Tuesday, May 8, 2012


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by Meredith Chilson

Last Saturday was a perfect spring day: warm breeze, sunshine—I was up early with plans for the day. Laundry washed and on the clothesline—check! Garden peas weeded—check! Garage cleaned and materials laid out for making “chick corral”—check! Nest boxes cleaned in henhouse—ICK! Crawly things! Ick, ick, ick.

My plans for the weekend suddenly changed. After a shower and a change of clothes (even thinking about crawly things makes me itch), I checked the Internet to see if I could identify what sort of parasites were running around in the henhouse. To destroy an enemy, it’s important to know what the enemy is … and I don’t want crawly things in my henhouse for many reasons, one being the new flock of chicks that will be coming into the coop in a few months.

After an hour of research, I was ready for another anti-itch shower, and I still was not positive what I’d found. I’d narrowed the enemy down to lice or mites, and was quite sure it was some sort of mite: either the northern fowl mite or the red chicken mite (also referred to as the gray mite or the roost mite). As I dug deeper into research, I discovered that the only way to absolutely determine the parasite would be to send it to a lab. The next best way would be to look at it under a microscope—and I don’t have one of those either. I finally decided I could only look at the evidence and make an educated guess. And whether louse or mite, the treatment is similar.

Red chicken mite
Although neither lice nor mites have wings, lice are insects and mites are arachnids—spiders. This means that if I were to look at them under a microscope, the lice would have six legs and the mites, eight. Lice are a bit larger than mites and are light-colored, often with darker heads. Mites are rounder, and can be (as their names suggest) red or gray; northern fowl mites are black. Both mites and lice are parasites: They will feed on skin, blood and feathers. Lice tend to attach themselves to feathers or the skin, while mites will live on their host as well as in the host environment. Lice do not suck blood, however, as mites will do.

From information I found at www.myPetChicken.com and www.backyardpoultrymag.com, I discovered that parasite infestations could cause a reduction in laying, feather loss, anemia—which may show up as pale wattles or combs. Often feathers are discolored, especially around the vent of the bird. For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that the feathers on the backs of several of my hens had looked “fluffy.” I had ignorantly thought they were losing their winter undercoats, like my dog does. As I looked closer on Saturday, I could see that the shafts of the feathers on these girls were damaged, as if they had been picking and plucking at themselves to—well, rid themselves of crawly things. These are older hens, with a somewhat lower laying rate, and I had not noticed a drop in egg production, but I had been worried about one of the Buff Orpingtons–her comb was quite pale and she didn’t seem as active as the others. Often she would be fluffed up on a roost in the yard while the others pecked around happily.

The only pests I found were in the bottom of the nest boxes, not on the hens. I noticed them running around on my hands (ick) when I removed the old nesting materials. They were tiny, tiny—maybe as small as a pencil dot. I wouldn’t have noticed them if they hadn’t been moving. According to my Internet research, chicken mites are not usually found on chickens during the day. They will live in the coop, in the nest boxes, on the roosts and come out at night to feed on the chickens. Northern fowl mites will live right on the bird, as do lice. The fact that I found the pests in the nesting boxes made me think I would be dealing with chicken mites.

I may never know how they came to the coop. Mites are very common, and can be carried by wild birds or even rodents coming into the coop to search for food. It only takes a pair for an infestation, because the life cycle of a mite is only 10 days. I clean my coop before it needs it, and at least once a year I take everything out and scrub the nest boxes, roosts and walls. Parasites in a henhouse can be a result of overcrowding or poor sanitation. I don’t think this is what happened in my coop—I do think it’s possible that the mild winter made for great growing conditions for all sorts of things—including pests. Occasionally I see a deer mouse or a chipmunk scampering out of the chicken yard in the morning, and sometimes starlings or sparrows are caught in the netting that covers part of the chicken run.

By noon on Saturday, I had potentially identified the pests in the nests. Now, I needed to get rid of them. I try very hard to stay away from pesticides. I garden organically, there are honeybees in the neighborhood, and honestly, I just feel it’s better for all of us. Many websites suggested using Carbaryl-based or permethrin insecticides on the chickens themselves. Both of these pesticides are dangerous and must be used with caution and care. I also found several websites that suggest long term use of wood ashes or diatomaceous earth can be useful. Also on the market there are now nontoxic lice and mite sprays, organic treatments for coops, and pour-on medications that rid animals of both internal and external parasites. I headed to the local tractor/feed store with my checkbook and a list.

