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.

 

How To Raise Chickens: Raising Chicks in Two Phases

Phase I: The Brooder
Young chicks must have a brooder for warmth and protection.

What’s a “brooder?” Watch the video below to learn exactly what a brooder is and how to set one up.

How To Setup Your Brooder

  • Prepare the brooder by cleaning and disinfecting it before the chicks arrive.
  • Once it has dried, cover the floor with 4 to 6 inches of dry litter material.
  • Pinewood shavings or sawdust is recommended to aid in disease prevention.
  • Place the brooder in a draft-free location.
  • Carefully position an incandescent bulb about a foot above the box floor to provide heat and add a second light in case one bulb burns out.

Newly hatched chicks will find their perfect temperature in the brooder.

Three Chicks Huddled Together in the GrassIf it’s too hot under the bulb chicks will move away from the heat; if too cool they’ll move closer.

Give chicks space to move about. Baby chicks huddle together when they’re cold, which can cause smothering or suffocation, so check your chicks regularly to be sure they are comfortable.

Raise the height of the lights as they grow, because their need for artificial heat will diminish as they grow feathers.

Water and Food For Your Chicks

Clean, fresh water is the most important thing to give your chicks.

Make sure it is always available and that the waterers are clean.

Chick starter grower rations are available in medicated chick feed and un-medicated chick feed formulas.

Select one with 18% protein that has the vitamins and minerals chicks need to flourish.

It is important for the right blend of nutrients to be age specific, as this feed lays the groundwork for the birds entire future.

Phase II: The Coop
Within a few weeks, your chicks will soon be big enough to move into their coop.

As they grow it will become obvious that your brooder won’t hold them forever and forming a plan around how and when to introduce them to the coop or outdoors is a great idea.

Here are some important things to remember when moving from baby brooder to adult coop.

Chicks should be mostly feathered – At 5 to 6 weeks your fluffy chicks will start to resemble adult birds by growing out pinfeathers.These adult feathers will help them regulate their body temps better than fluffy chick down.

Chicks should be acclimated – Although they start off at 90 – 95 degrees in the brooder the first week of life, you need to decrease this temperature each week until the temperature inside the brooder is close to what daytime temps will be.For the first few weeks (and especially if outdoor temperatures are fluctuating), you may want to bring the birds back into the brooder at night or in bad weather.

Chicks should be integrated – Nobody wants hen-house drama, and taking a few simple steps to introduce new birds to old will save a great deal of time and potential injuries.

These steps include having a “get acquainted” phase when the new and old birds are in separate, but attached areas so they can interact without aggressiveness.

You also want to do the coop consolidation at night so that the old and new flock wake up together to help minimize bullying.

At this point it is also important to remember if you have youngsters joining your existing flock to only feed chick starter to all birds until the youngest bird is 16 weeks. The extra calcium in regular layer feed can harm young chicks.

Chicks should be eating treats and grit – It’s a great idea to get your birds used to eating treats (if you plan to offer them) a few days prior to putting them outside. That way, you can use the treats in case you need to lure the birds into a secure space at night.

Until they are used to thinking of the coop as “home base” they may need just a bit of encouragement.

Just remember, if you start feeding treats (offer no more than 10-15% of the total diet) you also need to offer a grit free choice to aid in digestion.

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Trimming Chickens Wings

Wondering if it may be necessary to trim your chickens’ wings? Check out this video featuring Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart as he explains how to properly trim chickens wings.

Questions or comments? Leave them below!

 

The Naked Truth about Molt

Molt is the natural shedding of feathers and regrowth of new ones that usually occurs any time from August to December. Learn from Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart what you can do to help your get through molt faster.

Leave a comment if you have one, or feel free to ask questions below!

Quarantine New Birds

Do you have a new bird that you need to enter into your flock? Join Nutrena Poultry Specialist Twain Lockhart for some tips on how to quarantine your new birds.

Thank you for watching, and leave a comment or question below if you have one!