Okay, I’ll admit it: I have been exceptionally lazy this winter with regards to my chicken keeping skills ( full disclosure: I’ve also been incredibly lazy about many, many other things, but let’s just deal with the chickens, today). It’s February, and I still haven’t wrapped their run in plastic, and I still haven’t bothered making them a dust bath. I actually feel pretty bad about it. But, in my defence, this winter has been a little slow in happening. Usually Ontarians expect a certain amount of snow, ice, windchill and other horrors. Not so this winter. It’s been pretty uneventful where I live so far, to be honest. I haven’t tarped their run because it hasn’t really snowed, and I haven’t put together a dust bath because they still are working the ground in their run, which has been scratched to a nice, fluffy texture, perfect for those afternoon spa sessions.
Of course, I recognize I am playing with fire here: we will get a freezing snowfall eventually, and I will curse my laziness as I’m trying to put up plastic in a blizzard, and fumble around with frozen fingers. But maybe I like playing close to the line. Maybe I like the risk and the danger. It’s me against mother nature here, and I’m all in.
But since I decided it was high time I post on my backyard dust bath protocols, I will have to put my laziness aside. Besides, posting on the dust bath is probably a good way to hold me to a deadline and to a standard, and I’m sure my chickens will thank me.
Why dust baths are important.
First off, chickens don’t like to swim. In fact, they can’t swim. If they find themselves in water too deep to waddle out of, they just sort of freak out and flap wildly, then relax, stay very still, and await their fate. It’s pretty pitiful. I have a pool and I have watched every single chicken fall into the pool once. Every. Single. Chicken. How it happens, I have no idea. But each one has done the panic flapping and the acceptance of eventual demise (and I saved each one. They were fine. Angry and wet. But fine. I promise!). Poor girls. Anyway, chickens don’t bathe like people do, so leaving around a little tray of water for them to splash around in would be no good. They prefer some dry old dirt to do their ablutions in. Seems strange, but many bird species and mammals, roll around in dry dust and dirt, in order to maintain clean feathers, fur, skin, etc. Chickens achieve this by scratching up a nice little bowl-shaped divot of loose dirt. They wriggle in and use their wings to flap dirt up over their body. Ideally the dirt will get down between their feathers and skin. Chickens spend a lot of time dust bathing. Sometimes they’ll fall asleep if it’s feeling nice and cozy. Once they’re done the dust bath, they shake and a huge plume of dust is released, and with it dead skin cells, extra oils and fats, and hopefully, any parasites looking to take up residence. After dust bathing, a chicken will usually spend time preening themselves, so they can look all shiny and lovely.
In the winter, the ground freezes (unless it doesn’t, thank you global warming). Even though chickens don’t dust bath as often when the temperatures are lower, they still have the inherent need to do it, and it’s important to provide an outlet for that need. Enter the manmade dust bath. Over the years I have tried a few different variations on the ingredients in my dust bath and I have found one that I’m happy with. I used to keep a dust bath available year round (especially after the lice incident) but I found that it wasn’t really being used. Chickens prefer making their own patches, after all. So, now what I do, is (hopefully get my act together) and put out a dus tbath for them when the weather turns cold and the ground begins to harden. I keep an eye on the dust bath, changing it and adding to it, when needed.
Making a dust bath for your hens is really easy. It’s a great way to help them take care of themselves, while at the same time, tossing in a little ounce of prevention. I use wood ash, which is great for repelling mites, and diatomaceous earth, which is great for repelling any exoskeleton parasite (lice). The sand is gritty and is a good exfoliator. It also helps keep the wood ash and DE homogenous. I keep the dust bath in the run, because as the name implies, it gets things pretty dusty and I don’t want to have to breath DE particles everytime I go into the coop.
DIY Dust Bath For Chickens
Grab an old baby bath or large kitty litter box-I have tried both plastic and metal baby baths, but found the plastic one was actually better in the winter because the metal one got really cold and created more condensation which clumped up the dust bath.
4 parts wood ash
4 parts sand
1 part diatomaceous earth
Assemble your ingredients in a well-ventilated area, preferably outside. Put on a mask (DE isn’t something to mess around with). Pour out the ingredients in the tub. Mix the ingredients together.
Put the bath in a protected, dry spot in the chickens’ run. That’s it! (you’d never know it was so easy by how long it took me to actually get around to doing it!)