Do birds use herbs in their nest?
Some chicken keepers swear by nesting herbs for keeping their flock happy, healthy and productive. Other people think nesting herbs are a waste of time. But actually, wild birds add herbs to their nesting materials too!
What is the science behind chicken nesting herbs?
There is well-documented evidence that herbs can have a range of benefits. Some herbs are high in nutrients, while others have calming properties. Still other herbs have been shown to have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic properties.
If herbs have benefits for humans, then there is no reason why they wouldn’t also benefit chickens.
But there is more compelling evidence for use the use of chicken nesting herbs: wild birds deliberately use herbs in their nests.
Do wild birds use nesting herbs?
Obviously, birds use plant materials to build their nests. But many species also naturally use what we might call ‘nesting herbs’. These are green herbs with no structural value that are used around the nest. The herbs aren’t building materials, instead, they adorn the nest and are regularly refreshed, often every day.
Bird species that have been observed to use herbs in their nests include starlings, tree swallows, blue tits, wood storks, turtle doves and Bonelli’s eagle.
What type of plants do wild birds use in their nests?
While wild birds haven’t been observed to use garden herbs in their nests, they definitely use the wild herbs that are available in their natural habitat.
Generally, the ‘nesting herbs’ used by wild birds are selected for their high amounts of aromatic compounds and birds typically replace the herbs when their scent decreases. Often, the aromatics chosen as ‘nesting herbs’ are also known medicinal herbs, such as fleabane.
Why do birds use herbs in their nests?
Scientists are still not completely sure why wild birds use herbs in their nests. In fact, different species of bird may use the herbs for different reasons. Some of the reasons why scientists think birds put herbs in their nest include for insulation, to attract a mate and to deter insect pests.
What benefits do nesting herbs provide?
Wild birds are not going to spend precious time and energy gathering nesting herbs for no reason. Nesting herbs provide a range of benefits, depending on the herb and bird species.
Studies theorise that nesting herbs may:
- Help a bird secure a mate
- Decrease nest abandonment in sitting females
- Decrease bacteria loads on nestlings and in the nest
- Deter insect pests, either by masking the scent of the nestlings or by creating a smell unpleasant to the insect
- Improve immune response in nestlings, making them less vulnerable to insects and parasites
However, more research is needed before scientists can draw firm conclusions about why birds use nesting herbs and what benefits the herbs provide. For example, some studies find survival rates and health of nestlings to be the same with or without nesting herbs, even though the nesting herbs have decreased pest insects.
Are nesting herbs good for chickens?
Based on what we know about the behaviour of wild birds, nesting herbs for chickens could:
- Make the nest more appealing to hens
- Decrease bacteria in the nesting box and on eggs
- Deter insects and parasites, making hens healthier and more comfortable when nesting
- Lead to healthier chicks, or at the very least protect chicks from insect pests
Plus we know that herbs can have calming properties and smell nice, which your chickens will appreciate as much as you!
Why you shouldn't use fresh herbs in the nesting box
While fresh herbs smell lovely and are typically used by wild birds to adorn their nests, we don’t recommend using fresh herbs in your nesting boxes.
Unless you live in a dry climate and have a warm coop, fresh herbs are likely to grow mould. Even if you replace the herbs daily, as a wild bird might, the moisture in the plants can seep into the other nesting materials.
The last thing you want in a nesting box is mould and fungi! Not only will it discourage chickens from using the nesting box, it can also cause respiratory illnesses.
So dry herbs are always the best choice for chicken nesting herbs.
Are any herbs toxic to chickens?
Nesting herbs are not designed for chickens to eat. That said, chickens will peck at anything. If there are dried herbs in their nesting boxes, it is only a matter of time before chickens taste them.
In the small amounts used, chickens are unlikely to become ill from eating dried nesting herbs. But it is always better to avoid putting herbs that could harm your chickens in the coop!
Avoid these toxic herbs in nesting box blends:
- Comfrey – Although it has many health benefits, comfrey is generally used outside of the body, not eaten! A little is unlikely to harm your chickens, but it is best to avoid putting comfrey into the nesting box.
- Eucalyptus – While eucalyptus leaves and oil smell lovely to us, they can irritate a chicken’s respiratory tract and are not recommended for nesting boxes. It is a shame, as eucalyptus can also have pest deterring qualities!
- Wormwood – Many old-school chicken keepers swear by wormwood for keeping pests out of the nesting boxes. But this herb can be highly toxic and is best avoided around curious chickens who might just eat it!
You should also be careful when picking nesting herbs that they haven't been sprayed with anything that could harm chickens. Buying food-grade dried herbs or drying your own are two ways to ensure your chickens' nesting herbs will not harm them!
How to use nesting herbs for chickens
Nesting herbs are great for nesting boxes, as well as the coop.
To use nesting herbs for chickens, simply sprinkle generously over fresh nesting material and floor litter. Nesting herbs can also be used to perk up dust bathing areas, or refresh the nesting boxes.
Remember, whether or not you use nesting herbs, maintaining a clean coop is essential for the health of your chickens!
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook