Why Do Chickens Eat Rocks? What “rocks” to feed your birds and why

Flock of mixed chickens in the yard

Why do chickens eat rocks? Because they can not get dentures or false teeth! Just kidding about the dentures, of course.

However, the eating rocks part is real.

Chickens swallow food whole and eat small rocks, called grit, to help them grind up their food. Chickens that are loose can find their own grit, chickens that are inside need to have grit provided to them.

When a chicken, or any other poultry for that matter, eats, the food gets swallowed into an area called the crop first, then to the gizzard.

For you and other animals with teeth, there is no need for a gizzard, since you have the ability to grind up your food with your teeth.

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A chicken works a bit differently, she eats food that then goes to the crop. The crop is a holding area for the food.

The food slowly trickles out of the crop into the gizzard where it is ground up with grit.

From the gizzard the ground food goes to the small intestine to be absorbed for use in the body.

Animals with a simple stomach (like us!) use teeth grind up their food first and then swallow it.

Chickens do the opposite, they swallow first and grind later.

Hand drawn diagram of a chicken's digestive system highlighting the crop and the gizzard
Here’s a funny little white board drawing my husband made to show the position of the crop and the gizzard in a chicken. This chicken is modeled after some Salmon Faverolles that I have, that’s why it has a bit of a beard and the feathered feet!

Chickens eat small rocks or stones

Chickens need to eat, really more like swallow whole, small stones.

Yep, any small stone that can tumble around in the gizzard grinding up food for the chicken can be eaten.

To be more precise, the stone being used as grit is only eaten in the sense that it is in the body, the chicken can not digest the stone, only use the stone like a tool.

Chickens do not have teeth

Eating without teeth is easy, they just swallow the food.

The part that is more complicated is that the way a body, yours and the chicken’s as well, digest food is to break the food up into really, really small bits.

These small bits have the most surface area for gut microbes to latch on to and start breaking the food down so the chicken can get the nutrients into her body in a usable form.

Undigested nutrients just get pooped out. Not only is this a waste of money, it also messes up the ability of the chicken to take care of herself.

Feed only helps her body if it can be put into a form she can use.

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Chickens need grit

If your chickens have plenty of time outside to run around and be on the dirt, not just a cage floor, then giving them grit is just to be sure they have some.

It is not mandatory. Our loose chickens never get grit from me, they find their own.

What breed are these hens? Click here to read my article about the do-it-all Wyandotte.

However, if your chickens are inside a coop, not on dirt or just not very aggressive foragers grit is a good idea.

Also if you feel that your birds are not doing as well as they should, giving them some grit is an easy way to make sure they aren’t missing out on any nutrients from their food.

Plus, a bag of grit is cheap and lasts seemingly forever.

Chickens are omnivores

Chickens are the ultimate omnivore. That means they eat both plant and animal sourced foods.

Why do I say ultimate omnivore, what’s so ultimate about a chicken?

Chickens are the ultimate omnivore because they will eat anything, seriously, anything.

There is nothing too gross, to slimy, or too anything else you can think of that is not appetizing at all.

If a hen thinks that a possible food source can be swallowed, she’ll give it a try.

As an example, chickens love, love, love cow poop. A fresh cow pie doesn’t last too long around here. As soon as the first chicken finds it, the others zoom over and start picking out their share of the snacks.

all the foods chickens need to eat grit in order to digest

Chickens do a great job picking through compost piles for snacks, being on bug patrol in your yard and eating any edibles that are easily scratched out of the soil.

They also love kitchen scraps or overripe or insect damaged vegetables, from your garden or from the throw away pile at the store.

Remember, since chickens are the ultimate omnivore they need to have both plant and animal protein sources.

Being an omnivore is her inherent biological design.

A chicken’s digestive system is designed to eat a variety of foods, both plant and animal sourced, in order to meet her caloric needs for the day.

Any way you provide for the chicken to meet her needs, from giving her all the purchased feed she needs to giving her access to a big yard, kitchen scraps and compost pile, is an appropriate diet.

A vegetarian feed ration is not an appropriate diet for chickens, unless she has access to a nice grassy yard or compost pile where she can find her own meat (maggots and other bugs).

Chickens need grit (not gravel) to digest food

Gravel is too big for your chickens to use.

Chickens need a small stone or rock to help grind food, but it is a small stone or rock. Anything that would make good gravel is way too big.

The gizzard, where the small stone goes, is a muscular organ shaped like a jelly doughnut that contacts over and over to scrape/grind up whatever they ate into smaller pieces for digestion.

This grinding takes numerous contractions of the gizzard and hours to grind up the food to digestible particle size.

Think about it like this, when you get a can of spray paint, you shake it so the little ball in the can will mix up the paint and the air inside the can.

This mixing takes multiple passes with the ball swishing around in the can to work.

The rocks in the gizzard work like the ball in the paint can, lots of swishing of a little mixer (the ball or the rock).

Grit for chickens can be purchased

two sizes of grit pictured beside a penny to show scale
Here is a comparison of starter grit (on the right) and larger grit, pictured with a penny. The larger grit is fine for adult chickens. Younger birds, even small chicks, need the smaller grit.

This is an easy one, the for sure method is get a bag of grit from your local feed store.

Around here it is a 50 pound bag for about $5. It will last you a long time.

The other easy way to get grit to your birds is to let them out onto soil and they will find their own by digging around.

If your birds can’t be out on dirt give them a shovel full of garden soil, not compost, you need the soil, since that is where the little grit size rocks will be.

Since a bag of grit will last a while, you could also get some from a friend who also has chickens.

Trust me on this one, if they purchased a bag of grit and have just a few birds, they still have plenty of grit left in the bag, even with you buying a small container of it.

Or get a bag to split between you and anyone else with just a few birds who doesn’t want 49.5 pounds (out of the original 50) sitting around in their garage forever either!

Grit And Oyster Shells: Do Your Chickens Need Them? is an article you can look into for another perspective on grit to chickens.

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