October 26, 2015

Lice and the Backyard Flock

This is the year that everything fell apart. In the chicken department, that is.

I had gone along for two years in chicken bliss. I got eggs almost every day, even throughout the winter. My girls were healthy and happy. I was so proud of myself and my miniscule backyard flock.

And then it happened. Lice. There is nothing quite like lice to make you feel like a chicken failure. How could this have happened? Please, look away I am a despicable human who lives in filth!

Really though, you can’t stop lice. Bird lice can be transferred any number of ways and when you have free-range chickens you are exponentially increasing the odds of some lice jumping on for a ride.  Wild birds are probably the worst offenders, as they are not only in the yard with your chickens, but they also can manage to sneak into the coop for a bite and leave behind a little gift of two. Like the day my husband sent me the cutest picture of a fledgling robin hopping around the coop. Hop hop hop. Nuts to that robin for leaving his licey memento! In all honesty though, the lice could’ve come from just about anywhere, and it is probably one of the most common chicken things that literally bug chicken owners.

Lice and the backyard flock

Fluffy lice-free bum

I had seen the pictures of lice infestations ahead of time, the late night Google images that kept me from sleeping and left me obsessing on the what-ifs (note to self: phone should not come to bed with me). So when I saw poor Penny’s bum heavy with what looked like dirt from bathing, I knew. I picked her up for a closer inspection, confident only in my late night online searches that bird lice would not eat me, and confirmed the stuff that looked like dirt clumps were instead the dreaded lice egg clusters up at the feather base*.


Since I had promised myself to raise the chickens as naturally as possible, I wanted to explore using only natural remedies, without endangering the girls, of course. I do believe in technology. I also believe in modern medicine. I have taken Advil before, and probably will again. Maybe sooner than later. So I got some food grade Diatomaceous Earth. I got a huge bag. Like ridiculously huge. Like I could start my own diatomaceous earth business huge. I don’t know why I do stuff like that. Anyway, for those of you who don’t know and want to, diatomaceous earth (DE as it’s known in chicken circles, and probably other circles, but I only go to chicken circle things) is naturally occurring silica. It’s harvested from the ground. What makes it cool for insect applications is that because it’s silica, it’s tiny and many-sided, which makes it sharp for insects exoskeletons. Basically, it cuts them up and dries them up. Diatomaceous earth has to be used responsibly. We don’t want to upset the ecosystem by treating it as a bug-banishing-cure-all, scattering it around the garden and whatnot, because insects are good. Good insects eat bad insects. Good bugs can also be affected by DE, and that wouldn’t be good.

With my giant bag of diatomaceous earth at the ready, I took action: I started by completely cleaning the coop with a pressure washer (tip: wear goggles. And a mask. And a biohazard suit. Shudder. Just kidding about the biohazard suit. Sort of.) Then I attacked it with vinegar and a scrub brush. I sprinkled diatomaceous earth everywhere I thought would be a good lice hiding spot and eliminated the pine shavings I had been using, opting instead for sand. This meant no shavings in the nesting box, but my girls are weird and prefer a hard spot to lay, so, if your chickens like nesting material, just sprinkle the DE on fresh bedding.

I washed and dried each hen (and by dried, I mean I let them lay around in the sun and give me dirty looks. I’m pretty nice like that.) Then I enlisted my husband to help me dust each bird with diatomaceous earth. We both wore lab coats, goggles, masks, and gloves. I don’t know if we needed all of that gear, but it made me feel more legit. (Seriously though, don’t skip on the mask. DE is no joke and can damage your lungs. You know how I explained how DE works to kill insects? Imagine that at work in your lungs! Gross.) My husband held each hen for me and I rubbed the DE into their feathers, trying to get as much of it down to the base of the feathers at the vent, under the wings and into the neck. Once you get a good grip on the chickens and sort of turn them on their back, they get pretty calm, so it’s not that difficult. You want to treat their eyes, nose and mouth pretty carefully though, so try to avoid DE in those areas.

I then made an official dust bath in their run using an old baby bath. Even though they free range and have access to the many little dust bowls they’ve created, I wanted to create an opportunity for them to roll around in some DE, wood ash, and sand. (Wood ash is great for repelling mites, in case you were wondering.)

One week later, we repeated the whole process. When I washed them the second time, the lice was gone, as far as I could tell, but we went through the process again just to be sure.

Lice and the backyard flock

more fluffy, clean bums

We’ve been lucky, and haven’t had lice since, but I continue monthly checks just to make sure. And as winter is approaching, I thought this might be a timely post. Lice and other pests love warm spots to hang out, and in cold winters, there’s nothing better than a good old chicken vent (if you’re lice, of course. If you’re not, then you could probably think of somewhere nicer to relax).

Potential Signs of Lice:

  • loss of appetite
  • pale comb
  • drop in egg production
  • ragged looking feathers
  • dark spots on feathers
  • feather pulling/missing feathers especially around vent
  • dirty bum or what looks like dirt around the vent
  • lethargy

The lice found on a chicken is exclusive to birds, so you don’t need to worry about it choosing you for its next victim.  They like to eat the dead skin, feathers and quill casings of birds. The vent area is nice and warm and protected, not to mention, very feathery, so poultry lice will lay their eggs there, which is typically what you will see when you do an examination.  The egg groupings sit at the base of the feather shaft and look kind of like a Q-Tip, with the the feather being the stick part and the eggs the cotton tip.

The lice is obviously very irritating for the chickens, meaning they’ll lose sleep and be generally uncomfortable.  The lice won’t go away on their own, so they should be treated as quickly as possible to avoid spreading to the rest of your flock.

Lice Prevention:

  • Keep your coop dry and clean.
  •  Make a dust bath available to your birds year round.
  • Add some diatomaecous earth and wood ash to the mix.
  • Check your flock on a regular basis, especially vents and under their wings (think warm spots)

Now, you might have noticed from reading this and other articles, that a lot of chicken pests and diseases have similar symptoms. So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? My best advice is: know your chickens.  It’s not too difficult to get to know them when you only have a few. You will more quickly be able to diagnose a pale comb or increased tiredness if you already know what your girl is normally like. And, probably the best advice I’ve discovered, is keep the coop clean. Clean coop, clean food, clean water equals happy chickens. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever get lice or mites, but it does help not only lower those chances, but to eliminate the pests more quickly if you do find you have them.

*apologies that I have no photos of said lice. I had the problem before I began the blog and at the time saw no reason to photograph lice eggs on my chicken’s bum, although, now of course, I totally regret it.

Lice and the backyard flock

Lucy is soooo done with me taking pics of everyone’s bums.

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