For a first time chicken keeper, it can be frightening watching a chicken taking a dust bath. Chickens need dust baths and are often seen laying in a shallow pile of dirt, frantically kicking and scratching it all over themselves.
Dust bathing is completely normal and should be encouraged.
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Do chickens need dust baths?
It may seem the opposite of bathing when you consider chicken dust baths. We tend to think that cleaning ourselves with soap and water is the only way. We also think that animals should also bathe with water to clean themselves.
Chickens do not bathe in water, but instead use a dust bath. They have evolved and learned that bathing themselves in dust can do two things for them- remove parasites and excess oil.
There are a few parasites that can cause irritation in your flock. Fleas, lice and mites are a few of the external parasites that can cause harm to your chicken’s skin and feathers.
The most common parasite that affects poultry is the poultry mite. Poultry mites are tiny, crawling insects that look similar to a small tick.
Mites will bite and chew on the bird’s skin to draw blood. Then they feed on the exposed blood. Mites have very short lifespans (usually 5-7 days) but in this short lifespan, a single mite can lay as many as 100,000 eggs.
Poultry mites can reproduce quickly enough that they can cause skin damage, loss of feathers and even death from anemia in extreme cases.
When chickens use a dust bath, the dust creates a protective layer on the bird’s skin that prevents the mites, lice or fleas from biting and chewing the skin. The dust can also clog the respiratory systems of these tiny parasites, killing them quickly.
If you make your own dust bath for chickens, which I will explain below, adding diatomaceous earth to the dust bath will help to kill and naturally repel external parasites.
There are multiple types of external parasites that can affect your backyard chicken flock. Read this article to identify chicken mites, lice and fleas on your chickens.
Have you ever looked at a bird feather up close or under a microscope? The feathers are made of thousands of vanes that come out of the main quill.
The quills have microscopic hooks or barbs on them that help keep the feathers nice and smooth. If you’ve ever seen a bird grooming itself, you may notice that they slide their beaks over the feathers. They are doing this to smooth the feathers.
While birds groom themselves, they use the oil from the preening gland. The preening gland is located at the base of the tail. You may notice chickens rubbing their beaks in this area before grooming themselves.
The preening gland secretes oil that is used to make the feathers waterproof and possibly fight off bacteria.
With that being said, the preening gland can sometimes produce too much oil. Chickens will use dust baths to soak up any excess oil that is on the skin or their feathers.
Where do chickens take dust baths?
Chickens like to be clean and will look for dust baths wherever they can.
Free-ranged chickens find dust bath spots outside
If there is a bare dirt spot in your yard, your chickens are bound to turn it into a dust bath. Chickens, especially hens, will lay on the ground, mostly on their side. They will use their feet to scratch up the dirt until they reach soft dust.
Once they’ve created this dust, they chickens will close their eyes and roll around in it. You’ll see them kick the dust all over themselves. They will switch sides and completely cover themselves with the dust.
Once they are covered down to the skin, the chickens will get up and shake off the excess dust.
Usually chickens return to the same area for dust baths. My hens have been using the same area to dust bath for a couple of years now. The dust bath area has soft dust in it because there is usually at least a couple of hens laying and scratching in it daily.
Dust baths for coops
Chickens that are cooped up may need access to dust baths more than chickens that are free-ranged.
External parasites that live on chickens are highly contagious. These tiny parasites can live in bedding and spread rapidly from one bird to another in a coop.
Stop the parasites before they have time to plague your coop with dust baths. If your chicken coop or run has access to dirt or pasture, they chickens may create their own dust bath hole like they would if they were out free ranging.
If your chickens don’t have access to the dirt ground, don’t worry. You can create them a dust bath area.
I recommend making a dust bath area that is 4-6 inches deep. This gives them plenty of room in the dust to kick around and really cover themselves.
Make a dust bath in a box, an old tire or low lying area of the coop. There are many things that you can add to your chicken dust bath.
I recommend using the following recipe for maximum pest control:
Final thoughts about chicken dust baths
Chickens naturally want to dust bathe. They have evolved this method of cleaning themselves to combat both parasites and excess oil.
Since chickens need dust baths, it’s important to ensure they they have access to one. Free-ranged chickens will more than likely provide themselves with a dust bathing area. They will create a small bathing area in the ground. For cooped up chickens, make sure that they have a dust bath in their coop or run.
Dust bathing prevents the spread of external parasites and is essential for chicken health.
Do you provide your chickens with a dust bath? What do you put in it? Let me know below!
Interested in reading more about chickens? Check out these articles:
- Lessons learned raising meat chickens
- Preparing for baby chicks
- Easter egger chickens
- Preventing and treating ascites in chickens
- Should I trim my rooster’s spurs?
- Keeping chickens safe with a coop
- Raising chickens on pasture
- Using chicken manure in the garden