Ferns on the Menu: What You Need to Know About Chickens & Foliage



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Tanner here with the down and dirty on whether chickens can eat ferns.

As a backyard chicken keeper always looking to supplement my flock’s diet with yummy treats from nature, I’ve done my fair share of research on this topic.

And let me tell you, the answer may surprise you!

See, a while back I was hiking through the woods out behind my property when I stumbled upon the most lush little fern patch.

I’m talking varieties like bracken, ostrich, cinnamon, and even some tasty looking royal ferns sprouting up from the shady forest floor.

My forager senses started tingling and I immediately wondered: “Can I feed these delightful greens to my chickens?”

Being the curious and slightly mischievous homesteader that I am, I decided to harvest a few handfuls to take back to the coop for an impromptu taste test.

Hey, you never know until you try, right?

The Poisonous Problem

Now, before you go foraging ferns to feed your flock, there’s something important you need to know.


Many common fern varieties contain toxins that can be harmful or even deadly to chickens if consumed in large quantities!

For instance, bracken fern contains cumulative toxins that damage blood cells and destroy vitamin B1.

And get this – some studies have shown that certain types of ferns can even cause cancer in animals that eat them!

Specifically, bracken ferns have been linked to bladder and intestinal cancers in cattle and other livestock.

The main culprit is ptaquiloside, a potent carcinogen found in high concentrations in bracken fern. Even small amounts consumed over time can have disastrous effects.

Yikes. My free-ranging feathers were definitely ruffled when I uncovered that tidbit. Bracken ferns grow like weeds here in the Pacific Northwest, so I’ll definitely be steering clear of those from now on.

But it’s not just bracken ferns you have to watch out for. Ostrich ferns, cinnamon ferns, and nettle leaf ferns also contain enzyme inhibitors that can impede vitamin and protein absorption.

And certain varieties like the Western Sword Fern have unknown toxicity that could wreak havoc on your flock’s digestive system.

The takeaway? Don’t just assume any pretty fern you find on a woodland stroll will make a good poultry snack.

Misidentifying toxic varieties from edible ones could spell disaster for your feathery friends. When in doubt, leave it out!

So What’s A Chicken Keeper To Do?

The good news is that not all ferns are toxic.


Edible varieties like ostrich, cinnamon, and royal ferns can make nutritious additions to your flock’s diet when fed in moderation.

The key things to remember are:

  • Only harvest ferns you can positively identify as non-toxic
  • Introduce new foraged foods slowly and watch for adverse reactions
  • Feed ferns as an occasional treat, not a primary food source

Following these guidelines will help ensure foraging fun without endangering the health of your fine feathered friends.

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When foraging for chicken-safe ferns, look for ones like the regal fern, lady fern, and Christmas fern. I like to bring along a wild foraging guide that contains photos and descriptions to help me positively identify edible varieties.

Start by harvesting just a few fronds, chop them up, and mix a small amount in with your chickens’ regular feed.

Keep a close eye on them for the next 24 hours for any signs of digestive upset or lethargy. If all seems well, you can gradually increase the portion of ferns over the next few days.

I like to limit fern treats to no more than 10% of my flock’s overall food intake. This helps ensure they get a balanced diet while still enjoying the benefits these nutritious greens provide. Things like antioxidants, vitamin C, iron, and omega fatty acids.

Free-ranging chickens will naturally nibble on vegetation they find appetizing.

But even backyard birds allowed to forage freely should only be given harvested ferns sparingly. Better safe than sorry when it comes to protecting your precious poultry!

Foraging Tips for Chicken Keepers

For those venturing into the world of foraged chicken treats, I wanted to share some tips I’ve picked up along the way to help ensure a safe and successful experience for you and your flock:


  • Get a reliable foraging field guide – Having photos, descriptions, and details on identification, habitat, and any toxicity is invaluable for proper ID of any plants you want to harvest.
  • Start small – When introducing a new foraged food, start with just a tiny portion for a few birds and increase slowly over several days while monitoring for reactions.
  • Watch those quantities – Even safe foods can cause issues if free fed in massive amounts. Stick to ferns as a supplemental treat.
  • Consider protein content – Ferns are high in vitamins and minerals but low in crucial protein. Make sure to balance with high protein feed.
  • Clean harvests – Avoid areas with pesticides, herbicides, pollution, and parasite infestation.

When I first started bringing my girls tasty foraged treats, I’ll admit I was a bit willy nilly about it. I’d harvest whatever looked interesting and toss it into the run without much thought. Rookie mistake!

Luckily, none of my chickens suffered any ill consequences, but it definitely could have ended badly. I’m now much more systematic in my foraging to maximize benefits for the flock while minimizing any risks.

My favorite field guide for foraging is Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide. It has detailed color photos for identification as well as clear warnings about any poisonous lookalikes for common edible varieties. I never head out harvesting without it!

When I find something I think my chickens will enjoy based on the guide, I start by collecting just a small sample. For ferns, I’ll cut a few fronds and chop them up into bite sized pieces. Then I’ll mix maybe a tablespoon or two into the feed for a couple of hens to try.

Over the next few days, I’ll slowly increase the portion of new foraged treat mixed into their feed while keeping an eagle eye on them for any decrease in appetite, drop in egg production, or change in activity levels.

This cautious incremental approach helps me suss out any issues before the whole flock gets affected.

I also have to be mindful that even safe foraged foods can mess with digestion or throw off nutritional balance if they make up too big a part of the chickens’ overall diet. So I limit ferns and other foraged greens to no more than 5-10% of their total feed.

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And because most foraged foods are not complete nutrition sources, I have to be careful to ensure they are getting the right balance of protein from their layer feed. Without enough protein from animal sources, even the yummiest foraged salad will leave them unsatisfied and unhealthy.

