess up that chicken.”

For the healthiest chicken, it is best to stick with a balanced feed that is appropriate for the chicken’s age and stage of life.

“Beyond that, you can add a little scratch, some veggies and things to peck on when they get bored,” Lichtenwalner said. “The moral of the story is don’t overfeed your chickens.”

And when in doubt?

“For a chicken, nothing replaces a good bunch of bugs,” Lichtenwalner said.

When it gets cold, it can be tempting to give chickens a warm meal — like oatmeal made just for them. Don’t.

“This makes the owner feel great and is probably not too bad for the birds but what they really need is fluid water and some caloric content that is not too hot,” Lichtenwalner said. “Too warm or hot food is not good for chickens because their crops and esophagus are really sensitive.”

It’s through foraging that chickens find tasty things like bugs, worms or seeds in lawns, leaf litter or under trees and bushes. When they are confined inside over winter they will scratch around the bedding of their coop looking for treats.

If you want to treat them, do as Lichentwalner does and give them cracked corn in the morning — about a quarter cup for every bird.

“When it’s cold I toss in the corn first thing in the morning when I go out and check their water,” Lichtenwalner said. “Cracked corn really meets their needs for junk calories as a treat,” Lichtenwalner said. “Those are the calories that burn up fast in this kind of weather.”

Any garden leftovers like unharvested leafy greens also make good treats and Lichtenwalner will collect leftover greens like kale to toss to her chickens, or sections of squash and pumpkins that are a bit past their prime.

“I don’t make a big deal out of giving them treats,” she said. “I just give them enough to keep them from getting bored so they don’t start pecking on each other.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.