You must remember that I live outside a small town in a rural area. The largest village is 35 miles away—it has a small mall and one movie theater. Not so large, really. The nearest city is Rochester, and it’s almost a two-hour drive. One way. This is an agricultural area, however, so I was certain I would find shelves—or at least a full shelf—of poultry pest treatments. I had never looked at the possibilities before—I do buy diatomaceous earth, which I use in the coop and yard for adding to dust bath spots, and I found two containers of this on the shelf. I also found one more thing: a canister marked “Garden and Poultry Dust,” with the main ingredient: permethrin. It was getting late, I was getting frustrated (and itchy again), so I bought the dust and the earth—and two bales of cedar bedding from the dog supply section. (Cedar closets repel moths, right? Maybe cedar shaving will repel mites?)

I argued with myself for most of the drive home. I guess using the pesticide isn’t really a moral decision, but it felt like it. My plan: Be very, very careful.

Back home, clothes off the line, dinner in the Crock-Pot, shovel in hand, I headed to the chicken coop with a dust mask in my pocket. I shut the hens out of the coop, took out the wooden roosts and shoveled out the straw that was lining the floor and the nesting boxes. The roosts and the straw went on the burn pile. I removed the front boards from the nest boxes, scrubbed them with soapy water with a bit of bleach tossed in for good measure, and set them in the sun to dry. I took another bucket of soapy, bleachy water and scrubbed the nest boxes, walls and corners of the coop and let it all dry while I went to my husband for help making new roosts. (The dinner in the Crock-Pot convinced him, I think, although by then I wasn’t hungry.)

As the sun was going down below the hills, I was wearing my dust mask and carefully, carefully dusting every nook and cranny in the chicken coop. I dusted seams in the floor, on the walls, on the new (!!!) roosts, in the nest boxes. Then, I added the fresh cedar shavings to the floor and in the nests. I brought in dishwasher-clean feeders and freshly scrubbed (with vinegar water) waterers. And then, I went to the chicken yard.

I had read a lot about dusting chickens for parasites. There’s even a video showing how to stick a chicken in a tote bag partially filled with “bug dust,” and then “shake, shake, shake” until the chicken is coated. I thought about doing that, but I couldn’t figure out how to keep the chicken’s head out of the bag without choking it. And really, the similarity to “shake and bake” was a little too ironic.

scrubbing the nest fronts
I decided to use the foot part of a pair of pantyhose. I filled the hose with some of the dusting powder, picked up a chicken, and … dusted. I decided before dusting the next hen, I would have to tie a knot in the end of my duster, but other than that, it worked very well. I dusted under wings, around tails, and paid special attention to the vent area. Most of my hens are used to being handled, so they really didn’t seem to mind if I turned them “bottom’s up” to be sure they were thoroughly powdered. I was careful not to dust near their faces or to stand where the breeze would blow back over us.

First girl powdered, I popped her into the nice clean henhouse, shut the door and started on the next. By the third hen, I had it down to a routine. When I opened the door, however, the first two chickens started to march right back out. Apparently, the new roosts and cedar shavings were a big, scary surprise. I started putting them in on the roosts after they were powdered and the procedure worked well.

Clean nest boxes with cedar shavings
I have 17 hens: 10 are Buff Orpingtons, four are Rhode Island Reds and three are “assorted.” Most of the Buffs, three of the Rhodies and two of the assorted colors are extra friendly. I easily captured 12 of the chickens, dusted them and put them to bed on the roosts. Do you think I could catch the others? You’ll notice there are no photos of this process. I suppose my dust mask, wild hair, foggy glasses and yellow latex gloves would have been a little frightening to a chicken that had just seen her sisters flipped upside down, dusted and stuffed into the coop, but … I decided to wait until dark and then do the rest. It had been a very long day. Dusk had arrived. My plan was to open the door to the coop where the others were roosting, snatch the hens as they entered and give them their dusting. Good plan, except as I grabbed one, another would slip by. I ended up checking undertails to see if the hens had been powdered already. I think I got them all.

The moon was just beautiful Saturday night—a full “Flower Moon.” I raked up the last of the burned roosts by the light of the moon and went in for another shower. My mind was full of questions, too, with the first one being, “Will this work?” And, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any crawly things since then, and I plan to dust the birds again in another day.

I wondered if the eggs would be safe to eat. All the change in their environment has caused a drop in egg production anyhow, but I think I’ll wait a bit to use eggs. The permethrin is not food safe, and I did dust vents. It just seems sensible to wait.

Ladies sharing a Saturday afternoon dust bath
In addition to continuing to add diatomaceous earth to dust bathing spots, I think I will talk to our wood-burning neighbor about getting some ashes. The girls will like that, and it might help smother any parasites.

