By Kimberly Willis, Robert T. Ludlow

Chickens are notorious for eating almost anything. Their taste buds are not well developed, and tastes that most consider bad don’t faze them. This can be their downfall if they eat something like Styrofoam, paint chips, fertilizer, or other things that look like food to them. Good chicken-keepers need to protect their charges from eating things like pesticide-coated vegetation, plastic, Styrofoam beads, and other harmful items.

Chickens eat bugs and worms, seeds and vegetation, and meat. They can’t break bones into pieces, but they will pick the meat off them. They will eat snakes and small mice. They will pick through the feces of other animals for edible bits, and they’ll scratch up the compost pile looking for choice nuggets.

It takes only about 2-1/2 hours for food to pass completely through a chicken’s digestive system. The food a chicken picks up in its beak is first sent to the crop, a pouchlike area in the neck for storage. The crop is stretchy and allows the chicken to quickly grab sudden food finds and store them for a slower ride through the rest of the digestive system. From the crop, food passes to the stomach, where digestive enzymes are added.

People often worry when they see a huge swelling on their chicken’s throat. That swelling is generally a full crop, meaning that the chicken has just been a little greedy, much like a chipmunk when it fills its cheeks. Over a few hours, the “swelling” subsides as food in the crop is passed along the digestive system.

You may also notice chickens picking up small rocks or pieces of gravel, sometimes called grit. These go into the gizzard, just beyond the stomach, and help the chicken break down food like human teeth do. When chickens roam freely, they get plenty of grit for digestion. If confined, you may need to provide it.

Both male and female chickens actively hunt for food a good part of the day. Hens sitting on eggs are an exception: They leave the nest for only brief periods of time to feed. Chickens that are confined still go through the motions of hunting for food, scratching and picking through their bedding, and chasing the occasional fly.

If food is plentiful, chickens may rest in the heat of the day or stop to take a dust bath. Chickens don’t eat at night or when they’re in the dark.

Most breeds of chickens are equally good at finding food given the chance, with a few exceptions. The large, heavy, broiler-type meat birds are like sumo wrestlers — they prefer to park their huge bodies in front of a trough and just sit and eat. They don’t do well if they have to rustle their own chow or if their food doesn’t consist of high-energy, high-protein items.