Do Chickens Eat Ticks?
Many potential chicken owners are interested in whether chickens can replace pest control on their property. Everyone knows that chickens eat bugs, so does that include ticks? Spoiler alert: yes. Chickens will eat ticks, especially when they are out free-ranging. Chickens that free-range are more likely to clean up the areas where your family is and rid the space of ticks.
Do Chickens Really Eat Ticks? How Many Ticks Will a Chicken Eat?
Agricultural scientists in Africa have made careful studies of just how useful chickens are for tick control. Many tribes in East Africa measure their wealth in cattle. Cows provide both food and social status.
Over the last 20 years, East Africa has been invaded by ticks that originated in Asia. The people who depend on keeping their cattle healthy don’t have money to buy pesticides, so scientists wanted to confirm that chickens would eat the ticks that carry the diseases that make cattle (and people) sick.
In several experiments, scientists released chickens onto grazing land for 1 to 3 hours and then counted the number of ticks in their crops, waiting to be digested. The procedure for removing the ticks so the researchers could count them was no doubt unpleasant for the chicken, but did not necessarily result in the chicken’s becoming a chicken dinner, at least in the first study.
- In one study published in the journal Veterinary Parasitology, chickens were allowed to graze free-range for 30 minutes to an hour. The number of ticks the individual chickens ate ranged from 3 to 331, with an average of 81. The chickens preferred ticks that weren’t full of blood from feeding on other animals, but they weren’t so picky that they wouldn’t eat ticks at a rate of up to 10 a minute.
- In another study done by the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in South Africa, researchers let chickens peck at ticks that fell off cows while they were being milked in a village square. These chickens had to dart out of the way of cows and people milking them, as well as any dogs and cats that showed up hoping for their share. In three hours of less than ideal tick hunting conditions, the chickens caught and ate between 0 and 128 ticks, with an average of 28 ticks per chicken. This time, analysis of tick consumption was done during necropsy, which means that for these chickens ticks were their last meal.
There is no doubt that chickens eat ticks. For some chickens, ticks must rank as their favorite food. But how do the numbers of ticks chickens eat compare to the number of ticks that would be expected in your yard?
The surprising answer for the grassy part of your yard is this: Zero.
Ticks need 100% humidity at least part of the day, every day. If you mow your yard on a regular basis, it will be too dry for them. It’s true that people and pets, including chickens, get tick bites when they walk through tall grass without skin protection. But ticks need a humid hideaway just a few feet away to be able to climb up the grass to wait for their next victim.
The places where chickens can help you with tick control are around plantings and at the edges of your yard. They will find and eat ticks hanging out in ornamental grasses. They will find ticks clinging to plants that are growing in soil covered by mulch. They can be very helpful for controlling ticks in grass you let grow high to protect bees and butterflies.
The main reason chickens won’t eat many ticks in your yard is that you probably don’t have many ticks in your yard. But they do a great job of getting rid of the ticks that you do.
Can Chickens Get Lyme Disease from Eating Ticks?
There is good news and bad news about the answer to whether chickens can get Lyme disease by eating ticks.
First the good news: Chickens never get Lyme disease from eating ticks.
To transmit the pathogen that causes Lyme disease to a new host, a tick has to stay attached to the skin for 36 to 48 hours.
No tick a chicken eats will be able to attach itself to the chicken’s crop or gizzard, and every tick a chicken eats will be digested long before it has enough contact with the chicken to digest the disease. Even if the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that cause Lyme disease aren’t completely digested in the chicken’s stomach, scientists have found, they are so stressed by the stomach’s acidity that they are no longer infectious.
Now the bad news: Chickens can get Lyme disease when ticks latch onto them and eat them. But this will only happen when you already have a sick chicken.
Chickens preen their feathers to remove insects. They will peck at other chickens when they see a mite or tick that the other chicken can’t reach on its own.
If you have a single chicken that isn’t feeling well, it’s conceivable that it could get Lyme disease from a tick it encountered in high grass on your property. But this is a much more common situation with golden-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and oak titmice (more than one oak titmouse, the bird). It’s golden-crowned sparrows, researchers say, that actually spread the disease to other animals and people.
What Are the Best Breeds of Chickens for Eating Ticks?
The best chicken for eating ticks is a guinea.
“Wait,” you may object, “a guinea isn’t a chicken.” You would be right. But guineas eat even more ticks than chickens.
If you don’t want guineas in your yard, but you still want good pest and tick control, look for chicken breeds that are best suited for foraging. All chickens will eat ticks and insects, but some breeds are better at finding and eating ticks than others.
Of the common varieties of backyard chickens, Dominique, Hamburg, and Leghorn chickens are the best “critter eaters.” They devour both ticks and insect pests at every opportunity.
All chickens, however, eat ticks. With an army of chickens at your side, there is only a very low probability you will be bitten by a tick anywhere they are on patrol.
When in doubt, use bug spray, keep grass short and let your chickens forage as much as possible.
For other ideas about keeping ticks out of your yard naturally, watch the video below: