FORT KENT, Maine — To hear my friends tell it, the Rusty Metal Farm chickens are among the most spoiled and pampered on the planet.
I’m not so sure I’d agree with that assessment. I’d prefer to say the members of the flock are somewhat “discerning,” especially when it comes to meals and snack time.
Back when I got into raising my own laying hens in 2008, I was told by several experienced fowl farmers that “chickens can eat just about anything.”
I did a bit of research and asking around and, turns out, since chickens are technically omnivores, they can, indeed, eat “anything.”
In fact, the only thing they can’t have are used coffee grounds, which is a real shame. I mean, just think of the market for caffeine-infused eggs?
With my first flock of hens I started supplementing their chicken-feed with diced lettuce, shredded apples and other healthy treats.
Then things got a little bit varied.
Chickens like bread, so whenever there was stale bread or rolls in the cupboard, I tossed them out to their waiting and open beaks.
One night I had pizza, and a few slices were leftover.
I called a friend of mine who had been raised on a farm and asked if I could give them to the chickens.
A true pizza fan, my friend first expressed shock that anyone could have “leftover” pizza, then she said there was no reason I could not give it to the hens, who quickly became fans as well.
That was the beginning of my ongoing Rusty Metal Farm game, “Let’s see what the chickens won’t eat.”
Not much, it turns out — unless it’s healthy.
They turn up their beaks and pretty much any fresh, raw veggie like green beans, peas, cabbage, kale or broccoli.
But steam, roast or boil those same vegetables and add a bit of butter or sauce? Let the feeding frenzy begin.
For a number of years my dear friend Kim ran the local movie theater, and at the end of every weekend she’d show up with a massive bag of leftover buttered popcorn for the chickens. It got to the point that when the hens saw her pull in, they recognized her car and lined up inside the pen waiting for her in anticipation.
During the week my late father would feel badly for the birds and would ask me to buy microwave popcorn, which he would pop and then ask me to dispense to them.
I’ve also learned that chickens have pretty significant sweet tooths.
One day as I was placing an order to-go at a local diner, I noticed they had carrot cake on special. Sounded yummy, so I asked for a slice. Sadly, I was told they could not serve it as they had earlier in the day removed it from the cooler and discovered it had gone bad.
I then asked if I could have it for the chickens.
Let me just say, you have not lived until you have seen an entire flock of chickens surrounding a cake, fighting for position with beaks covered in frosting.
I’ve also had ice cream that has gotten a bit of freezer burn and that makes a very welcome summer-time chicken treat, though I really have no idea if their teeny-tiny brains suffer brain freeze or not.
During her visits to the farm my good friend Julie delights in seeing what treats she can find and dispense to the flock as they free range around the yard.
Standing on my deck, she will toss them chips, cheese, cookies and — in a futile attempt to make their diets a bit healthier — raw vegetables, which are consistently met with fowlish derision.
The other night we gave them some leftover nachos we brought home from a night out. The next morning all evidence of those nachos — including the very spicy jalapeno peppers — were gone.
And lest anyone think my chickens are in danger of substandard lives because of this somewhat junk food diet, trust me — they are fine and very, very active and long lived.
Perhaps the best treat of all was the pile of lobster shells they were given after a lobster feed here on the farm.
A day after the chickens had picked those shells clean, the eggs they produced actually smelled like lobster when frying or scrambling.
Hmmm, lobster-infused eggs? Now there’s a market worth pursuing.