Watching Hens Eat


I’ve learned more about the economies of small scale food production from watching chickens than from any library or university.  The hens reveal a world almost foreign to our human experience. Ever since farming became a capitalistic enterprise, husbandry has been organized around the idea of making money, not making food.  When the farmer is freed from the yoke of money-making, wonderful alternatives become possible in food production. More people can do it, for one thing. It doesn’t take a quarter million bucks to get started.  If more people do it, eventually the gardeners will become the farmers and the economics of food production will be turned upside down.

It amazes me how, as a farm boy, I learned to raise chickens the money way and thought that was the only way. We lived on a farm that was close to nature, but we were already evolving factory farming. The factory way meant that farmers had to raise lots more chickens in one place than nature ever intended, and the more they raised, the more they had to raise to try to squeeze out a profit. The chickens were penned up, which meant that they had to be provided all their food and water. They developed various diseases in unnatural captivity, started pecking bloody holes in each other, got lice, and suffered from various disorders and diseases that were related to unnatural diets. The ultimate absurdity came when the utility companies instructed us to leave the lights on all night in the coop to make the hens sleep less and lay more eggs.

Now, with only eight hens that are free to roam several acres of woodland, meadow and yard, I never cease to be amazed at how simple nature’s way to good fried eggs for breakfast can be. Chickens are amazing omnivores. They will eat anything except citrus rinds. No bug or worm or weed seed is safe from their daily patrol. I follow my little flock around, sometimes on all fours, trying to figure out just what they are pecking at all the time.

First of all, they eat a lot of dirt. Muddy, icy clots of dirt in winter, loamy pinches of humusy soil in the summer. I get right down there beak to beak with them, and I am sure they are eating dirt sometimes, not insects or worm eggs. Or if the latter, they take in a lot of dirt too. Yet over the years, I have never detected any signs that they have internal parasites. How can that be?   And they like manure. When I let them out of the coop in the morning, they rush around the barn to where the sheep are gathered and peck in their manure. If I were feeding grain to the sheep, that would be easy to explain because chickens love half-digested grain. But my sheep get no grain. So what are the hens eating? Perhaps the half digested grass, clover and weed seeds that are in the hay?

And oh my, do they love weed seeds. Here is a whole world of unexplored natural food for fowl. Having learned that the seeds of giant ragweed, the scourge of grain farms but a staple food for wild quail, have a 47% crude protein content, higher than any grain we cultivate, I started feeding the golden little seeds to the hens. They gobbled readily. Having learned to open my eyes to the real world, I noticed that the hens also strip the seeds off regular ragweed growing around the coop. They like the fruit of pokeberries which also grow around the coop. The seeds are supposed to be poisonous but no one told the hens. How many myriad other seeds are they eating that I don’t know about in my ignorance?

Hens like to graze grass and clover.  In winter, during thaws, they will seek out patches of greenish bluegrass and devour it. In the aging livestock manure in the barn they scratch incessantly for fly eggs, which is why we don’t have a bad fly problem. They march through the woods like a little army, uncovering worms and bugs out of the leaf litter. They love to raid the compost pile. Their favorite food, if I can judge by their enthusiasm, is table scraps. The older hens know the garbage bucket by sight and when we carry it up to their coop, they are right there at our heels. (Needless to say, natural hens stay healthy into their sixth year, a tremendous savings over having to replace them every year as so often is the case in hen factories.)

I occasionally toss the hens a handful of whole corn or wheat just because I can’t quite let go completely from the factory farm mentality I was brought up in.  It is good to have grain (but it does not have to be milled grain) when there is snow on the ground. And that’s another thing. You don’t really have to worry about waterers freezing up if the hens have access to snow. They like snow, sometimes eating it even if water is available. They like to peck on ice crystals too. Nature has been dealing with the real world for eons and eons. Will we ever catch on?


It seems I learn the most from my failures and I’m flush with failure. Have been keeping chickens for seven years and my post mistress, Mitzi, can attest to my failures by the shear numbers of chicks that come through her post office addressed to me. I do have my little survivor flock that has gone feral that I wrote about earlier, but they number 5! I count it as a great success that they have been numbering 5 for two whole years. Plenty of eggs for me.They are 2 buff orphington and 2 black sex-link hens led by a cocky and colorful little gamecock who protects them quite well–and has put a real hurt on the Australorp roosters.

