It’s enough to stop the heart of any new chicken owner. Your chicken is rolling on the ground, twitching and kicking. Is she having a seizure? Is she injured? You run over only to have her hop up and look at you confused about all the commotion.
So what is all the weird kicking and rolling? She is just taking a dust bath! Chickens don’t have long tongues to groom themselves like cats, and they don’t like splashing in ponds like ducks. Chickens keep clean by rolling in the dirt. It may sound counterproductive to us, but chickens kick loose sand or soil up, working it down the shafts of the feathers. After rolling in the dirt, they give themselves a good shake and a cloud of dust will surround them, then they will spend some time primping and pecking their feathers clean & back into place.
The dirt smothers any lice or mites that are living on the chicken and just makes for a generally inhospitable place for parasites to set up house. Healthy hens will take dust baths frequently and it is important that as a chicken keeper you give them some space to do so. In addition to keeping clean, dust bathing is a relaxing social activity your flock will enjoy doing together. I’m pretty sure a nice, sunny spot with plenty of loose dirt, and room for a few girlfriends is heaven on earth for a chicken! And once you get over the initial shock, you will find that watching your chickens take dust baths is pretty hilarious!
Setting up a dust bathing area
My chickens free range most of the day so they have picked out their own favorite spots in the yard. They will seek out a nice, dry spot with loose soil. If you can, try to leave an open space like this in your yard (and keep your fingers crossed they will use that rather than your garden!). Dig down several inches to loosen the soil. Here on Cape Cod, our soil is naturally pretty sandy so I have not had to do much to make bathing areas. But if your soil is harder or clay like, you might want to grab a few bags of sand to pour in the bath area.
It doesn’t have to be a fancy set up, just a bare corner of the yard will do. I have found my girls like to bathe in the sunnier spots, except on the hottest summer days when they seek out a more shaded area. If you set up a place to bathe, they might spare your garden. Fluffy, fresh compost or mulch are pretty attractive as bathing materials too – they just need to dig those pesky plants out of the way first!
If your chickens don’t have the chance to free range daily or if you want to save your gardens, you will need to provide the ability to dust bathe in the chicken run for them. Again, nothing special is needed, just a spot with several inches of loose soil or sand and the chickens will do the rest.
When I was a new chicken keeper, I built a “sand box” for the girls out of 2x4s and filled it up with sand. I left that box in their run for probably two years before I took it out, in that time I saw approximately zero dust baths happening in there. The chickens always picked out their own spots.
What to use in your dust bath
All you really need is some type of loose, dry soil. Sand is great because the tiny particles can get right down through all the feathers, but they seem to prefer sand mixed with some soil the most.
Some people like to add additional things like wood ash, road dirt, and food grade Diatomaceous Earth. The truth is all of these things are completely unnecessary. A few times when we had issues with mites we have added Diatomaceous Earth (DE), but I wouldn’t recommend adding it on a regular basis. DE is an all natural parasite controller. It looks like a fine dust, but it is actually fossilized algae. The microscopic fossilized bits are sharp enough to slice fleas, mites, lice, and other parasites, killing them. Even though the product is non toxic and safe, the fact that it comes with health warnings for humans to wear masks and work in well ventilated areas gives me pause. I won’t go as far as to say it shouldn’t be used, because I think it plays a helpful role in natural chicken keeping. I prefer to use it as needed (like if they have an external parasite problem), rather than part of our daily chicken routine. If you choose to use DE, make sure you purchase the FOOD GRADE kind.