How Do Chickens Eat with No Teeth?


You might have heard the saying "rarer than hen's teeth", which means extremely scarce or difficult to find. This is because, like other wild birds, chickens have no teeth. Oh sure, a baby chick grows an egg tooth which helps it break out of the shell when it hatches, but that sole tooth falls off a few days after hatching. So for all intents and purposes, chickens don't have teeth - instead they have beaks. So how do they chew their food?

When a chicken eats, it will repeatedly peck at a large piece of food and bang it against the ground to break the food into small enough pieces to swallow. The pieces of food are then stored in the chicken's crop, which is a balloon-type pouch at the base of the neck just right of center. You might notice that at bedtime your chickens' crops are full and round - that's normal - and by morning are flat and empty again. The food they eat during the day mixes with water and other liquids plus good bacteria and is held there. (Side note: sometimes bad bacteria takes over and you could end up with a hen suffering from sour crop, so it's a good idea to add probiotics to your chickens' diet to keep the good bacteria thriving.)


Since chickens are the ultimate prey animal, it's thought that this method of digestion evolved because they don't have time to stand around chewing in case a predator approaches. So they gobble, nibble, store and keep moving. Another thought is that ditching the teeth made birds lighter and therefore more able to fly - but since domestic chickens can't fly anyway, not sure that was such a good trade-off!

Anyway, all the food stored in the crop throughout the day finally begins its trip down the digestive tract and fairly quickly reaches the gizzard. This is where the "chewing" takes place. While your chickens are roaming around your yard during the day, they're picking up small stones and pebbles and swallowing them as they search for bugs and seeds. These stones are stored in the gizzard and used to grind up the food. The gizzard is merely a muscle that contracts and churns, grinding the food against the rocks, until it is small enough to pass through the small intestine and the nutrients in the food be absorbed by the body.


If you can’t let your chickens out to roam and find their own grit, or collect small stones for them (I have a dust bath set up in my run and am always refilling it with dirt and pebbles, so the chickens can pick through and find the size stones they need), then you will need to provide commercial grit for them.  They need to be constantly replenishing their grit supply in the gizzard, since as the pieces of stone get smaller and smaller they will pass through the digestive system and be expelled from the body. Grit should always be offered free-choice in a separate dispenser or feeder. Chickens know when they need grit and will gobble up pebbles on a regular basis to get as much or as little as they need.

Not to be confused with grit, chickens also need a calcium supplement to provide the nutrients they need to lay eggs with strong shells. Crushed eggshells or commercial oyster shell are the most common choices for the backyard flock.

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