Here in Vermont, the ground is frozen solid all winter. Chickens are inhibited from their natural way of staying clean and preventing infestation of parasites.
All it takes is a pan or box and some clean sand. The chickens go wild for the experience and defend their turn until they have completed their toilette. It is really fun to watch and clearly a pleasure for them.
I use a rubber feed bucket. I tried a metal feed pan but the sides were so low that most of the sand gets kicked into the bedding. It does no harm if some gets spilled but requires more frequent refilling. The feed bucket is about 8” deep and 24” across and helps contain the sand. It accommodates a chicken very nicely and often another will climb in for a shared bath.
Use clean sand, such as Quickrete tube sand which is inexpensive and free of harmful additives. You can also use play sand which is made for childrens' sand boxes.
You will find many suggestions of potential additives for a dust bath. One of them is diatomaceous earth. I strongly recommend that you don't use this. It is made of ground fossils. Under a microscope, you will see that it is made up of tiny shards. It is hazardous to your chickens. Breathing it can cause tiny cuts and it sticks to lung tissue causing scarring in the respiratory tract and lungs. It can cause great pain and irritation to the eyes. Giving your chickens a big pan of diatomaceous earth for dust bathing is to invite them to breathe clouds of abrasive, damaging dust.
Adding fragrant dried herbs (catnip, lavender, sage, oregano, rosemary, basil, pennyroyal, wormwood, yarrow) to your nesting boxes and replenishing them when the fragrance fades is a much more effective way of preventing pests in the coop, either in the bedding or nesting boxes. Essential oils of these herbs used sparingly, such as a dab on the wall, are another option.
Chicken challenges happen. What to do.
Feathers get damaged over time. Molting is the process during which chickens lose their feathers and grow new ones. It usually occurs once or twice a year. Sometimes it is gradual and slow. Sometimes it is dramatic.
One morning you go into the coop and there are feathers everywhere! You’re sure something has gotten into your coop and made off with one of your birds. But wait! The head count shows no one is missing, but one bird looks absolutely wretched! This is often called a “hard molt.”
During molting, chickens can be more vulnerable to illness. You can help.
Feed high protein supplements - such as mealworms, tuna, etc. in very small amounts.
Remember that a chicken eats only about ½ cup of food per day. It is recommended to give no more than a TBSP of other foods as it risks unbalancing the nutrition of her high quality layer mix.
Don’t handle the hens unless it is really necessary. Feathers come in surrounded by a rigid shaft of keratin as you can see in Butterscotch's picture above. It is painful for hens to have these feathers pushed about. If they get broken, they will bleed.
Chickens operate primarily on instinct and they are opportunistic omnivores. Their first approach to anything is - Can I eat it?
They peck at anything that might be food. They seem particularly tuned in to the color red and if there is blood, they cannot be deterred. If one of your chickens is injured, the others will peck at the blood, worsening the injury and can ultimately kill the injured bird. They are not being cruel. They are just doing what chickens do.
They also peck to establish their place in the flock. This type of pecking can be worsened if there is not enough roosting space or not enough space for birds of lower rank to get away from those at the top. This type of pecking can worsen and become entrenched behavior. Once pecking causes an injury, it is a serious problem. It is best to notice it right away and eliminate the cause.
Flock behavior is a way that certain species of birds survive. Even the chicken at the very bottom of the “pecking order” has a place.
However, if the flock is stressed, it can become a habit or way of coping. It can cause escalating stress as well as injury to your birds.
If you have a hen who is continually bullying others, it can be helpful to move her out of sight of the others for a few days. This can be accomplished with a dog crate with a sheet over one sight so they can’t see each other. When reintroduced, the pecking order will be changed and her position will be reset.
Injuries can be caused by pecking, overmating by a rooster, predator attacks, contact with a sharp object.
Chickens have an affinity for the color red. And they are omnivores. If an injury is visible, they will sometimes peck at a wound until they kill the injured bird. Keep the injured hen separate until the injury is healed. It can be helpful to keep a folding dog crate on hand to deal with such situations, as well as feeders that can be used in the crate.
If there is bleeding, use styptic powder to stop it. This will not stop pecking but it will stop blood flow. Some people say that cornstarch or white flour can be used. Styptic powder is inexpensive and a very smart thing to have on hand. It stops bleeding immediately.
Each injury is unique. Bandaging is pretty much a losing game.
Some injuries can be covered by an apron and thus protected. If you choose to keep an injured hen with the flock, you MUST keep a very close eye on her to make sure the wound is not being reopened by pecking.
Sometimes the hen will peck at the injury herself and it will not be able to heal.
Buffy, had an injury under her wing, caused by a large and clumsy young rooster who adored her just a little too much. She pecked at her injury off and on for a couple of days.
This did not seem to cause bleeding so I left her alone. After a couple of days, she stopped pecking at it. The 4” long gash, located along her side, was problematic because big movements such as fluttering up or down from the roost would open the wound again. For some time, I kept her in a crate so that she did not have the opportunity to reinjure herself.
Because it was out of sight under her apron, I put her back in with the flock as soon as the skin had closed over the injury.
If the injury is severe enough that your hen cannot move or feed properly, you will need to consider euthanizing her. If she can feed and have a safe place in which to heal, it is pretty amazing how quickly a chicken can heal even a serious injury.
Mites are parasites that take up residence on chickens.
If you move their feathers out of the way, you will spot them under the wings and around their bottoms. Good hygiene can help to prevent them.
When I clean the coop, I dust the edges (where the wall meets the floor) with a little diatomaceous earth. I use a kitchen shaker for this - such as a large empty spice jar with big holes. Wear a mask as it is harmful for you to breathe it. Then add bedding as normal. Diatomaceous earth dehydrates all life stages of mites and helps to prevent them from breeding in tight, damp spots. It also dries out those corners that tend to be a bit damp.
Diatomaceous earth is not harmful for chickens to eat, but is damaging to their lungs. Do not use it for dust baths. Diatomaceous earth is not recommended because it has minute sharp edges and can be very irritating to chicken (and your) lungs and eyes.
Don’t be afraid of the deep litter method in winter. If you add clean shavings when it becomes dirty, the balance of waste (nitrogen) to carbon (wood shavings) creates a natural biome that will help you to keep a clean, healthy coop. If you are seeing more than 50 / 50 manure to shavings ratio, it’s time for more shavings. Toss some shavings on top of the places where waste accumulates under the roosting bars. If there is a strong ammonia odor, you need to add shavings or clean the coop.
Provide dust baths for the chickens all year around. In summer, they will create dust baths by digging outdoors. In winter, provide a tub with 3 or 4 inches of play sand (without salt or additives). I use a deep rubber feed tub. Keep a cat litter scoop on hand to clean out bits of poo that get dropped in there. Add more sand as the level gets low.
There are several products available for treating for dust mites. Some require an egg withdrawal period. Elector PSP features Spinosad soap which is safer for your chickens and the environment. Plus there is no period of time during which you must discard the eggs after treatment (egg withdrawal period).
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