Feeding Poultry

Experiments have demonstrated that what may be called the gastric juice in fowls has not sufficient power to dissolve their food, without the aid of the grinding action of the gizzard. Before the food is prepared for digestion, therefore, the grains must be subjected to a triturating process; and such as are not sufficiently bruised in this manner, before passing into the gizzard, are there reduced to the proper state, by its natural action.

Chickens eating table scrapsThe action of the gizzard is, in this respect, mechanical; this organ serving as a mill to grind the food to pieces, and then, by means of its powerful muscles, pressing it gradually into the intestines, in the form of pulp. The power of this organ is said to be sufficient to pulverize hollow globules of glass in a very short time, and solid masses of the same substance in a few weeks.

The rapidity of this process seems to be proportionate, generally, to the size of the bird. A chicken, for example, breaks up such substances as are received into its stomach less readily than the capon; while a goose performs the same operation sooner than either. Needles, and even lancets, given to turkeys, have been broken in pieces and voided, without any apparent injury to the stomach. The reason, undoubtedly, is, that the larger species of birds have thicker and more powerful organs of digestion.

It has long been the general opinion that, from some deficiency in the digestive apparatus, fowls are obliged to resort to the use of stones and gravel, in order to enable them to dispose of the food which they consume. Some have supposed that the use of these stones is to sheath the gizzard, in order to fit it to break into smaller fragments the hard, angular substances which might be swallowed; they have also been considered to have a medicinal effect; others have imagined that they acted as absorbents for undue quantities of acids in the stomach, or as stimulants to digestion; while it has even been gravely asserted that they contribute directly to nutrition.

Repeated experiments, however, have established that pebbles are not at all necessary to the trituration of the hardest kinds of substances which can be introduced into their stomachs; and, of course, the usual food of fowls can be bruised without their aid. They do, however, serve a useful auxiliary purpose. When put in motion by the muscles, they are capable of producing some effects upon the contents of the stomach; thus assisting to grind down the grain, and separating its parts, the digestive fluid, or gastric juice, comes more readily in contact with it.

Varieties of food, fowls about a poultry-yard can usually pick up a portion of their subsistence, and, under favorable circumstances, the largest portion. When so situated, the keeping of poultry pays decidedly the best. The support even of poultry not designed for fattening should not, however, be made to depend entirely upon such precarious resources. Fowls should be fed with punctuality, faithfulness, and discretion.

They are fond of all sorts of grain—such as Indian corn, wheat, oats, rye, buckwheat, barley, millet, etc.; but their particular preferences are not so likely to guide in the selection of their food, as the consideration of what is most economical, and easiest to be procured on the part of their owner. They will readily eat most kinds of vegetables in their green state, both cooked and raw. They likewise manifest an inclination for animal food—such as blood, fish, and flesh—whether raw or otherwise; and seem by no means averse to feeding on their own species. Insects, worms, and snails they will take with avidity.

It is usual to give to domestic fowls a quantity of grain once, at least, daily; but, commonly, in less quantity than they would consume, if unrestricted. They feed with great voracity; but their apparent greediness is not the criterion by which the possibility of satisfying them is to be judged. Moderate quantities of food will suffice; and the amount consumed will usually be proportioned to the size of the individuals. Whatever is cheapest, at any given time, may be given, without regard to any other considerations. Different circumstances and different seasons may occasion a variation in their appetite; but a gill of grain is, generally speaking, about the usual daily portion. Some very voracious fowls, of the largest size, will need the allowance of a third of a pint each day.

Wheat is the most nutritive of cereal grains—with, perhaps, the exception of rice—as an article of human food. It is, therefore, natural to suppose that it is the best for fowls; and the avidity with which they eat it would induce the conclusion that they would eat more of this than of any other grain. Yet it appears that when fowls have as much wheat as they can consume, they will eat about a fourth part less than of oats, barley, or buckwheat; the largest quantity of wheat eaten by a fowl in one day being, according to several experiments, about three-sixteenths of a pint. The difference in bulk is, however, compensated by the difference in weight, these three-sixteenths of wheat weighing more than one-fourth of a pint of oats. The difference in weight is not, in every instance, the reason why a fowl is satisfied with a larger or smaller measure of one sort than another. Rye weighs less than wheat; but still a fowl will be satisfied with half the quantity of this grain. Indian corn ranks intermediately between wheat and rye; five-fourths of a pint of Indian corn with fowls being found, by experiment, equal to six-fourths of wheat, and three-fourths of rye.

In estimating the quantity of grain daily consumed by the common fowl, it is wise to use data a little above than below the average. It may, therefore, safely be said that a fowl of the common size, having free access to as much as can be eaten through the day, will consume, day by day, of oats, buckwheat, or barley, one-fourth of a pint; of wheat, three-sixteenths; of Indian corn, five thirty-seconds; and of rye, three thirty-seconds.

