Every time I see one those boxes of “vegetarian-fed” chicken eggs, I have to wonder how those companies are defining the word. Chickens are some brutal animals – and not just to freshly planted garden beds. They rip snails out of their shells in tiny pieces, run across the yard to chomp on moths, and raid anthills. They eat mosquitoes and black widows and just about anything they can reach with their beaks. They also love the tender tips of greens and ripe red cherries, but they definitely prefer insects and snails, and they won't reject meat if it's offered to them. They dug up an old marrow bone from under the cherry tree. They are not naturally vegetarian.
I suppose that these companies are referring to the practice of including rendered animals in feed – and while I agree that these waste products (including feather meal, euthanised pets, roadkill, and "downed" farm animals) aren't ideal, I wonder what a chicken would do if she came across a dead dog in the road. I'm pretty sure she'd eat at least some parts of it. Chickens can get the taste for their own eggs, and they can peck each other to death under stress, which is why confining operations slice off the beaks of chicks when they're a few days old. I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to consider chickens a predator species, but they are definitely omnivorous.
Honestly, I'm not sure if it's okay to feed leftover salmon to chickens, or that pork empanada that I brought home from a potluck, or the occasional green bean. I worry that these are not “natural” foods for chickens and I don't want to make them sick. Then again, we took in these hens from a man who was raised in Bolivia, and he was very utilitarian about the practice of raising chickens. It's common to supplement a chicken's diet with various scraps from the kitchen, including meat and grain, in countries where subsistence farming is still a way of life. I've given these ladies crumbs of tempeh and grains of cooked rice and shreds of carrot and even a few raisins and they've downed it all with relish. We also toss them a handful of commercial scratch every day, though they hardly take interest in that.
But it's undoubtedly true that the vast majority of their dietary intake comes from the insects, snails, and invisible organisms that they peck out during their 15 hours in the backyard every day. They literally do not stop eating for that entire time. Even when they take dust baths or little rests under the cherry tree, they're still absently pecking at the ground around them. It must be exhausting labor, because as soon as they jump up on their perch at night, they are out like lights; it's nearly impossible to wake them.
For all that eating, they still haven't produced an egg yet. This will be their fifth night with us and I admit, I'm feeling a bit anxious about it. I assumed they wouldn't lay for a few days because of the stress of relocation, but I'm beginning to worry that the laying boxes might not be sufficient or maybe they're making deposits elsewhere in the yard and we'll never find them.