Even a world-class poultry keeper can encounter infestations of lice and mites on their chickens. After all, these pests are everywhere and love to travel. For many, just the thought of these tiny intruders is enough to bring on itching. While some species will bite humans, they can be deadly for chickens. Early detection, eradication, and environment control are essential in keeping your poultry free of infestation.
What are they?
Poultry mites and lice are tiny, even microscopic irritants. They aren’t a sign of a terrible chicken owner, however. Lice and mites exist in most environments and the average flock will have a run-in with them at one time or another.
Poultry lice are visible to the naked eye as brownish, flat insects. They have six legs and live only on feather quills and dead skin. Chickens are warm and most, so winter chill is not a problem for them.
Poultry mites are blood-sucking insects that live under manure piles, on roosts and in any tiny crevice of a chicken house as well as on your chickens. They come out at night to pester our feathered friends. Warmer months foster a population boom. An infestation of mites can cause severe anemia, lowering hen productivity, slowing chick growth and even causing the eventual death of your birds.
Scaly Leg Mites tunnel under the skin of a bird’s legs and remain there, feeding off of the tissues and leaving behind droppings. The irritation, inflammation and built up crud cause thickened, unsightly scales on the chicken. Eventually, the bird may become lame and even lose digits.
Chickens love a good dust bath for keeping their feathers in top condition, to cool off in hot weather and for mite prevention. Allow backyard chickens a place to gather and enjoy a group dust bath. Dust bathing areas can be as simple or as elaborate as suits the chicken owner, but all they need is playground sand or clean dirt from the chicken yard. Avoid diatomaceous earth as dust bathing medium; even food grade DE is a lung irritant and should not be kicked up in even a chicken’s micro dust storm.
Clean coops regularly. This does not mean that deep bedding techniques cannot be employed in winter. Rather, ensure the pile is removed for the warmer months. Remove piles of molted feathers. Check the areas around and under waterers as these can become damp and harbor pests. Hanging this type of waterer slightly above ground can prevent excessively wet bedding. Hanging feeders help prevent chickens fouling their feed and encouraging infestations.
While most backyard flock owners love to show off their birds, keep in mind that other chicken owners may carry lice and mites on their shoes and clothing. For the same reason, quarantine new birds for a few weeks before introducing them to your flock.
Even with the best sanitation methods, a backyard flock can still pick up some unwelcome guests. Observation is key. Watch for:
Dirty vent feathers, especially with scabbing around the vent. Few chickens keep a pristine vent area, but if it catches your eye, it’s best to check.
Excessive preening, which may indicate itching and irritation.
Bald spots, especially when the birds are not molting.
Scaling or scabbing on the backs of chickens’ necks and close to tail feathers. Check these areas closely for signs of eggs on feather shafts as well. With a serious infestation, evidence of eggs will have climbed quite far up the feather shaft.
Scaly, thickened legs.
Lethargy and limited interest in feed with any of the above present – if the infestation has reached this point, the situation is dire and saving the bird may prove difficult.
Ivermectin works well against mites and lice and is easily obtained from most vets and livestock stores. Garden and poultry dust can also help. Check with your poultry specialist or vet for dosing instructions.
Some people have had great results treating Scaly Leg Mite with a petroleum-based balm slathered over the legs. This may smother a new infestation, but once the infestation has reached a point of causing lameness, it is best combined with other, more intensive treatments.
Poultry lice and mites need not destroy your backyard flock. With vigilance and a good sanitation program, you can stop any infestation in its tracks. For more information on flock maintenance, take a look at Storey’s Guide To Raising Chickens.