Hobby and backyard flocks are popular because they provide access to fresh eggs and meat for the home and offer the potential to sell the excess for profit. Free-range flocks offer the added benefit of working as natural pest control by eating bothersome insects such as ticks, mosquitoes and more.
“A number of parasites attack poultry by either sucking blood or feeding on the skin, feathers or scales on the skin,” says Jacquie Jacob, Ph.D., at the University of Kentucky.
Parasites that live outside the bird’s body are called ectoparasites. These pests leave unsightly marks on the bird, impact health and reduce egg production or diminish the carcass value. Ectoparasites are classified as either continuous or temporary: Continuous parasites spend their entire adult life on the host whereas temporary parasites feed on the host and live elsewhere.
The most common continuous parasites include sticktight fleas, northern fowl mites, scaly leg mites and chicken lice, while fowl ticks, chicken mites and bed bugs are the most prevalent temporary parasites. “Generally, these species have a worldwide distribution,” says Amy Murillo, Ph.D., at the University of California, Riverside. “It doesn’t seem to matter where those birds live.”
Regular inspection of the flock is the only method for confirming and controlling the presence of parasites. In this article, Jacob and Murillo offer tips on how to identify these parasites in your flock and share their expertise for ridding these pests from your flock.
Inspect your flock at least once a month. Ideally, all birds should be examined; however, if it’s a large flock or it’s too difficult to catch all the birds, focus on the males, birds that look ill or birds with damaged or commercially trimmed beaks.
“It is unlikely that ectoparasites will be equally distributed among a flock, and these birds are most likely to harbor detectable levels,” Murillo says. “Regularly monitoring the birds will help you catch an infestation early, which will make it easier to control.”
Fortunately, each poultry parasite is distinctive and, after learning what to look for, can be easily identified.
Sticktight fleas are the easiest parasite to identify and can be spotted without handling the bird. They burrow around the bird’s eyes and wattles, where they lay eggs.
“Look for small brown insects that look like dots clinging to or embedded in the fleshy part of the chicken’s head around the eye,” Jacob says.
Severe infestations can cause blindness or even kill young birds. Chickens raised in wire cages 3 to 4 feet off the floor aren’t prone to sticktight fleas, but because most hobby flocks are cage-free and/or free-range, this parasite can become problematic.
Fleas are obvious through observation, but to detect other parasites, the birds must actually be handled.
Northern Fowl Mites
The most prevalent poultry parasite, these blood suckers are found in flocks around the country, but they prefer cooler climates and are most troublesome in the winter and spring months. They cause anemia, weight loss, decreased carcass quality and reduced egg production. “Mites are fast, scurrying specks in the vent region,” Jacob says.
Look for dark or dirty-looking feathers in that vent region as this is a classic sign of northern fowl mites, according to Murillo. “That dirty look is caused by the cast skins, feces and eggs of the mites,” she says.
Scaly Leg Mites
Apropos of their name, these mites prefer the birds’ legs to the vent areas. They burrow into the scales of the toes and lower legs, aka shanks. “This causes the scales to bulge out and causes deformities in the legs and toes,” Jacob says.
Lice are the final type of continuous parasite that commonly affect poultry flocks. Inspect the bird’s skin, breast and under the wings. “Look for small, yellow-brown, cigar-shaped, quick-moving insects,” Jacob says.
“Start in the vent region,” Murillo says, “and work around the body up to the top of the head. Part the feathers and look for any scurrying lice.” Louse eggs are attached in clumps to feathers and they may be found all over the body.
All of the previously mentioned ectoparasites are considered continuous parasites and live on the bird for their entire life cycle. Fowl ticks, chicken mites and bed bugs, however, feed on poultry flocks but live elsewhere. “Off-host pests live near the birds in cracks or crevices in the environment,” Murillo says. “This may include in nest boxes or near perches.”
Examine these potential hiding spots with a flashlight, and also directly examine the birds at night when these ectoparasites are active.
Also called blue ticks, these are very different from the ticks found on cats and dogs. “These ticks have a soft, wrinkled body and range from a light to dark reddish brown,” Jacob says. “They lay their eggs in batches and can be found in clumps all over the bird.”
