When you live in a rainforest, it rains. (Right about now you're probably thinking, "No kidding [or insert expletive here], Sherlock.")
Stay with me here.
Are you ready for another ridiculously obvious statement? (I'm on a roll!) Lots of rain means lots of mud.
So What's the Problem, Lady? Are You Scared of Getting Mud on Your Shoes?
Before you think I'm whining about the rain or scared of getting dirty, it's not about me. If I was scared of mud, I'd still be living in a townhouse.
Here's the deal - when you live in a rainforest, and it rains all winter, and you have 20 chickens that need to keep their skin and feathers healthy, and you can't let them free range very often because your property is surrounded by hungry coyotes and hawks, you have a problem.
Something I didn't think about when we got chickens originally was how we'd create spaces for them dust baths if they couldn't free range, because the plan was for them to free range. When the coyotes arrived, that plan got shelved pretty quickly. The birds still get out every couple of days for an hour or so to access their 'under the porch spa', but it's not enough to keep them healthy in the 'bathing' department. So what's a person with chickens confined to a coop and run to do when the ground is either muddy - or conversely, frozen - when it comes to creating opportunities for their birds to do what chickens are supposed to do naturally: bathe in dust?
Why is Dust Bathing Important?
Bottom line - chickens don't bathe like we (or many other animals) do. Counter to what intuition might tell you, they get clean by getting dirty. Naturally (i.e., in the wild or when free ranging), they'll dig a shallow pit in suitable soil (the dustier the better), loosen it all up with their claws, and then roll around in it, fluffing it through to cover every possible spec of skin and feather. Why would they do this? It keeps parasites such as mites and lice from taking hold, and weirdly, even cleans their feathers to some degree. Case in point - these are our young ones and rooster last summer:
The Family That Dust-Baths Together... Doesn't Get Mites! from Victoria Gazeley on Vimeo.
So as you can see, if your chickens are confined to a coop and run, and the ground is muddy and/or frozen, you really need to provide them with an alternate way to do their thing.
Some Ideas from Us... and from Readers
Now that our chickens have to spend most of their time in the run, I needed to come up with a new way for them to bathe. Here's one idea I came across:
Place a box, rubber feed bin or (and this was the best idea I read) a Rubbermaid bin or cat litter box with a lid you can put on when it rains, on the floor of the coop/run (basically, somewhere it will stay dry) and fill it with about 6" or so of a dusting powder made from: 1 part fireplace ashes, 1 part sand and 1 part diatomaceous earth (it also called for road dust, but I'm thinking I don't want my 'organic' birds covering themselves with dust that's laced with vehicle exhaust remains, oil, and other unmentionables.
Important Tip: If you use diatomaceous earth, make sure it's the 'food grade' version, not the industrial/pool grade, and be careful not to breath it in. Some readers won't use it because it is a lung irritant, but many, many more use it regularly, apparently with no ill effects if appropriate precautions are taken. It falls to earth fairly quickly and doesn't hang in the air like dust, but still. Guess what I'm saying is 'use at your own risk'! Very effective for mites and lice, etc., though.
Others have expressed concerns about fireplace ash, in that when it gets wet, it becomes quite caustic and will burn the birds' skin. I asked the people who use ash regularly in dust baths for their birds and they say they've never had an issue with skin burns or other maladies. Worth trying, I think - but it should go without saying that you should only use ash from wood fires, and not from any garbage burns. But I'm hoping you aren't burning your garbage. If you are, stop it! Please!
Now some other ideas for creating artificial dust baths for your chickens from our friends on our Facebook page:
- "I put the bottom of a litter box with dirt inside for them to roll around in. They enjoy it very much." - Nancy
- "We use the ashes from our burnt wood and toss it in their pen!" - Robin
- "Our barn has a packed-dirt floor. Our chickens found a few spots where the dirt was loose and scratched up enough dirt to dust-bathe in. I've heard of people using cat litter pans full of dirt and sand in their coops though." - Cheryl
- "Some people use a big wash tub or kiddie pool. Put sand in it mixed with dirt and ash. One thing for sure though, add all your wood ash to their bathing area. You will never have mites if they bathe in the ash and they know it." - Lisa
- "A shoe box with sand and a shoe box with dirt. They love it." - Sharon
- "Diatomacious earth in a kiddie pool or shallow bin in the coop." - Michelle
So there you have it - some easy, inexpensive ways to give your coop and run-bound birds the opportunity to carry on some of their natural behaviour when they can't get out to make their own dust baths. I'll be creating one this week for our girls and will update the post once that's done.
I'm sure we'll know pretty quickly if it passes muster or not.
Do you have other ideas on how to create a dust bath for chickens? If so, let us know in the comments below! We'd love to hear your tips.