I know 5 won’t last forever, so last October I ordered 25 Australorp chicks. 26 arrived alive (love you Hoover Hatchery). I thought I’d be smart and order a straight run. About half should be hens and they’d be egg producers and the other half would go in the freezer. I have no problem killing mean roosters so I thought this would be a fine plan. Can you believe that only 4 were hens?! That’s 22 roosters to slaughter. Big, fine, shiney black/green, gentle roosters! I did fine with the first 19 and now I have no stomach for it and the last 3 are very wiley! They’re feeding themselves off in the woods somewhere with the 4 hens that were supposed to be providing eggs. I guess they’re laying “out there” somewhere. When they catch sight of me, they hightail it.

So in 2 weeks Mitzi will call me to come pick up 12 barred rock and 13 silver laced wyandot POULETS! from the post office. Hope springs eternal and I have big plans for these gals!


Cougar doesn’t taste like any one of the domestic animals, although the texture is similar to beef. I guess the closest I can come is to say cougar tastes like a combination of white meat, pork roast and venison. Bear, on the other hand, pretty much tastes like pork. Coyote meat tastes terrible, and they smell awful when you skin them. Haven’t even tried badger, but porcupine tastes like pork.

    I live on an Indian Reservation , but I am not enrolled as a Tribal member so I can’t hunt big game near my home even though there is a lot of it within a couple of stone’s throw of my back porch. I can only actually hunt big game if I drive an hour away outside the Reservation. I can however legally shoot cougars, bears etc. that are harming my stock or family, which was the case when I encountered the cougar at night in my barn..

    I do ,however usually purchase both a bear and cougar tag when I hunt off -Reservation with my old-fashioned bow because I know the meat from these respective animals can be quite tasty and is a good source of high quality food. Deer populations have plummeted where I hunt because of disease and hard winters and a plethora of bears and cougars, so the possibility of encountering a bear or cougar is quite high. But in my backyard ,as I indicated, I only shoot as the law allows when they pose a threat or are in an act of depredation .(Reminds me of the old adage: ” Question: How do you know a crow is about to commit an act of depredation? Answer: Their feathers turn black!”. )

    I understand that in Gene’s country cougars are rarely if ever sighted although I’ve read stories of cougars starting to reappear in that country. If they do reestablish well in the Midwest and East coast states, don’t be surprised if excess or loose pets and chickens start disappearing and please watch out for your children’s safety. Our local community has experienced some close calls with cougars interacting aggressively with humans, namely children, but so far watchful community members have forestalled attacks on children, but only by the narrowest of margins. Dogs and horses are another matter.

    I suspect if the cougars do become established in those states that deer populations will plummet to levels more in keeping with what the land can sustain, but pets and feral dogs, feral hogs and such will also decrease. Also don’t forget that even Jaguars are being sighted in their former haunts in western states.

    Some folks are greatly enamored of big predators. That is understandable because indeed they are beautiful and they do have a significant role to play in an ecosystem. If I kill one I try to eat it. But don’t forget the old adage, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.” In that regard , I would really like to observe some of the sign waving PETA folks actually encounter a big hungry predator up close and then talk to me about animal rights, that is, if they survive. There are reasons that cougars were essentially eliminated in eastern and some midwestern states. Livestock predation being the chief reason, but also fear of human predation. These cats are big, athletic and powerful predators. Their main prey locally consists of feral horses, which are overabundant here, much like white-tailed deer are in Gene’s country.

    The point is that would-be homesteaders are well-served if they confront their seemingly conflicting emotions about predators, both large and small, before they ever start down the homesteading path. Life and death of both predators and prey beyond the sidewalks can be both beautiful and brutal. For example, I have a young goat that is crippled and I need to slaughter her so she doesn’t suffer anymore, but it is a hard thing to do. I have an excess of gorgeous roosters I need to put in the pot because they are overpopulated for my one acre, hence during the winter the feed bill cripples my finances, but they are so beautiful it is hard to kill them. Likewise, if it is necessary to kill predators, then it is best to use their carcasses for beneficial purposes if feasible. This doesn’t mean a homesteader who kills predators is bloodthirsty or uncivilized, just realistic and respectful of this wonderful thing we call life. /jmt.

