Why Chickens Eat Feathers Off The Ground

When I first saw my chicken eating a feather from the ground (not off of another chicken!) I thought it may have just been confused. But, I’ve observed them doing it more than once, almost meaningfully.

Naturally, as a backyard chicken farmer, I had to get to the bottom of it.

Here’s why your chickens are eating feathers off the ground, whether it’s OK for your chickens, and what it means.

Why Are My Chickens Eating Feathers Off The Ground?

The first time I saw one of my hens eat a feather I thought she must have mistaken it for an insect or other food. But, after a while, they did it again. And again. And whenever they would eat a feather it looked too meaningful like they knew what it was but still wanted to eat it.

Well, as it turns out, chicken feathers are almost pure protein, and chickens will actually consume feathers from the ground on purpose for a high-protein snack. Luckily, chickens are smart enough to not peck each other’s feathers off (most of the time!), but only consume single small feathers found on the ground while foraging. 

This behavior of eating feathers can actually be used as a sign that your chickens may need more protein in their diets to keep up with their body’s demands.

For example, chickens need more protein when they’re molting, preparing for cold weather, or balancing any protein deficiencies. In these cases, your chickens will seek to consume more protein than normal to keep up with their body’s needs which is why a protein-rich feather is so appealing.

They’re Molting

One of the most common reasons your chickens are craving more protein is because they’re molting. When chickens begin molting, you may see a reduction in egg production, as chickens start prioritizing their protein for new feather growth. After all, they need to shed and regrow their 6,000 – 10,000 total feathers!

During this time, your chickens will need more protein to keep up a healthy balance, and could be one reason they are eating feathers off the ground!

It’s Winter

In winter, chickens become more reserved and preserve energy as their bodies need it to regulate their body temperature and stay warm.

It’s during these times chickens will naturally want to consume warmer, heartier foods such as protein and fat. It can be a good idea to feed your chickens extra protein during these cold winter months at least just as a precaution – it will also help them lay more through winter too! 

Some chicken owners even like to feed chickens so they gain a bit of ‘winter weight’ just before the cold months begin to help their chickens stay a bit warmer.

If your chicken is still feeling the cold, they will naturally want to eat all the protein they can find, including feathers!

Protein Deficiencies 

Fully grown adult chickens require about 16 percent protein in their overall diet, which can easily be obtained through regular layer pellets or a chicken seed mix. But, if you do feed your chickens table scraps or your chicken forages for a good portion of its food, then there’s a chance they may be getting sufficient protein in their diets.

For this reason, if you start to see the signs your chickens are underweight, are eating feathers, or are having trouble laying, then you should dial back on the treats and table scraps, and ensure your chicken is getting at least 90% of its regular food intake from a 16-18% protein mix.

The remaining 10% can be through foraging or protein-rich supplement foods like scrambled eggs, mealworms, or protein scratch.

So What Does It Mean?

In all cases, your chickens are trying to consume more protein. Whether they need extra protein for deficiencies, for growing new feathers, or if your chickens are cold during winter, chickens will eat feathers from the ground to consume more protein.

If you do see your chickens eating feathers from the ground, you can try adding a little extra protein into their diets, to ensure they are meeting their protein needs. 

Try to avoid feeding your chickens processed proteins like hot dogs. Instead, look to supplement their normal chicken feed with extra protein by:

  • Adding protein-rich seeds into their normal chicken feed. Seeds like flax seeds or safflower seeds work well.
  • Feeding them once or twice a week with a small meal of protein-rich foods. Healthy protein-rich options include scrambled eggs, game bird feed, or chick feed.
  • Give them protein-rich treats a few times a week, like dried mealworms or peanut butter. 

Is It OK For Chickens To Eat Feathers?

Well, if you’ve tried to add extra protein to your chicken’s diet but you still see them eating feathers, then it’s probably not something you can stop the behavior of so easily.

So, is it OK for chickens to actually eat feathers? 

Well, it’s not exactly dangerous unless your chickens are consuming A LOT of feathers. If it’s just the occasional feather then there’s not really any risk. Some do say it’s bad because it’s cannibalistic, but ethics aside, it won’t be physically harmful to them.

Final Thoughts

It’s normal to be a little confused when you first see your chicken eat a feather, and I assure you it won’t be the last time.

But, so long as it’s not a common occurrence it’s completely OK for chickens to eat feathers from the ground. However, if it’s from the back of another chicken then you have a problem. But, this comes down to the pecking order, or chicken bullying, whereas chickens eating feathers from the ground comes down to your chickens wanting to consume more protein

Whether it’s because they are molting, their cold during winter, or have developed a deficiency, they will be looking for any extra protein they can get. As a chicken owner, you can use this as a sign they may be needing extra protein, and you can supplement their diet with a bit extra!

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