Why Chickens Eat Dirt: The Surprising Reasons Behind This Natural Behavior

Chickens and Chicks Pecking The Ground (image by Quang Nguyen Vinh, Pexels)

Article Summary

  • Chickens eat dirt because they need grit for digestion as they lack teeth, relying on small rocks and gravel to grind up food in their gizzard.
  • Pecking and scratching at the ground is a natural behavior for chickens, inherited from their ancestors, and allows them to fulfill their natural instincts while also cleaning their feathers and reducing parasites.
  • It’s important not to discourage chickens from engaging in this behavior, as it is normal and beneficial for their health.

Chickens eating dirt is a common sight in backyard coops. While it may look strange, there are good reasons behind this behavior. Let’s explore some of the top explanations for why chickens peck at the ground and ingest dirt and soil.

Chickens Need Grit for Digestion

Chickens don’t have teeth. They need small rocks and gravel to grind food in their gizzard. Chickens intentionally eat grit to help their digestion. Dirt contains tiny pebbles and coarse matter that provide the grinding action chickens need to break down grains and plant material. The gizzard contracts to crush the food and grit mixture before it moves further through the digestive system.

Dirt Provides Minerals

Chickens are attracted to the mineral content in soil. Dirt contains many trace minerals like calcium, sodium, iron, and more. Chickens naturally seek out these micronutrients to balance their diet. Eating dirt allows chickens to supplement minerals they may not get enough of from their regular feed.

NOTE

The trace minerals in dirt help maintain a chicken’s bone health, produce strong eggshells, and support vital bodily functions.

Soil Has Beneficial Microbes

The soil is filled with microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. Many of these microbes are beneficial for chicken health when consumed. They can help populate the gut with healthy flora, improving digestion and nutrition absorption. The microbes may also outcompete harmful bacteria that can cause disease.

A Chicken on a Dirt Bath (image by Guilherme Xac, Pexels)
A Chicken on a Dirt Bath

It’s a Natural Behavior

Chickens descended from jungle fowl that foraged on the forest floor. In chickens, pecking and scratching the earth in search of edible tidbits is an innate natural behavior. Dirt baths are also important to chickens to clean their feathers and skin and reduce parasites. Allowing chickens access to dirt satisfies these natural needs.

Dirt baths are also important to chickens to clean their feathers and skin…

While eating dirt may seem odd, it’s actually completely normal and healthy chicken behavior. The nutrients, minerals, and microbes found in the soil provide tangible benefits for chicken health and digestion. It’s best not to discourage chickens from fulfilling their natural instincts.

Simply provide an area of pesticide-free, clean dirt or sand for dust bathing and foraging. This allows chickens to enjoy the perks of pecking at the ground. However, keep an eye on your chickens when consuming non-food items. Ensuring they have access to appropriate resources for natural behaviors contributes to their overall well-being

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do chickens eat dirt?

Chickens eat dirt as a natural behavior to supplement their diet with essential minerals and grit. Dirt contains elements like calcium and small rocks, which aid in digestion by grinding down food in the chicken’s gizzard.

Is it bad for chickens to eat potting soil?

Yes, it can be harmful for chickens to consume potting soil. Potting soil often contains additives like fertilizers, pesticides, and perlite, which can be toxic to chickens. Additionally, ingesting large amounts of potting soil can cause digestive issues and blockages in chickens.

Do chickens need dirt?

Yes, chickens do need dirt for several reasons. Dirt provides chickens with essential minerals and grit necessary for digestion. Additionally, dust bathing in the dirt helps chickens maintain proper feather conditions and control pests like mites and lice.

Why do chickens eat wet dirt?

Chickens may eat wet dirt to alleviate discomfort or to obtain moisture, especially if they lack access to fresh water. However, consistently eating wet dirt can lead to health issues such as impacted crop or fungal infections.