Again, we share common hobbies; I’ve watched chickens with fascination most of my life. They seem to share some human qualities: a chicken will look you up and down very much like a panhandler in NYC, and I suspect they’re doing the same thing. Assessing risk/reward possibilities, and passing observations on to their friends. Late in summer, when grasshoppers and locusts mature, and a free enterprise chicken captures more than it can swallow, they are immediately set upon by socialist chickens, wanting the hard working chicken to share. That looks a little like chicken soccer. Roosters and geese make excellent watchdogs because they tend to be xenophobes, you don’t have to buy a license for them, and no one would sue you for being attacked by a bird. Explain that to a judge! When I was young we had a rooster that would clean my grandmother’s clock if she wasn’t quick between the car and the house. Now that stuff gets on YouTube.

This post was most timely as I am learning all I can now about raising chickens, and most especially how to feed them. I’d like to be able to feed them from my foraging trips, grain I grow and kitchen scraps, with as little store-bought feed as possible. It’s not going to be possible to let them forage on their own, as much as I love the idea of free range chickens. We just won’t have the room with the size of gardens I am putting in. So your post was of high interest to me. I enjoy reading the other comments too, I always learn a little more than i thought I knew.
Keep up the awesome work, Gene. I’ve been enjoying your posts so much, I am on a hunt for your older books. My local library hasn’t seemed to catch on to your charm yet. *gasp*

A day without chickens is a day without sunshine. They are the least demanding and the most productive critter on a homestead. And they are fun to watch. But chickens have one important role that needs spread far and wide . Tick control. The buggers are rampant in Central Pennsylvania and the mild winter has offered no relief. Three of the municipalities in the “city” near me now allow chickens to some degree. The others are being asked by yours truly when they are going to put in effect their LDPP (Lyme Disease Prevention Program). We have yet to pick a tick off of one of our dogs since our flock patrols around the outside of the fenced dog yard. The lowly chicken is a valiant warrior for the public’s health. The fresh eggs are a most welcome bonus.

Watching is the key. I’ve quit feeding my chickens except to throw out a handful of grain now and then to try to keep them happy with their coop area–and me! But as I watched them and the huge flocks of wild turkeys in my area, I realized I was wasting my money and that they knew better than me how to feed themselves. They have 12 acres of pastures and woods to roam during the day. Their eggs have good strong shells and they lay just as well as when I grain-fed them. Their yolks are orange and yummy. I have to explain the almost neon color of my coconut cream pies!

I have two bands of chickens, each led by a rooster. One roosts in the coop and the other flock has gone feral and roosts in a tree with the “foul” guineas I raised them with. Oddly this is the group that avoids predation best. I call the others “boxed lunch.”

And despite beautiful nesting boxes that I labored over, they all prefer to squabble over laying their eggs in the dog crate on the front porch–makes it easy to collect eggs and I’ve positioned the crate so they can hop up into it without crossing the porch and pooping all over it. I’ve “trained” them to stay off the porch by keeping a collection of aluminum tent stakes by the front door and hurling them at them when they transgress. The stakes are light-weight, make a lot of noise on the cement porch, and I can usually get close to the chickens with them but can’t hurt them if I ever get a direct hit.

I get a city girl’s full-up on your columns, Gene! I do so enjoy them.
Cousin Patti

Our ducks would always rather forage than eat whatever they give them, except for one who was the runt of the brood and still makes a beeline for anything I put down. But she’s also the first to figure out new sources of food, from fallen buckthorn berries to cherry tomatoes she flies over the fence to snag. In theory, and with a little more space, I believe they could forage for everything they need even when laying 2-300 eggs a year. They’re tightly penned at night, and our dogs tend to deter any land-based predators, but they’ve fought off a hawk or two during the day (it helps that they tend to stick together). For all that, I’m afraid I can’t give them credit for intelligence, exactly… half of them see me every day for years and still act as though they’ve never seen me before. They literally do not have the sense God gave geese. But they surely manage to do what they need to do. (Just not always what I need them to do. Which I have to remember is not the same thing!)

