Christmas is a-coming, and the goose is getting fat… or so the nursery rhyme goes. But whatever time of the year, it is not good for pet geese (or any other form of domestic poultry) to be overweight and/or fed incorrectly. There is an enormous industry built around domestic poultry nutrition, and while most of this applies to large-scale production systems, companion birds in the garden or smallholding can still benefit from developments to their diet and nutrition.
In this article, we will look at formulating the correct diet for a range of domestic fowl – chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese – and how this supports optimal physical and psychological health.
Nutrition and domestic fowl
Good-quality pellets (complete ration) suitable for the species are the key to creating the correct diet. Layers or growers pellets are perfect for chickens, while ducks and geese should be fed waterfowl pellets. These should be supplemented with a quality source of grain (wheat is good for added protein and energy) and green leafy vegetables or grazing on grass, clover or other non-toxic wild plants (Beynon et al., 1996; Roberts and Scott-Park, 2008). Using a quality, species-appropriate pellet can also help prevent calcium deficiency, and, therefore, egg binding in laying female birds.
Pellets should be available ad lib, and plenty of feeding stations provided to reduce competition or bullying around food. Supplementary foods such as grains and greens can be provided a couple of times per day, but always ensure that all birds are eating their pelleted ration rather than consuming large amounts of less nutritionally balanced foodstuffs.
It is also important to consider the anatomy and physiology of different species of domestic poultry as this will provide valuable information on how the bird feeds and what it should be fed (Figure 1).
When young, domestic turkeys should be fed a specialist turkey grower pellet as they have higher protein requirements than other species of domestic fowl (Roberts, 1989). However, when kept in a mixed flock with chickens, ducks and/or geese, adult turkeys can consume a similar basic poultry ration of pellets and grain.
It is essential that the ground turkeys are kept on does not go stale or become unhygienic as this can cause several different diseases
It is essential that the ground turkeys are kept on does not go stale or become unhygienic as this can cause several different diseases, particularly parasitic infections such as coccidiosis (The Chicken Vet, 2020). Foraging opportunities for turkeys (grazing and scratching areas) should be left fallow and well maintained to reduce parasite burdens and prevent the ground from becoming waterlogged or poached.
Diet-related pathologies in domestic fowl
Poor-quality, spoiled or stale food will lead to nutritional deficiencies. In turn, these deficiencies can weaken a bird’s immune response and negatively affect its ability to lay eggs or grow new feathers during moult. Pelleted feed and grain for all poultry should be kept in a cool dry place. This is because damp conditions can cause poultry feed to spoil quickly, and fungal growth may cause aspergillosis (an infection of the respiratory system) in birds that consume spoiled food (Kromm and Lighty, 2020).
Though treats and supplementary foodstuffs can be useful, too many treats can also be a problem. For example, domestic chickens and ducks really enjoy mealworms, and these can be an excellent reinforcer for training; however, regularly feeding large numbers of mealworms can cause birds to become overweight and lead to excess fat storage in the bird’s liver. Moderation is best!
Feeding complementary food items sparingly also ensures their reward value remains high, which is helpful if used during training.
Ducks and geese, especially heavy breeds that would usually be slaughtered at a young age, are prone to leg, foot and joint problems when they age as companion animals, living longer than they would if kept for production purposes (Echols, 2015; Pihkala and Sato, 2020). Maintaining a good body condition but not allowing birds to become overly fat, for example by providing swimming and opportunities for exercise and grazing, will support a good quality of life for larger “table breeds” that are maintained as pet or companion birds (Figure 2).
It’s not just physical
A poor diet does not just manifest as poor physical health; the psychological health of the birds can also suffer if any behavioural motivations around foraging and collection of food are not provided for (Colton and Fraley, 2014). Veterinary professionals should, therefore, remind owners to be mindful of what their birds have evolved to do and suggest they present food in a manner that enables foraging opportunities. Geese have evolved to graze – they have bills with sharp serrations and a large hindgut to digest fibrous plant material, and can spend many hours cropping grass. Ducks, on the other hand, have wide flat bills for dabbling in water or soft ground. Chickens and turkeys retain strong legs and thick claws for scratching and digging through soil and leaf litter when foraging.
The psychological health of the birds can also suffer if any behavioural motivations around foraging and collection of food are not provided for
Over-preening and picking the feathers of other individuals can occur when birds have restricted opportunities to search and collect food (Colton and Fraley, 2014). To prevent this, you can advise owners to consider creating enrichment opportunities for their birds, providing outlets for foraging motivation as well as further opportunities for exercise.
Moult is a physiologically stressful time for a bird, and for waterfowl, it is even more so because many feathers are lost concurrently. Ducks and geese drop all their primary wing feathers at the same time, leaving them flightless (Figure 3).
Even though domestic ducks and geese rarely fly (especially true for large breeds), moulting still changes the bird’s behaviour. For example, they can become warier as they have lost their primary method of escape and are more inactive. During moulting, birds need an easily accessible source of protein as they grow their new set of feathers, and stress should be kept to a minimum.
During moulting, birds need an easily accessible source of protein as they grow their new set of feathers
Finally, it is crucial to remind owners wishing to breed their birds and hatch a clutch of chicks, ducklings or goslings that diet is also essential to bird health in these early stages. In fact, an inappropriate diet during early life can lead to lasting impacts on health and welfare in the adult bird.
A common condition in ducklings and goslings provided with a diet too high in protein is “angel wing” (Figure 3), where the new primary feathers on the chick’s developing wings grow too fast and become too heavy to be supported by the immature bone (Kear, 1973; Kuiken et al., 1999). This causes the wing to bend outwards, and if not corrected when young, cannot be reversed. Ensuring that chicks are fed an appropriate starter crumb, are not overfed on treats and have a close watch kept on their growth rates will prevent this problem (Ashton, 2015).
Ensuring that chicks are fed an appropriate starter crumb, are not overfed on treats and have a close watch kept on their growth rates will prevent [angel wing]
Pet chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese can lead long and healthy lives and can be relatively easy to care for, provided a few basic rules are followed. Keeping bird housing clean and dry, providing opportunities for each species to express important natural behaviours and always feeding a good-quality pellet as part of an enriched, nutritionally complete diet are the principal pillars of keeping healthy domestic fowl and poultry.