I’m a planner. I like to know what to expect when embarking on a new endeavor so that I can be as prepared as possible to handle situations as they arise. Before I got my first chickens, I bought every book and read every article and online forum I could find to research whether keeping chickens was right for me. The majority of my research was extremely encouraging, however, each time I read the ‘external parasites’ and ‘diseases’ discussions, I promptly convinced myself that keeping chickens was for the insane. There were just too many diseases and nasty crawling things that I could not be any less interested in knowing how to identify, much less how to eradicate. Frankly, the long list of insects that could possibly live on my proposed pets made me itch.
I don’t know what it was that tilted the scales in favor of taking the plunge, perhaps it was the cute photos of baby chicks or the promise of a daily Easter egg hunt. Regardless, I’m here to tell you that most of the bad things that could go wrong with a chicken usually don’t and of the things that commonly do go wrong, they tend not to happen simultaneously. So, we handle them one at a time as they come up and maintain a general awareness of the possibilities. That is certainly true of external parasites. There are many types of external parasites, but being able to identify each is not as important as being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of an infestation
generally and how to treat it.
Monthly or bi-monthly flock inspections of each chicken should be performed in order to identify and address parasites before an infestation worsens and birds begin exhibiting signs of parasites. Particular attention should be paid to brooding hens as they dust-bathe less frequently than usual and are especially vunerable to parasites.Some of the common signs of any type of mite or lice
infestation in a chicken are: decreased activity or listlessness, pale comb, changes in appetite, a drop in egg production, weight loss, feather-pulling, bald spots, redness or scabs on the skin, dull, ragged-looking feathers.
SOME OF THE MOST COMMON EXTERNAL PARASITES
The two most common categories of external parasites are mites and poultry lice. Poultry lice are NOT the same as human head lice and people cannot contract lice from chickens.
Northern fowl mites and Red Roost Mites are two of the most common poultry mites. These tiny, eight-legged insects can live both on the chicken and in the coop. They are partial to cracks and crevices in wood, roosts and inside nesting boxes.
Mites can be grey, dark brown or reddish in color and can often be seen along feather shafts and underneath roosts after dark. Mites are active at night when they venture out to leech blood from chickens. With its moist, rich blood supply, the vent area is a favorite feeding ground of mites.
Typical signs of a mite infestation are scabs near the vent, eggs on the feathers and feather shafts and a light colored bird’s feathers may appear dirty in spots where the mites have left droppings and debris.A heavy mite infestation can lead to anemia and death of a chicken. Mites will bite humans, causing minor irritation in the affected area (and an urgent desire to take a gasoline shower).
Poultry lice are fast-moving, 6 legged, flat insects with round heads that live only on the chicken and its feathers. They are beige or straw colored and are typically found at the base of feather shafts near the vent. Poultry lice feed on dead skin and other debris such as feather quill casings. When parting the feathers near the vent to inspect for parasites, they can be seen briefly as they run away. The eggs laid by the female are seen at the bases of feather shafts.
In order to prevent infestations of lice and mites, the coop should be cleaned regularly with particular attention paid to disposing of loose feathers that can harbor hatching eggs (nits). Limit visits from fellow poultry-keepers who can transport the beasts on their clothes, footwear or equipment, (vehicles, shared farm equipment, etc.). Keep poultry feed in a secure location so as not to attract wild birds, which can carry parasites and diseases. Always quarantine new birds for at least 14 days before introducing them to an existing flock to watch for parasites.
Provide adequate dusting areas for chickens to care for their own skin and feathers naturally. A dust bath is the chicken equivalent of a daily dirt shower. It helps them maintain their skin and feathers and controls parasites. Some claim that adding food grade diatomaceous earth (DE) to the dust bathing area combats external parasites. According to Gail Damerow in The Chicken Encyclopedia, adding diatomaceous earth, wood ashes or lime-and-sulfur garden powder to their dust bath is hazardous to their respiratory health and should be avoided unless they are "seriously infested" with parasites. Even in that case, she writes, "the benefit
may outweigh the danger of TEMPORARILY adding such materials." (p. 93 emphasis added)
I do not add diatomaceous earth to my chickens’ dust-bath areas due to their highly sensitive respiratory systems. I feel that good sanitation practices, frequent flock inspections and providing ample dusting areas are sufficient preventative measures for my flock.
Upon identification of lice or mites in any flock member, treatment should begin immediately. There are many different products employed to eradicate mites and lice with varying degrees of effectiveness, among them are: Poultry Protector, Pyrethrum, dog flea dips, flea shampoos, Poultry Protector, diatomaceous earth, Sevin Dust 5% (carbaryl powder) and ivermectin. When lice or mites are detected on one bird, the entire flock should be treated. Treating birds after dark when they have gone to roost is the easiest way to treat the entire flock. I use Sevin Dust 5% to treat my chickens. While wearing a mask and with the help of another person to hold the bird, I dust underneath the wings and vent area of each bird sparingly but thoroughly. I also clean and treat the entire coop with particular attention paid to nests and roosts.
Treatment must be repeated twice after the initial application in 7 day increments, in order to kill the eggs (nits) that had not hatched at the time of the previous treatments.
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