Lastly, I try to only harvest from areas I know are clean and chemical free. Roadsides, industrial areas, and public lands treated with herbicide are off limits. I stick to my own woods and meadows where I can control what gets sprayed or spread.

Beneficial Nutrients in Chicken-Safe Ferns

Beyond providing some variety to delight your flock’s foraging instincts, certain ferns can also deliver some great nutritional benefits when fed in moderation. Here are some of the stand-out nutrients that make them a healthy supplemental treat:

  • Vitamin C – Most ferns contain high levels of immune-boosting vitamin C. For example, ostrich fern provides over 20 mg per 100 grams.
  • Vitamin A – Some ferns like bracken are rich sources of vitamin A precursors like beta carotene which gets converted to vitamin A in the body.
  • Omega-3s – Many fern species provide alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid important for chicken health.
  • Antioxidants – Ferns contain polyphenols and flavonoids that help combat free radicals and inflammation.
  • Minerals – Minerals like calcium, potassium, and iron are abundant in most edible fern varieties.

Here are some of the most nutrient-dense ferns to forage for your flock in moderation:

  • Ostrich Fern – High in vitamins A, C, K, folate, copper. Also provides iron, calcium, potassium.
  • Lady Fern – Good source of vitamin C. Also contains vitamin A, B-vitamins, iron, manganese.
  • Cinnamon Fern – Provides vitamin C, A, K. Also iron, calcium, manganese, and phosphorus.
  • Royal Fern – Rich in vitamin C, A, B-vitamins. Provides potassium, calcium, iron, and copper.

The next time you forage up some of these edible varieties, know that they provide benefits beyond a tasty treat.

The vitamin C will help your chickens fight off illness and environmental stressors. Vitamin A and antioxidants boost immunity and promote healthy organ function. And the bounty of minerals supports bone strength, oxygen circulation, and enzyme activity.

Just be sure to introduce new finds slowly, watch carefully for reactions, and limit ferns to occasional supplemental snacks, not daily diet staples.

How to Harvest and Prepare Chicken-Safe Ferns

Once you’ve identified a patch of chicken-friendly ferns ripe for foraging, proper harvesting and preparation will help your flock enjoy them safely:

  • Use garden shears for a clean cut and avoid yanking and tearing.
  • Target young, tender fronds rather than older coarse ones.
  • Take no more than 1/3 of fronds from any one plant.
  • Cut fronds close to the ground but leave some to allow regrowth.
  • Triple rinse with clean water to remove dirt and debris.
  • Chop or tear into bite-sized pieces for easier eating.
  • Mix in gradually with regular feed for introduction.

I like to use a clean pair of garden shears to carefully cut off immature fronds near the base of the plant. Mature ferns often get fibrous and unpalatable. I go for the softer, tender new growth instead.

Overharvesting the plant is never a good idea if you want it to keep producing. I aim to take no more than 1/3 of the existing fronds so it can continue to regenerate for future foraging.

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A triple rinse in a colander removes any dirt, debris, or critters hiding out. Then I give the greens a rough chop into smaller pieces my girls can easily enjoy.

Finally, I gradually mix a bit of the chopped fern into their feed each time I replenish it. This gets them used to the new addition slowly versus shocking their systems with a huge portion all at once.

Following these simple harvesting and prep tips helps my chickens reap the benefits of foraged ferns safely.

And using moderation allows the same fern patch to keep providing its bounty season after season.

FAQs About Chickens & Ferns

Over the years, I’ve gotten lots of questions from readers about feeding chickens from the fern family. Here are some of the most common FAQs along with my answers as an experienced backyard forager:

What types of ferns can chickens eat?

Ostrich, cinnamon, royal, and lady ferns are all safe options. Avoid bracken ferns and any types you can’t positively identify.

How often can I feed ferns to chickens?

Ferns should be an occasional treat, not a daily diet staple. Aim for just 1-2 times per week at most.

Can I feed chickens raw bracken ferns?

No, bracken ferns are highly toxic to chickens and should never be fed even in small amounts.

What part of the fern can chickens eat?

The tender young fronds are safest. Avoid the fibrous stems and mature fronds.

Can I feed chickens ferns from my backyard?

Only if you can positively identify the variety as non-toxic. When in doubt, leave it out!

Will ferns impact chicken eggs?

Fed sparingly, chicken-safe ferns provide nutrients that can actually boost egg nutrition and quality.

Do ferns replace chicken feed?

No, ferns should always be supplemental. Chickens need commercial feed for balanced nutrition.

My Chickens’ Verdict

I’m happy to report that my backyard bunch gobbled up those foraged ferns I brought home with gusto! They clearly enjoyed the earthy, veggie taste as a supplement to their regular feed and suffered no ill effects.

However, I’ll be sticking to small amounts doled out only occasionally. Variety is the spice of life, but safety first!

The day after my initial impromptu taste test, I kept a close eye on my five hens to monitor their health. Sparkle, my top hen, was her usual lively self, eagerly awaiting treats when I came out to the run.

Dottie and Flora had no change in appetite or egg production.

My two Amberlinks, Ginger and Saffron, did seem a bit sluggish at first but perked up after an hour or two.

Overall, the ferns I foraged seemed perfectly safe for my flock. But I’ll be making absolutely sure I correctly identify any new fern varieties before harvesting more to feed the ladies. Don’t want to chance stumbling upon some toxic bracken lurking in the woods!

I’ll also be sure to introduce any new finds slowly and limit foraged ferns to the occasional treat.

A handful of chopped up lady ferns here and there will add nice variety without disrupting the layer feed regimen that keeps my chickens happy and healthy.

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