I’ll check the hens often and repeat the hen coop cleaning within a week or so. I'll think of a way to clean the hen yard, if necessary. I’ll also find a source for nontoxic remedies. It’s important to continue to treat the infestation aggressively. Mites can even live in empty henhouses for several months, and they can cause death in older hens and chicks.

This was certainly not what I had planned for Saturday, but I learned a lot. I won’t be so complacent with things that look a bit different with my hens. I’m hoping I’ve solved the problem, that the hens will recover from the experience, and that all will be clean and pest-free in a few months, when I add newly feathered chicks to the flock.

What’s your experience with poultry parasites? Do you have resources or natural remedies that have been proven to work?


  1. I don't have any experience. I do a lot of reading. I've read a lot about people dusting the coop with DE after cleaning it. They dust everything and everywhere, and put the DE out for the chickens to dust bathe in, or add it to where they do their dust bathing. Adding ashes to the dusting area is supposed to help, too.

    Some people add a bit of DE to the chicken feed to help with worms.

    Rubbing Vaseline on chicken legs helps with leg mites.

    I've also read that people add some garlic to the water, as mites don't like the taste of garlic chicken, haha!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I'm planning on doing a thorough cleaning this weekend. The last time I dusted my girls, I placed the peretherin in an old shaker container that used to hold garlic powder (washed out and dried). The shaker top made it easy to dust them.

    Excellent article. I hadn't thought about the cedar shavings. I'm going to try that this time.

  4. Do not use cedar shavings in chicken enclosures! Cedar oil is toxic to hens. You can make a barrier around the outside of the coop or run with cedar if you want. That may help keep crawly things out, but, you should take the cedar out of the nesting boxes.

  5. I agree with the cedar shavings comment...get them out of the coop! I have read also that cedar can be toxic to birds. Hopefully Community Chickens editors will see this mistake before a bunch of people kill their birds. :(

  6. We've had chickens for 3 years. We made our feeder and nest box out of cedar that we'd had for many years (so it was dry). This is the first I hear of cedar being bad for chickens. Our chickens are fine. 5 of 5 still healthy and happy here.

  7. When I clean out the henhouse, I dilute neem in a spray bottle (shake HARD frequently), and spray all the nest boxes, walls, floors, cracks, perches, windowsills, etc. then let the coop dry thoroughly before adding new bedding (pine shavings & hay or straw). I also provide a large rubber bowl of DE for the chickens to dust bathe, and sprinkle some of the same in the nest boxes. When I had an obvious infestation, I also bathed the chickens in a little neem, then dusted them lightly but thoroughly with permethrin when they were fully dry. For leg scale, vaseline alone didn't seem to work, so I mixed a bit of neem with vaseline and coated everyone's legs. That did the trick.

    1. What is neem please? Jorli72@gmail.com

  8. One of my roosters had mites last summer -- none of the rest of the flock showed any signs. I gave him a bath in Dawn, the lavender scented one. It killed the mites and he smelled great for a week.

    I did use a permethin-based spray for his housing, but kept him out of it for a few hours to let it work.

  9. I dont have chickens any more, I have quail. As such they are kept in coops. I give them a pan of dirt and DE once a week. Once I started doing that I noticed their health improved. They do enjoy the dust bath as they all crawl right in! Once I start putting in the pans the others are waiting by their doors to jump in! It's cut down on flys and ants too around the poop pans. You can check it out on my site, gardenforyourlife.blogspot.com.

  10. Here's the direct link. http://gardenforyourlife.blogspot.com/2011/12/bird-care.html

  11. I had about 50 hens for many years raising my new chicks every year as well. I personally let the chickens out every day to roam and dust bathe to their hearts content. In the coop I found that not using straw except a little in their nesting boxes and using fresh sawdust from cutting pine trees or a saw mill on the floor and etc. worked great to keep the mites down.

  12. I have always been told as well that cedar shavings can be toxic to hens and cause problems, although it would seem like a good deterrent to insects. Please keep us updated to how this works, it may help to divide fact from old-wives-tale. I hope the best for your chickens. I loved the "shake-and-bake" analogy! I literally laughed out loud!

