Can Chickens Smell and Taste?

Anyone tending a backyard flock quickly learns that chickens can be as picky about food as a crabby child. Put a pan of kitchen scraps into the run and hens enthusiastically devour bread, meat scraps, and some greens yet shun citrus, turnip chunks and many other goodies. They seem to instantly know what foods are a delicious break from dry feed.

Midsummer is a time of food plenty for chickens and wild birds, and it’s fascinating to watch what they will and won’t eat. Any grasshopper misfortunate enough to hop into a chicken run becomes an instant protein-rich snack. Hens entirely ignore box elder bugs buzzing around them. They’ll eat grasses that grow in their run and shun other plants, like motherwort. How do they know what’s good to eat and what’s not?

Scientists have been debating how well birds can taste and smell for years. Because they have tough bony beaks and small hard tongues it’s more difficult to study their tasting ability than it is with mammals.  According to an ornithologist, Dr. Neil Bernstein, the bird brain is heavily developed for sight, sound, and balance with smell and taste much less acute. Their sense of touch varies by species.

Humans mouths contain about 9,000 taste buds compared with 50 to 500 for birds.  One researcher discovered about 400 taste buds in ducks. Chickens have some taste buds, but they are located in the back of their mouth. So, before they can taste something they’ve already committed to swallowing it.

Studies on the chicken sense of smell and taste are scarce, but more research has been done on wild birds visiting feeders stocked with diverse seeds.  Wild birds, such as chickadees and cardinals, use their keen sense of vision to locate seeds and seem to know which ones are tastiest or most nutritious. For example, they’ll pick every sunflower seed out of a blend of seeds before eating a single milo seed.

Chickens aren’t bird brains. They have intelligence and memory, and this may be a clue on how they react to food.  “I once ate popcorn not knowing I was about to develop the flu.  To put it politely, I tasted popcorn that night on the way out.  It was years before I could eat popcorn again because I unconsciously associated it with illness,” said ornithologist Bernstein.  The same might happen with chickens. A bird who gobbled down a box elder bug and had her throat badly scratched may remember it and take this common insect off her food list.

In many ways, chickens are like humans. People have food preferences. So, do hens.  Although generally, every bird in a flock is likely to like or dislike a certain food, this can vary.  One hen may like tomato scraps, but a flock sister won’t touch them.

Some birds can detect odor. Turkey vultures can locate food hidden under a dense tree cover by chemicals emitted from decaying dead animals. In contrast, great horned owls have been known to kill and eat skunks. “Because skunk spray can hurt owl eyes I don’t think they seek skunks often.  Owls don’t seem to have a sense of smell, but they certainly have food preferences,” said Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center. “For example, they don’t seem to like ground squirrels but love voles,” she added. For a great horned owl having no sense of smell is a benefit. But, how about chickens?

Chickens don’t seem to have much ability to smell or taste. That may be an advantage. They seem to prefer foods of certain colors. Toss scraps of red tomatoes into the run, and they’ll be instantly devoured, while green pepper scraps are ignored. Why hens will eat green grass yet avoid nearby green motherwort or buckwheat plants is a mystery perhaps known only to chickens.

One thing is certain. When given a diversity of foods chickens, and other bird species, have an amazing ability to choose those that are nutritious. One of the benefits of keeping a flock is observing them. It doesn’t take long to learn that they are amazingly perceptive.

 

A Diversity of Eggs

Delightful gifts that a hen gives the family caring for them are delicious eggs with shells of varied sizes, hues, and shapes. Some are speckled. Most are solid color. These gorgeous gems soon transition into tasty and nutritious food.

Many flock owners keep several chicken breeds that lay a diversity of shell colors ranging from light to dark brown, blue/green, white, and virtually every shade in between. Some shells are smooth and glossy, while others are more textured. When arranged in an egg carton they are a delight to the eye and a striking contrast to the sameness of supermarket eggs.

Many wonder why eggs are so diverse. The answer is simple. Chickens are genetically complex.  They have between 20,000 and 23,000 genes in about one billion DNA base pairs. This compares with the 20,000-25,000 human genes in 2.8 billion DNA base pairs.  Enormous genetic complexity results in much individual variation.  Just as people come in many shapes, sizes, and colors because of genetic diversity, so do chickens.  This explains why chickens range in size from the tiny Serama bantam breed to immense Jersey Giants.  Chicken feathers come in dozens of color shades and marking patterns.

Chicken breeds were developed over centuries by human selection for certain traits, like egg production, shell color, fast growth, pleasant demeanor, and attractive feathers. As a rule breeds developed around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Leghorns and Anconas, are relatively small in body size, are nervous and active, and lay many white shelled eggs. Some more northern European breeds, like Hamburgs, also lay white eggs. In contrast, most breeds developed in England, the United States, and Australia are large bodied and lay brown shelled eggs. Marans, a French breed, lays exceptionally dark shelled brown eggs.  Araucanas from South America are oddballs that lay eggs with shells ranging from greenish to blueish.  No matter how diverse chickens are, they are all of the same species.

When breeds are crossbred, egg shell color is usually (but not always) a blend of what the parent breed lays. Genetics get complicated but modern poultry breeds generally understand the key to traits and have created hybrid broilers that grow astonishingly fast and also hyper laying strains.