Chicken mites are tiny but can be seen with the naked eye. They’re often confused with northern fowl mites, but these pests don’t live on the bird. These mites run across the bird’s skin and feathers. “Chicken mites are typically found in large numbers,” Jacob says.
Bed bugs are also usually found in large numbers. “The adult is reddish brown, and the immatures are off-white in color,” Jacob says, noting that the symptoms of these three parasites are similar in nature. “Birds will have bloody lesions of various sizes depending on the parasite that fed on them.”
Prevention is the most effective control for parasites. Management tactics and biosecurity practices reduce the opportunity for the introduction or spread of parasites in your flock. Understanding how each parasite is introduced into a flock is key to preventing it from overtaking your birds. “Sticktight fleas are tricky because they can infest rodents and other wild animals,” Murillo says. “Try to prevent these animals from coming in contact with your flock.”
Seal cracks or crevices in the coop where these animals can potentially enter. Clean the house regularly, and store any extra feed in sealed containers so that rodents aren’t attracted to the coop area. “Mites are likely coming in from wild birds and their nests, so keep these away from your flock,” she says.
Discourage wild birds from building nests in the proximity of your flock’s living quarters, but remember that wild birds aren’t the only potential source of introduction. “The parasites can also be picked up at poultry shows,” Jacob says. “Limiting contact with other birds at shows is important to protecting your flock.”
Lice are species-specific, so infestations are probably coming from other chickens. Examine and quarantine new birds to the flock. “It’s also important to remember that many external parasites live part of their life cycle off the bird in the environment so these areas should be treated during an outbreak as well,” Jacob says.
Providing chickens access to a dust bath can provide a natural, organic alternative to limiting parasite infestations.
“As part of my Ph.D. research, we tested the use of [food-grade] diatomaceous earth for ectoparasite control,” Murillo says, “[DE] is made of microscopic sharp particles, which damages the exoskeleton of the ectoparasites.” She recommends mixing 6 cups DE with 25 pounds of washed play sand in a plastic container, such as a child’s swimming pool or a cement-mixing bin. “Simply dusting the birds or the environment is not enough to control ectoparasites,” she says. “The birds must dust bathe in the material, which really gets the DE into the feathers.”
The dust mixture has not had negative side effects on the birds, but the DE may bother humans when used in poorly ventilated areas. Murillo encourages keepers to wear dust masks when handling the dust mixture to prevent respiratory irritation.
Beak trimming is another management practice that can naturally reduce pest pressures. In commercial poultry operations it’s common practice to trim birds’ beaks when they are young. “This is done to prevent injury or cannibalism among birds, which is common,” Murrillo says. “In just the last couple of years, new more-welfare-friendly methods have been developed to trim the beaks.”
Recent research also indicates while new methods are friendlier to the birds, it’s also helpful in controlling parasites. “In my research, we found that this new method, which leaves longer, more intact beaks, allows birds to groom ectoparasites like mites and lice more effectively,” Murillo says.
Even though backyard and hobby flocks rarely have their beaks trimmed, this is important to keep in mind for birds that have naturally uneven or broken beaks. “Birds that have gaps or misalignment between the upper and lower beak may harbor higher populations of mites or lice because they are not able to groom as well,” Murillo says.
Aside from the “ick” factor to overcome when handling birds plagued with parasite infestations, there is no need to worry about transferring the pests from bird to human handler. “Most poultry parasites are poultry-specific, though in a heavy infestation they can transfer to humans and cause irritation,” Jacob says. “They normally can’t live off of an avian host.”
“Lice may crawl on people when heavily infested birds are handled, but will quickly fall off and die,” Murillo says. “This is true also for mites, though mites are general bird parasites and may infest other birds.” Sticktight fleas are the exception: They aren’t chicken-specific and can infest rodents, cats and other birds.
Drops in egg production and lethargy because of anemia or feather loss are possible indications that your flock may be suffering from a parasite infestation. Rather than waiting for these outward signals, regularly inspect your flock for parasites. It’s not only good animal husbandry, it’s also important for meat birds as there are few products that can be used on birds destined for human consumption.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.