Are Chickens Vegetarian?

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Are Chickens Vegetarian?
One of the weirdest things I see on the cartons  of commercial eggs in stores is this: "Vegetarian-fed." Vegetarian chickens? Ha! What are they thinking? Chickens are omnivores, so even setting aside the conditions most commercial hens endure, it seems strange that any company would purposefully claim their hens are vegetarian chickens. You don't have to be an expert to remember that chickens eat bugs and all sorts of little critters: worms, grubs, arachnids and more.  And if you ARE a chicken keeper, even a beginner, you doubtless know that chickens not only eat insects and creepy crawlies, but also mice, frogs, snakes, voles and so on. Almost anything small enough to consume, they eat! They are effective predators in that way---the closest thing we have to dinosaurs. So, what's with the "vegetarian-fed" labeling? Part of it, I am convinced, is just marketing. Vegetarian chickens: it SOUNDS good---so long as you don't think about it. "Our cage-free chickens are fed an all-natural vegetarian diet!" But "cage free" means they are crowded into a warehouse, not outside in a field as you might assume... and "vegetarian" means they are purposefully being deprived of their natural diet. Sigh. Now, don't get me wrong. Controlling the diet of your pet chickens is not in and of itself a bad thing. After all, most of us don't want to feed our chickens "animal byproducts" like, say... chicken. And we tend to try to keep them out of our gardens and landscaping.  Plus--I admit it!--I personally make a practice of saving toads and frogs from my ravenous little dinosaurs in the spring. I've even saved the occasional skink, garter snake and newt. I've snatched up baby birds who have fallen from the nest too early. I've saved baby squirrels and chipmunks. I've shooed fingerling fish away from the shore. But this just spares spare my soft heart; it isn't meant to change my flock into vegetarian chickens. I have no illusions that they find plenty of deer mice, grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles---and probably lots of little frogs and tadpoles---when I'm not around to relocate them. And I'm aware that my "saving" some of their prey makes no difference in the big scheme of things. Even so, I continue. It probably makes a difference to THAT frog or THAT red eft, after all. But as to their commercial feed? Vegetarian chickens, meh. That being said, it's not as if vegetarian feed is bad for them--it can be very good! Chickens can get a complete protein profile from the various grain, legume and seed meals contained in vegetarian commercial feed. My own chickens eat a vegetarian feed... but they're not vegetarian chickens. Not only do they get to forage for bugs, grubs and other critters in the yard, they also get treats of meal worms, and the occasional fish meal top dressing. So why advertise that your commercial eggs come from cage-free vegetarian chickens? I'm convinced it's because it makes most people think their eggs are coming from pastured chickens--chickens with access to real pasture (not just a tiny concrete pad outside a warehouse of ten thousand layers!). If you don't keep your own chickens, then be sure to seek out eggs labeled as having come from pastured hens. If your local store doesn't carry them, find them at a local farmers' market, or ask your store's manager to begin carrying them. They are more nutritious--and once you taste eggs laid by hens with access to their real, natural diet--you'll shake your head, too, when you see a label proclaiming the eggs are from vegetarian chickens.

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