Backyard Flock

Backyard Flock

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.

Chick Breeds: What's the Difference

Chick Breeds: What’s the Difference?

White and Brown Chicken in Coop

Chirp chirp! Chick season has kicked off at your local Big R stores, which means hundreds of baby chicks are looking for new homes to provide some tender love and care. Are you excited to fill up your home with these adorable chicks, but not sure which breed is best for you? With a little bit of research, you’ll find the best chick breed for you.

Just like humans, not all chicks are the same. Therefore, it’s important to understand the differences between breeds in order to choose the right chicks for you and your home environment.

Start by thinking about your own personal interests in regards to chick breeds. You’ll also need to consider what care different breeds of chicks need from you.

It’s essential to consider the main use, geography, space, and temperament in relation to your choice of chickens:

  • Main Use: Will your chicks grow up to be a steady source of food or income? The right chick for you will be an excellent source for egg and meat production, long-term. Also, consider egg color and size. Try some of these birds for good to excellent egg production:
    • Excellent Egg Producers: Brown Leghorn, Golden Comet, White Leghorn
    • Very Good Egg Producers: Production Red, Speckled Sussex, New Hampshire Red, Columbian Rock Cross, Rhode Island Red
    • Good Egg Producers: White Plymouth Rock, Partridge Rock, Buckeye, Buff Brahma, Welsummer
  • Geography: Where are you located? While some birds are bred to withstandthe heat, others are meant for colder climates. See which birds fare better in the dry heat or the wet cold:
    • Heat Tolerant: Brown Leghorn, Production Red, Buff Brahma, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red, White Leghorn
    • Cold Tolerant: Golden Comet, White Plymouth Rock, Production Red, Speckled Sussex, Partridge Rock, Buckeye, Buff Brahma, New Hampshire Red, Columbian Rock Cross, Welsummer, Rhode Island Red
  • Space: Where are you raising your feather babies? Active and lively chickens will flourish living on spacious farms in contrast to a small backyard. Take a look at these breeds who flourish in environments large and small:
    • Adaptable to Confined Environments: Brown Leghorn, Golden Comet, White Plymouth Rock, Speckled Sussex, Buckeye, Welsummer
    • Adaptable to Free-Range Environments: White Plymouth Rock, Production Red, Buckeye, Welsummer
  • Temperament: What are the personalities of your chickens? Your active, sprightly chick may not fare as well as a nervous, quiet chick in the confines of your home’s backyard. Plus, you’ll want to make sure all of your chicks are getting along! These breeds exhibit the following personality traits:
    • Nervous: Brown Leghorn
    • Flighty: White Leghorn
    • Calm: Golden Comet, White Plymouth Rock, Production Red, Speckled Sussex, Partridge Rock, New Hampshire Red, Columbian Rock Cross
    • Quiet: Golden Comet
    • Docile: White Plymouth Rock, Production Red, Partridge Rock, Buckeye, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red
    • Gentle: Buff Brahma, Welsummer,
    • Active, Lively: Speckled Sussex, Welsummer
    • Curious: New Hampshire Red
    • Friendly: White Plymouth Rock, Speckled Sussex, Buckeye
    • Easy to Handle: White Plymouth Rock, Speckled Sussex

Looking to bring diversity to your flock? There are other feathered friends that have good qualities to do just that. Many flocks of birds include ducks in addition to the variety of chicken breeds. Despite the fact that ducks are not usually added to flocks to advance egg production purposes, these birds can serve other purposes, too!

Some duck breeds, such as mallards, are very social, but prefer the company of other mallards, especially because they thrive in parties of two. Mallards have moderate egg production and are shy and flighty, but can tolerate hot and cold conditions. The white pekin has great egg production and is a very docile bird. Lastly, the rouen is deemed one of the most attractive birds, however, they are not known to have substantial egg production. If you’re concerned about predators and pest control, the best addition to flocks is the french pearl guinea. This breed is known to alert against predators, control insect populations, and withstand tough weather conditions.

While ducks and other birds are not essential to the completion of your flock, each and every breed serves a purpose, as does each and every chicken. Remember: with each bird comes great responsibility. Chicks, especially, need incredible amounts of attention, and their home environments need consistent maintenance. Although raising chicks is no easy task, the benefits of raising chicks properly and attentively will certainly outweigh the cost. Need some guidance on raising chicks? Try a crash course on our blog Raising Chicks 101.

Have you considered all of these characteristics, breeds, and personal choices, and found the birds of your dreams? Head on over to your nearest Big R location and make your feathery dream a reality today!