How to identify wild plants for chicken feed

Identifying chickweed[I]
think this is a great idea for winter feeding & would have
appreciated a good identification pic of what
actually looks like since I have no idea!

— Danetta

Since my background is in biology (with an emphasis on plants), I tend
to forget that you might not all be able to run out into your yards and
scoop up the
plants I write about for your chickens
.  I pointed Danetta to this post for
identifying chickweed
, but I thought all of our readers might like
a bit of help with plant ID. 

Ground cherriesFirst of all, the great thing
about starting your edible plants forays with chickens in mind is that
you’re much less likely to poison anyone.  As long as you don’t
starve your flock and then provide only poisonous plants, chickens seem
to be pretty good at figuring out what’s good to eat and ignoring
what’s not.  That’s actually how I get most of my wild chicken
feed tips — from watching what my free ranging birds gravitate toward.

That caveat out of the way, it’s time-consuming but ultimately quite
simple to learn to identify wild plants.  First, you need to
understand some very basic science.  If you don’t already know
what a scientific name is, which part is the genus, and which part is
the specific epithet, go look that up now.

Jewelweed flowerNext, remember that the shape of the
flowers is the most important way to narrow down the identification of
an unknown plant because plants with similarly shaped flowers are often
closely related (often in the same genus or at least in the same
family).  Other important characteristics to take note of include
whether the palnt is a tree, shrub, vine, or herb (nonwoody plant), the
type of seeds, the orientation and shape of the leaves, and the
presence or absence of hairs.  Beginners tend to focus only on
flower color, which is pretty much useless for identification purposes
if you don’t have anything else to go on.

Now that you know what to look for in an unknown plant, it’s time to
find an identification guide.  These are all location-specific, so
choose your book depending on where you live.  I started out with Peterson’s
Field Guide to Wildflowers
, which is an excellent text for
beginners even if (like me) you live slightly outside the book’s
range.  Peterson’s
is much easier to use than the supposedly beginners’ Newcomb’s
Wildflower Guide
, which is not nearly as nicely illustrated and
requires the reader to know much more.

Tick trefoilNo matter what you choose as
your beginner guide, after a while you’ll start finding plants that
aren’t included in the text.  If you’re feeling brave, you can
find your state’s manual of flora (if they have one — Virginia doesn’t
, so I bounce between Plant
Life of Kentucky
(easy), Flora
of West Virginia
(medium), and Manual
of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas
(excessively hard).) 
If you’re stuck choosing between two species and the technical language
in your flora is giving you conniptions, it’s also handy to type the
scientific name into a google
image search
, which will usually turn up lots of photos of that
species from various angles.  (As always when working with the
internet, though, assess the quality of the website before counting it
as gospel.)

I hope that helps you identify the plants in your chicken yard and
beyond so you can figure out which ones are best to encourage for your

Our chicken waterer rounds out
the healthy chicken diet with POOP-free water.

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