It has been conclusively settled, by experiments instituted to that end, that there is the best economy in feeding poultry with boiled grain rather than with dry, in every case where Indian corn, barley, and wheat can be procured. The expense of fuel, and the additional trouble incident to the process of cooking, are inconsiderable in comparison with the advantages derived. Where oats, buckwheat, or rye are used, boiling is useless, when profit is concerned.

Bran, it is an erroneous notion that money can be saved by feeding bran to fowls; since, then, so little of the farina of the grain remains in it, that the nourishment derived from its use is hardly worth mentioning. When boiled, as it always must be, its bulk is but slightly increased. Two measures of dry bran, mixed with water, are equal to but three-fifths of a measure of dry barley.

Millet, this is recommended as excellent food for young chickens. Fowls always prefer it raw; though, as its bulk is increased one-half by boiling, it is doubtless more economical to feed it cooked.

Rice, fowls are especially fond of this food, although they soon lose their relish for it when allowed to have it at their discretion. It should always be boiled; but its expense puts it out of the question as a daily diet. When used continuously, it should always be mixed with some substance containing less nutritive matter, in order that the appetite may not be cloyed by it.

Potatoes, these are very nutritious, and are usually acceptable to fowls, when properly prepared. When raw, or in a cold state, they appear to dislike them; they should, therefore, be boiled and given when moderately hot; when very hot, it is said that fowls will injure themselves by eating them, and burning their mouths. They should also be broken into pieces of convenient size; otherwise, they will be avoided. Occasionally raw pieces of potato will be devoured; but fowls cannot be said to be fond of the root in this state. The same remark applies to most other roots, especially to carrots and parsnips; these should always be prepared, in order to be wholesome and palatable. Fowls should never be confined to a root diet, in any case; but such food should be mingled or alternated with a sufficient quantity of grain.

Green food, indulgence in this kind of diet is absolutely necessary to the health of fowls, and is also advantageous in an economical point of view. The more delicate kinds of green vegetables are eaten with the utmost avidity; all succulent weeds, grass, and the leaves of trees and shrubs will also be consumed. If hens have green plots to graze in during the day, the expense of their keeping will be reduced one-half. All the refuse of the kitchen, of a vegetable nature, should be freely thrown into the poultry-yard.

Green food, however, will not answer for an exclusive diet. Experiment has shown that fowls fed with this food alone for a few days together exhibit severe symptoms of relaxation of the bowels; and, after the lapse of eight or nine days, their combs become pale and livid, which is the same indication of disease in them that paleness of the lips is in the human species.

Earth-worms, these are regarded as delicacies by the inhabitants of the poultry-yard; and the individual who is fortunate enough to capture one is often forced to undergo a severe ordeal in order to retain his captive. Earth-worms are more plentiful in moist land, such as pastures, etc., than in that which is cultivated; in gardens, also, they exist in vast numbers. When it is desirable to take worms in quantities, it is only necessary to thrust a stake or three-pronged fork into the ground, to the depth of about a foot, and to move it suddenly backward and forward, in order to shake the soil all around; the worms are instinctively terrified by any motion in the ground, and, when disturbed, hasten to the surface.

It is advisable to store worms, on account of the trouble and difficulty of making frequent collections. They may be placed in casks, filled one-third full with earth, in quantities at least equal in bulk to the earth. The earth should be sprinkled occasionally, to prevent it from becoming too dry. Care should, however, be exercised that the earth does not become too moist; since, in such an event, the worms will perish. In rainy weather, the casks should be protected with a covering.

Animal food, fowls readily eat both fish and flesh meat, and have no reluctance to feeding even on their own kind, picking much more faithfully than quadrupeds. Blood of any kind is esteemed by them a delicacy; and fish, even when salted, is devoured with a relish. They seem to be indifferent whether animal food is given to them in a cooked or raw state; though, if any preference can be detected, it is for the latter. They are sometimes so greedy that they will attack each other in order to taste the blood which flows from the wounds so inflicted; and it is quite common for them, in the moulting season, to gratify themselves by picking at the sprouting feathers on their own bodies and those of their companions. They appear to be partial to suet and fat; but they should not be allowed to devour these substances in large quantities, on account of their tendency to render them inconveniently fat.

It is highly advantageous to fowls to allow them a reasonable quantity of animal food for their diet, which should be fed to them in small pieces, both for safety and convenience. Bones and meat may be boiled; and the liquor, when mixed with bran or meal, is healthy, and not expensive.

Insects, fowls have a decided liking to flies, beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets; and grubs, caterpillars, and maggots are held by them in equal esteem. It is difficult, however, to supply the poultry-yard with this species of food in sufficient quantity; but enough may be provided, probably, to serve as luxuries. Some recommend that pailfuls of blood should be thrown on dunghills, where fowls are allowed to run, for the purpose of enticing flies to deposit their eggs; which, when hatched, produce swarms of maggots for the fowls. With the same view, any sort of garbage or offal may be thrown out, if the dunghill is so situated—as it always should be—that its exhalations will not prove an annoyance.


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Publication date: 1864