Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Bugs Of Winter: Protecting Your Chickens From Lice And Mites

It happens in the best of coops: lice and mite infestations. But there are some things you can do to prevent and get rid of these pesky critters.

Single chicken feather with lice egg sac

Photo: Jana Wilson

This feather was plucked from a chicken infested with lice. The white clump at the base of the feather is the louse's egg sack.

Cold-Hearty Bugs

When the hot temperatures of summer disappeared, so did mosquitoes, flies and other pests.

But if you have chickens, the autumn and winter can be some of the worst times of year for an infestation. As the weather turns colder, some bugs on chickens actually become more active.

Wild Birds Are Nothing But Trouble

One way your chickens become infested is when they have contact with wild birds. Even if you keep your birds in a pen (unless you have netting over the top), wild birds will swoop down to take some stray bits of chicken feed and leave lice and mites behind.

Lice and mites feed on the blood, feathers, skin and scales of your birds. If you have a heavy infestation, it can make your chickens susceptible to infection, reduce their growth and stop egg production. It can even kill them if things get bad enough!

Know The Enemy

Poultry Lice

Poultry Lice are small, long and flat wingless, straw-colored insects. These critters are not the same as human lice so don’t worry, they won’t stay on you. They feed on dry skin, scales and feathers and are commonly found on both skin and feathers. They can jump from one bird to another if the chickens are in close contact.

The louse’s eggs (nits) are usually attached in white-ish clumps at the base of the feathers and are virtually glued onto them. Usually the lice will complete their life cycle from egg to adult on a single bird. They will die within a few days to a week if they are separated from the host.

Lice Egg sac at base of chicken feather

Photo: Jana Wilson

The louse’s eggs (nits) are usually attached in white-ish clumps at the base of the feathers and are virtually glued onto them.

Mites

Mites are also small and they look like dark, moving specks. Chicken Mites only feed at night, so you may have to go out in the dark with a flashlight and examine your birds. Northern Fowl Mites, on the other hand, feed both day and night.

Then there is the Scaly Leg Mites. They too small to see, but you will notice your chicken’s legs taking on a rough look, with the scales raised. If the infestation is allowed to go on long enough, the bird’s legs will become deformed.

Mites hide out in the coop, so you would have to treat both your bird and the coop. What’s really awful about mites is that they can survive for up to 34 weeks in your coop without food. So, once you notice an infestation, you will have to be vigilant about treating it.

Scaly Leg Mite chicken

Photo: Jana Wilson

Scaly Leg Mites are too small to see, but you will notice your chicken’s legs taking on a rough look, with the scales raised.

Natural Treatment Methods

There are many natural treatments, like diatomaceous earth. It should be a food-grade, so inhaling it will not be harmful.

I have also used products with pyrethrins, which is a natural insecticide that is made from a specific type of chrysanthemum.

If the weather is warm enough and the bird is infested enough, you can give your chicken a bath with a dog flea shampoo that contains pyrethrins. You can also use a spray to treat the vent and other parts of the body, but make sure you part the feathers and get it to the skin.

Scaly leg mites can be treated by smothering the chicken’s legs with an oil-based product (petroleum jelly or olive oil work). I soak my birds’ legs in warm water and then brush them gently after treatment. That sometimes brings the dead scales off a little faster. Repeat this treatment in two weeks.

Chicken Coop With Chickens

Photo: Nanimo (Flickr)

Once you discover an infestation, it's not enough to just treat your birds. Make sure to clean the coop thoroughly, especially the cracks and crevasses.

As for treating your coop, spray into any places where mites might hide, like cracks. I often treat my roosts with an oil of some sort to smother mites that might be hiding.

With cooler days upon us, it’s time to think about these awful little critters that can make our birds thin and listless and can even kill them.

By staying on top of the problem, you’ll have happy, healthy birds all through the winter.

Learn More:

My treatment methods are based on research and talking to veteran poultry keepers. You may want to do a search yourself to find what might work best for you.

There are several great websites on which you can find information about treating lice and mite infestations for poultry. For a really comprehensive article on the issue, visit The Poultry Site.

Jana Wilson

Jana Wilson lives on 20 acres just outside of Bloomington, IN and writes her blog, The Armchair Homesteader. In addition to the chickens, she has ducks and a border collie named Winnie who helps her with her various efforts at becoming more self-sufficient.

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  • MaryKay Simoni

    Thank you for the article. I do have one correction though. Pyrethrins are NOT natural. They are patented. Pyrethrum IS natural and is approved to be used organically, and is made from chrysanthemums. It’s the ending that counts – the “‘um.”

    But even pyrethrum is a neurotoxin and must be applied with care. It does however supposedly break down in about two weeks and that its why it can be used on certified organic farms.

    HTH.

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