Unfortunately, when you keep animals in the great outdoors, you don’t have as much control as you do with your indoor pets. Wild birds roost in your trees or swoop down to forage in your grass with the flock, rodents or squirrels visit the coop while your birds are out free ranging. It’s just a part of keeping chickens. I used to love when wildlife would visit my yard, but now all I can see are the parasites and diseases they might be carrying.
Parasites are unpleasant, but as long as you catch them early it doesn’t have to be a big issue. And don’t take it personally, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong or that your coop is filthy. It just means your chickens live a full foraging life! However you should always take an infestation seriously. Left unchecked, a light infestation can turn into a full blown emergency in a matter of weeks. Many parasites are blood suckers. When a bird has a large amount on her body, it can lead to anemia and eventually to death.
There are dozens of kinds of mites & lice varieties that can bother your poultry, but let’s take a closer look at the most commonly found kinds. The good news is most of these bugs are not interested in a human meal, they might occasionally bite you in a severe infestation, but they likely will not infest you or your house.
External Parasites to Look For
Red Mites: these creepy little buggers like to come out at night, so the best time to check for them is at roosting time. Look under your chicken’s wing, near their vent and also around the coop. During the day, they will hide in the cracks & crevices of your coop or underneath the roosts. Then when the chickens are bedded down for the night, they come out for the feast. Like most mites, they are out for blood. Red Mites are super small so you will need a flashlight and some patience to see them. Part the chicken’s feathers so you can see down to the skin. Red mites are grey before they have fed and smaller than a grain of sand with eight tiny legs. After feeding, when they are full of blood, they are a reddish pink.
If you see one or two, now is the time to act before it gets worse. When you see 6 or 7, the bird likely has thousands of mites. More than that and the bird’s life could be in serious danger. This type of parasite generally will not lay it’s eggs on the bird, instead laying them in the coop. The mites might not be active during the day, but the reactions from their bites can be seen all day in your flock.
An infected bird will be itchy and be excessively preening, possibly pulling out her feathers, especially near her vent. A bird suffering from anemia from a severe infestation will have a pale comb, be listless, and have reduced egg production. Red Mites are usually found spring-fall unless you live in a temperate climate. They do not die in the colder weather, however, they go dormant and can live up to a year without feeding, just hiding in your coop!
Because they can lie dormant for so long, it is important to treat both the flock and the coop. When you suspect an infestation, completely empty the entire coop. Use a vinegar spray to disinfect, then spray with Poultry Protector by MannaPro or sprinkle food grade DE (Diatomaceous Earth). Be sure to get into all the cracks and crevices and under the roosts. To treat the flock you can either sprinkle them with DE (be sure it gets under their feathers to their skin and remember to wear a mask yourself) or use chemical parasite treatments.
We use Ivomec Eprinex to treat the birds when there is an infestation. It is similar to Frontline for dogs, you apply the drops in between the chicken’s shoulder blades and within hours you can see visible relief on your hens. For standard chickens, use 0.5 cc dropper (.25 cc for bantams), applied topically on the back between the wings. You will want to reclean & possibly retreat the flock in two weeks to get any new mite eggs that have hatched. We have never had to retreat the flock, one dose is usually enough.
Northern Fowl Mites: The symptoms of a Northern Fowl Mite infestation is similar to Red Mites – itching, excessive preening, missing feathers, anemia, pale comb, listlessness and decreased egg laying. They are slightly larger than Red Mites, but still super small and hard to see. The biggest difference is these parasites live on the chicken. They can only survive a few weeks without a blood source.
This makes detection a little easier because you can check for them during daylight hours and in addition to the live mites, you can often see their nits (eggs) gathered at the base of feather shafts. Again, you’ll want to carefully part the feathers to check down to the skin to find them. Another difference is the life cycle of Northern Fowl Mites is under a week – so they are laying thousands of eggs every week, multiplying quickly. Treatment is the same. Clean the coop for good measure (yes they don’t typically live in the coop, but they can for short periods of time) and treat the flock with a parasite treatment. You will want to repeat this weekly for a couple weeks to ensure you kill all the newly hatching mites.
Scaly Leg Mites: These creepy crawlies, as expected, live primarily on your chicken’s legs & feet. They are too tiny for human eyes to see, but you can see the evidence they have been there. These mites burrow under the leg scales eating skin cells & tissue and depositing their waste. All that waste builds up, pushing the leg scales out, making them look thick and crusty. This can be very painful to the chicken and if left untreated can cause deformity and lameness.
Treatment isn’t difficult, but it can take a long time to successfully eradicate these buggers. The most common way to treat the effected bird is to sit her in a warm bath for about 15 minutes to soften the scales, then take a soft, old toothbrush and gently scrub the legs. Next sit the bird in an olive oil bath to suffocate the mites. Finally, totally cover the legs in Vaseline to further suffocate old mites & protect against new ones. This treatment will likely need to be repeated weekly for a month or longer. For severe cases, your vet might be able to prescribe an oral anti-parasite medication.
Poultry Lice: Very similar to mites are poultry lice. They are not the same kind of lice that infest humans, they will likely leave you alone. But they behave similarly to human lice. They live their whole lives & lays their eggs on the chicken & in their feathers. They are beige, super small & super fast, making them difficult to see on light colored birds. You will likely see nits piled up at the base of feather shafts, particularly near the vent area. Lice are not blood feeders, rather feeding on skin cells and feathers.
Lice will make the bird itchy and uncomfortable, so just like with mites, symptoms includes itchiness, excessive preening & feather loss. Likewise, treatment is the same. It’s always a good measure to give the coop a complete cleaning when dealing with any parasite, even though lice don’t live for long when off the bird. Treat the entire flock with a chemical treatment like Ivomec Eprinex. You will want to repeat the treatment in two weeks – and possibly again at one month in severe cases to get any newly hatched eggs.
Is your skin crawling yet? Mine is! Obviously, preventing an infestation is far easier than treating one. Luckily, your birds are ready, willing, and able to help in this area. One of the best ways to keep parasites away is dust bathing. When the birds get the rough sand particles under their feathers, it irritates pests and in some cases can even cut the invaders causing them to die.
Be sure your chickens always have access to loose, sandy soil to dust bathe in. Want more information on dust bathing? Click here! You don’t need to add anything other than sand to a dust bathing area. Some chicken keepers like to add food grade DE to their dust baths. While it can sometimes be effective in eliminating pests without chemicals, it is not without it’s dangers, particularly to you & your chicken’s respiratory system. I personally think it has it’s place when you KNOW you have a problem, but it isn’t something that should be used on a regular basis.
Other things you can do to limit the parasites in your flock include being sure to quarantine any new birds you add. Practice good biosecurity yourself (not sharing tools with other farmers, not allowing other chicken keepers in your flock’s area, having a specific set of shoes and/or clothes for chicken keeping)
Keep your flock’s immune system healthy! Good quality feed, fresh healthy vegetables and protein rich seeds & mealworms all contribute to an overall healthy bird, capable of fighting of disease & parasites!