  13. I put some Tea Tree Oil (available at Wal-Mart in the Health & Beauty Aids section) diluted with water in a spray bottle and sprayed it on my hand and arm to test if the mites would still get on my arm when I put it in the nest boxes. The result was incredible - not one mite got on my arm where previously thousands did. Next, I sprayed all the bedding. It killed the mites immediately. I've had to repeat the spraying every few days for a week but I can tell the mite numbers are dropping dramatically with each spray. Here's a great website with information about the uses of Tea Tree Oil: http://www.theherbsplace.com/Tea_Tree_Oil_Uses_sp_153.html

  14. Cedar woods are fine for structural builds in your chicken house as the wood is only toxic if ingested. Cedar shavings are not! The chickens can ingest the fine particles. But, if your chickens don't eat inside then normally any cedar contained in the nest boxes will cause minimal harm. If you persist on using them in your nest boxes then just use a small thin layer on the floor of each box and cover it with a thick layer of straw. This should keep the chickens away from the problem and still help keep pests away from your prized hens! Make sure that the cedar chips do not get where the ladies can eat them, such as the floor of the house or pen.

  15. I also have heard that cedar is toxic to birds, but then I read in Harvey Ussery's book that he uses cedar shavings in the nest boxes to keep the mites and lice away. I'm trying to decide what I'll do.

  16. Just to let you know, you mentioned Carboryl. I remember many years ago an article in Organic Gardening and it said Carboryl is one of the most toxic chemicals there is. A lot of toxins are on the food we eat and they will flush out of the body. The article said that Carboryl will not flush out of your body, once it is in your system it's there to stay. We had moved out into the country and I found some chemicals, mostly Sevin, in a small room off the chicken house. When I looked at the ingredients I say Carboryl. Needless to say, I immediately got rid of all the chemicals and have never used anything that is not natural on my garden. About three years ago, when we were living in Nebraska for awhile, we started giving our hens apple cider vinegar in their water every day. It made a huge difference.

  17. Here's an update --After warnings from others, I've taken the cedar shavings out of the coop and replaced them with pine shavings. Honestly, I had read where others had used them with no problem, and since the coop is well-ventilated I hadn't worried much-- but the cedar shavings are gone now, and the chickens appear to be fine.I scrubbed and dusted the hen house again after a few days--this time using DE in the corners and nest boxes. I redusted the hens and I haven't seen any mites -- either on the chickens or in the nests, and I've been watching closely. Susan, I looked up Carboryl again, and found it's one of chemicals listed for bee hive collapse, too. Yikes. I found a source for a spray using potassium sorbate--which is an antimicrobial used as a food preservative, so I plan to use that next to spray the girls and the coop. I'm hoping I caught the problem in time...thank you for all your great comments and ideas.

  18. I read on an online article in "Grit" mag that DE (food grade ONLY as they will eat some), garlic, fresh or powdered in food), and apple cider vinegar (in water, 1 tbspn/gal) is the holistic trinity of the author. Garlic ups immune systems (can be fed to chicks), DE kills bugs but DON"T let THEM breathe it) and the vinegar kills worms! How easy is that? I used to have indoor birds and cedar shavings are bad for birds (and rodent pets) lungs so I always used pine but I use grass hay in my coop. The floor of my coop is small wire for adequate ventilation as I made my coop out of pallets. They lay right in a corner on the hay and have a roost bar to sleep on. I've used the vinegar so far and even my dogs drank it (they have a poultry water thing and I keep a plastic coffee can full of water for whoever drinks out of it).
    I don't think I'd feel safe using the chemical bug stuff - I have only 2 chickens (Aurucaunas) and they are my sweet baby girls so if anything happened to them by my hand I'd be devastated, I stick to holistic stuff. my name is Linda Corbin from MT.

  19. I use cedar in my nest boxes. I follow Harvey Ussery's ventilation guidelines and deep litter bedding. The only hen I've lost was trapped behind a roost and she got squished. Nope, my hens (or roos!) aren't wheezing. Cedar is fine as long as they're not confined with it.

  20. I am working on an infestation right now - day4.
    Dang scrub jays or doves brought the mites in..Hubby and I cleaned the pine shavings out of the coop. shop vacced it, then used my new cedar Cedarcide Tri Jet Fogger and fogged the coop- closed it up 4 21/2 hours and since the coop is a few feet off the ground I sheeted the bottom all around and fogged under the coop. I also fogged the ramp and the cans, shovels and anything else that the chickens came in contact with. So gfar not a mite is seen.I have vaselined around the eyes, combs and feet. I have done multiple body dustings of DE, and DE the coop. Since the company recommends you fog a few times I only put shavings in the nest box areas with more DE. So far So good

  21. What do you do about mites in the wintertime? I think my hens might have some, but it's so cold outside I'm not sure what to do.

  22. What about chicken fleas ? Stick-tight fleas are on my chicken's heads !!!


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