Eggs of all birds are amazing far beyond their color. Shape varies with species and within a species. Generally, wild birds that make sparse nests on rocky cliffs lay pointy, oblong eggs that roll in a circle, keeping them in the nest. Birds that nest in tree cavities, where it’s impossible for eggs to roll out, tend to lay more round eggs.  Chickens fall somewhere in between.  In the wild they nest on the ground, so eggs are mildly asymmetric, although some are nearly round.  Usually during laying, the blunt end emerges from the hen’s body first, followed by the tapered skinny end.

Individual hens usually lay similar eggs that may vary in shape from another hen of the same breed. For example, a Barred Rock hen in a small flock may lay eggs that are unusually round while another Barred Rock may lay much more oblong ones.  Each will continue laying eggs of that shape throughout her life.  One hen may also lay darker brown eggs than a sister of the same breed, and this characteristic will persist through her life. Generally, brown eggs get somewhat lighter in shell color as a hen ages.

According to Pat Leonard, who wrote an extensive article on egg color for the Summer 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine, egg pigments are complex molecules synthesized in the shell glad.  A pigment called protoporphyrin produces reddish-brown colors while biliverdin produces blue and green shades. Varied amounts of each explains the intensity of shell color and when pigments are absent the shell is white.

The article lists several other interesting egg facts. For example, eggshells can have from a few hundred to tens of thousands of pores and eggs that hatch into chicks able to walk and feed shortly after hatching, like chickens, have larger yolks than species that hatch naked and helpless, like baby robins.

People who tend small flocks enjoy the delightful diversity of eggs of many shapes, sizes, and hues. A carton full is a delight to the eye.

Turkey Talk

“I am going to raise my own Thanksgiving turkey someday!” Has this thought crossed your mind? With Thanksgiving just a few days away, we thought the time was right to give you a brief overview about raising turkeys and some of the key differences between commercial and heritage breeds.

Let’s review some quick turkey terminology first.

At the grocery store

Commercially raised turkeys are primarily white and bronze breeds. These turkeys typically dress (or finish) at 40+ pounds for a Tom and nearly 20 pounds for a hen. Tom turkey meat is traditionally used for deli meats, turkey bacon, or ground turkey while almost all whole birds on your thanksgiving table are female hens. They are a mix of both dark and white meat, and it is their large white breast meat that make them a popular choice for the commercial turkey business. These breeds of turkeys also are common for 4-H show projects. As a backyard flock, however, they are not ideal, unless you have a strict harvest date in mind. Bred for fast production of breast meat, these breeds are unable to mate naturally, so, in a commercial setting are bred using artificial insemination.

Heritage breeds for your backyard

Heritage breed turkeys are often a logical choice for the backyard poultry enthusiast. These birds dress at around 15 pounds, and include almost all dark meat. Breeds within the Heritage family include Black Spanish, Blue Slate, Red Bourbon, Royal Palm and Narragansetts. Heritage turkeys serve as an advantage due to their longer life-span and ability to breed naturally. If you’re looking for a smaller option of Heritage turkey, a great breed would be the Midget White turkey. These dress at around 8-13 pounds and are known for their friendly temperament.

If you’re interested in starting your own turkey flock, doing your research is vital. Turkeys require slightly more attention than your typical backyard chicken, so making sure your facility is ready to take on turkeys is key.

Some of the unique turkey-keeping aspects include:

  • Location: Choose a spot that has never had chickens grown on it – some diseases like Blackhead won’t impact chickens but will kill turkeys.
  • Feed: Young turkeys need an extremely high protein content feed. Without enough protein, turkeys have been known to eat eachother. Country Feeds Gamebird feed is a great choice. Don’t worry about limit feeding as turkeys can have access feed 24 hours a day.
  • Poults: Baby turkeys grow quickly, but, like chicks, cannot regulate body temperature well. Even though they may look like adult birds, don’t introduce young turkeys to outdoors until after 10 weeks of age
  • Space: Turkeys are much bigger than chickens, so allow an appropriate amount of space for them to grow without being crowed.

If you are raising for the purpose of harvesting the turkeys, it’s important to get your timing right. You will want to be purchasing poults in April/May for butchering at Thanksgiving time. Don’t forget to book your butchering far in advance, as facilities book up fast on these services.

Turkeys can be a fun and rewarding project with proper preparation and care.

So go forth and gobble!

 

The Scoop on Rhode Island Red Chickens

Looking to add crazy-good egg production to your flock? Then Rhode Island Reds are the gals you’ve been searching for! This breed produces large, brown eggs, with roughly 260 eggs produced annually! With all of these great attributes, this popular breed is sure to keep your coop happy.

Meet Molly Cooper!

Have you been noodling with the idea of starting your own backyard chicken flock lately? Not sure what your next step is? Well, have we got a treat for you!

Meet our latest Nutrena® character: Molly Cooper. She’s our go-to gal for all things backyard poultry, and represents the poultry hobbyist who’s been raising chickens for a few years. Here at Nutrena, we’ll be using Molly to bring you the information you need to know before starting your own backyard flock.

Through our four-part video series, Molly Cooper will provide her top tips on picking the right feed for your flock, she’ll share what to buy when housing your flock, and she’ll even give her ideas on what breeds would work best for you.

Keep an eye on Scoop from the Coop and the Nutrena Chicken and Poultry Feed Facebook page for tips and tricks. For now, watch the first video to get to know Molly!