We frequently talk about how much our chickens help with our gardening. One example: Earlier this year, when the snow was melting and all of the leaves from last fall were starting to be uncovered as the snow receded, our hens got busy doing their favorite thing: Digging and scratching through the leaf litter to find morsels to eat. That is because leaf litter is itself a diverse and interesting ecosystem of rich material, much of which is natural, healthy food for chickens.
In a functioning forest ecosystem, all of that leaf litter gets broken down by the fungi and invertebrates. Ultimately, all of this material goes back into the soil where it again feeds the plants that dropped the leaves to begin with. It is a beautiful cycle in which there is never any waste. Everything is used. Everything has a purpose. It is a system that results in rich abundance.
Chickens evolved from forest birds that fill the role in a system like that. In effect, chickens are wired up to process leaf litter in the forest and turn it back into food for the trees and other plants. They eat what they can, turning it into rich fertilizer. What they do not eat, they break up and bury doing their natural scratching and pecking behavior.
We wish we had a fence that would allow our chickens to do this through our whole garden. Unfortunately, we don't. They only get to actively work in the back and side yards. For the front yard garden, we have taken to collecting the leaf litter and dumping it over the fence so the chickens can dig through that. Then, we take the resulting material and put it back out front when the chickens are done with it. (See video of chickens digging through a pile of leaf litter below.)
This is one of their absolute favorite things to do. Even though they have a non-stop supply of organic, whole, natural food available in their feeder, as soon as we dump some leaf litter over the fence, the chickens come running and they get right to work. They will dig at the pile until it is pretty well worked into the top soil, the weeds and weed sprouts are all eaten, the top soil freshly loaded with all kinds of rich organic matter without a surviving weed in sight.
This is not only great for our gardening, it is wonderful for the chickens, and one of the reasons eggs from backyard chickens have so much more nutrition in them than store-bought eggs, including the following:
Twice as much Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Three times more Vitamin E
Seven times more Beta-carotene from Vitamin A
Fifty percent more Folic Acid
One quarter LESS Saturated Fat
One third LESS Cholesterol
Up to six times more Vitamin D
Significantly more B Vitamins
Significantly more Antioxidants, like Lutein and others
It turns out that by taking better care of our chickens we end up taking better care of ourselves. This is a lesson we can (and should) learn to apply to more than chicken husbandry, because it helps us to understand and appreciate how connected we are to the natural world that is all around us.