We have chickens, ducks and geese. The chickens are cooped up at night, penned for most of the day to keep them out of flowerbeds and off the porch and allowed a couple hours of ranging in the late evening. Geese and ducks are down at the pasture with the cows and horses (along with the wild geese, ducks and turkeys — they all pal around together). So far we haven’t lost any geese, but the duck hens go pretty quickly, even when they’re not nesting — not sure why. Our predators are foxes and bobcats, very occasionally coons. We are more likely to see ringtailed cats than coons, but since they eat the mice in the haystack along with an occasional goose egg, we can live with that. Wild geese lose eggs and goslings, but there are so many of them it’s probably just as well or we’d be overrun. Our gander, Hercules, is pretty agressive — he’ll tackle pickups, cows, people and the four-wheeler — so he probably adds some degree of protection to the ducks. I’m sure the big pond next to the pasture helps, too.

Gene–do you pen them up at night? We’ve lost so many chickens to predators, that I’m contemplating keeping them penned.

We do free range our geese. They are amazing grazers…If you start them out on short grass, they keep it short. The deposit a LOT of manure, but it isn’t terribly stinky and doesn’t burn the pastures, so I figure it is saving me fertilizing. They are great watchdogs…no one comes on the farm without a chorus of honks. And people are a lot more scared of my geese than my dogs, though the geese are very friendly and would never do more than hiss at a rude stranger. So no need to invest in security equipment 😀 We’ve only lost a couple of geese to predators over the last 8 years. A coyote has to be pretty desperate to take on a 30 lb goose, much less an entire flock (they defend each other).

    Deb, do you have ducks, as well?

    We tried ducks a couple times, but found we were simply feeding the racoons. However, I’ve heard that geese will protect ducks from smallish predators, so we’re looking to try again with a mixed flock.

    Deb: Yes, by all means, I pen them up atnight. We lose about two chickens a year to coyotes and foxes usually old ones that are about to go anyway. After a coyote raid, I keep the hens penned up for about five days, and for reasons I don’t understand, the coyotes don’t come back for six months or so. Part of chores on our farm is keeping traps set for raccoons. I kill about 20 of these “cute little” bastards every year and am very nice to coonhunters. Gene

    Count your blessings. I would gladly pen up my ducks and geese at night except they were so terrorized by predators at a young age that penning them is akin to herding cats. We live in a predator-rich environment. If not raccoons, then bobcats, badgers,cougars and dogs all take a toll. Bears are regular visitors and tend to scare people and the birds, especially when they lean against the fence to see what’s happening or strip the yard shrubs of berries. People get a bit crazy about bears. On the occasions when I see them up close around my house, I tell them: “if you won’t eat me, I won’t eat you.” So far I haven’t been eaten. However, often the bears are shot by less tolerant neighbors or law officers. Once the neighbors gave me a bear carcass that was shot fin another neighbor’s yard. The bear’s crime was eating catfood put out on the porch, hence the bear was executed for the crime. Because the bear’s regular diet consisted of acorns , greens and berries, instead of a lot of salmon or cat food , the bear meat in the forms of chops and sausage was absolutely delicious.

    A local bobcat who could have done a good impersonation of a cougar in regard to size, except for the short tail , which was a tell tale identifying trait, took one goose or duck a night from my barnyard and a dog attacked the remainder of the geese until I had only one goose left The bobcat was able to grab a goose, which would awaken me with a short desperate honk, then the bobcat would jump over a five foot fence with the goose in possession, all while I was still grabbing a gun and a light. I kept the surviving goose up close to the house and allowed our dogs free access to the remainder of the property to help with predator control. But still I’ve lost a lot of sleep and a lot of poultry while going after predators in the night with a light and a gun.

    I’ve discovered that the little LED strap- on headlamps with their bright lights, are a real blessing for night work, including shooting predators. Prior to obtaining the LED headlamp, I lost a chance to shoot a cougar at a range of five feet while trying to coordinate my gun and a flashlight and not shoot my dog who was holding the predator at bay. It was probably a good thing the cougar escaped because I only had a single shot beat up old shotgun in hand. If I shot and missed I might have been the cougar’s next meal. The cougar went to nearby farms and killed dogs and horses. That night our poultry went unscathed. The local high school sports teams carry the cougar logo, but the real-ife animals are feared in this community, and with good reason.

    My son recently provided me with a sight for my 22 rifle that consists of a red dot light that looks like a laser sight, but doesn’t shine a dot on the target that can be seen by the target if the target is living. I’m using that now but haven’t had cause to use it on a predator yet. Although, I have a duck missing this morning so I might put it into action soon. So if you can’t keep poultry penned up in a stout pen, I advise learning to shoot well and safely, especially at night, unless you just want to feed the local predators. Even in towns there are plenty of predators who relish poultry.

    A couple of points are helpful here. If your poultry retains wild stock tendencies they have more chance of survival. My chickens evidently have some Araucana genes in them because they lay varying colored eggs. Araucanas could be considered to be fairly close to their Jungle Fowl ancestors in terms of domestication. In addition they are very prolific which really helps with making up for predator losses, and they can fly like pheasants, so they can fly away from ground predators. They look and act very much like their Jungle Fowl ancestors. When push comes to shove their long, sharp spurs and game cock attitudes can, at least in daylight, put a less than determined small predator ,such as an attacking hawk, on the run, to look for an easier meal or deal with their wounds. The long, sharp spurs on the chickens can really put a hurt on a hawk, or to less than careful humans too, for that mater.

    My ducks have wild mallard genes and genes from a small black- colored duck that flew into a pond from whence I obtained the eggs that gave rise to my current flock, so they still retain some ability to fly. As a result they aren’t as large as most domestic ducks, but they still lay more eggs than I can use quickly and they do lay a lot of eggs if I keep them collected. Otherwise they incubate them and turn them into more ducks. The meat is still enough to provide a good meal for my wife and I. The down makes great pillow and quilt stuffing and the wings serve as arrow fletching stock or old style writing pens. So I don’t need a large, hungry, slow, and lazy domestic duck breed..

    Domestication tends to favor larger, lazier birds than their wild ancestors, which for the homesteader is not a pattern to emulate for poultry production in my opinion.Bigger is not necessarily better. The highly domesticated birds forage less than smaller wilder birds, so cost more to raise and they have no sense about predators. Also they are less prolific because they were bred for meat and eggs at the loss of retaining the know how to reproduce successfully.

    However, environment plays a role in the domestic versus wild tendencies also. For example, I once had a couple of White Leghorn hens that were given to my family after their young owner tired of them, after they lost their down and were no longer cute little chicks. The reason the young person had them in the first place traces back to one of those: “chick days” promotional sales that so often occur at local feed stores during the Springtime. White Leghorns are the base stock for the battery hen industry wherein hens are kept in small cages and just lay eggs but don’t set on their own eggs. The common thought is that these types of birds have to be hatched in incubators because they won’t set. These birds evidently didn’t know that, because one of the hens actually climbed a ladder with wing-powered lifting assistance in order to lay eggs in a barn loft and set on them, and the other found a hidden spot in another barn to lay and set. Unfortunately, a goat jumped on the nesting spot and crushed that hen and a similar fate befell the ladder-climbing hen. Otherwise I’ve no doubt they would have successfully raised broods of chicks. So if all you have are the typical highly domesticated stock, don’t despair . If given a chance to, as Joel Salatin states: ” express their chickenness.” they may surprise you with what they can do. As Gene indicates, when we try to raise birds for money and move away from nature’s model to produce what we want, such as more meat and more eggs than the birds naturally would, something is lost along the way. But allowing the birds to express their natural tendencies can still provide a homesteader family with sufficient eggs,meat and manure to meat our needs for these products. I’ve even seen Cornish Cross fryers raised under a typical barnyard hen that learned how to live a normal chicken life before their date with the executioner’s axe.

    Still, if you’re raising free range birds, which is still a good idea, it pays to take precautions such as penning them in a sturdy coop at night (I suggest starting this practice at a young age so the birds have the idea of a coop being the place to sleep instilled in their collective memory) , and meanwhile , learning to shoot. If you aren’t willing to shoot, I suggest leave the poultry raising to others who will shoot, or be willing to accept losses. Another handy tip in the “waste not, want not” category to consider if your shooting is successful: raccoon meat tastes a lot like dark meat chicken if properly prepared, I don’t know how badger, coyote or cougar tastes; YET!.

      James Thomas: Very very interesting, James, and I thank you for your contribution. Gene Logsdon.

For the most part I agree. Except chickens are non native to here. They are from Asia, the Red Jungle Fowl which humans then bred to the many varieties we know have. Hens here in Vermont peck at the ice and snow during the day but all head to fresh water first thing in the morning and drink up. Perhaps they are eating the springtails ( snow fleas) that come out. Their vision seems to be a little different the mine.

I enjoy many of Gene’s column. This one I’ll long remember for its powers of observation and simple wisdom.

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