Gettin’ Down and Dirty …

For chickens, a day at the spa involves less water and a lot more dirt.

When I think of “freshening up,” rolling around in the dirt is not the first method that comes to mind. For Cabbage and the other Girls, however, it’s their go-to move for when they really want to spiff themselves up.

The good news is that with this drought situation we’re having in California, I don’t have to use water to wash my flock of hens. The bad news is their dust-bathing locations of choice often are at the base of recently planted shrubs or flowers, or on one particularly tragic day, Cabbage’s decision to bathe in my beautifully designed little tub of succulents. It took a bit of self-control not to turn her dust bath into a dirt nap, no matter how cute it was that she fit so neatly into the tub or how much she was enjoying herself.

Even though rolling in dirt to get clean seems counterintuitive, the process helps keep the Girls healthy. Dust baths keep away numerous parasites with disgusting names: red mites, scaly leg mites, northern fowl mites, chigger mites, body lice, head lice … lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Giving Cabby and her sisters access to their favorite spa area is no big whoop during the dry months, but when it finally rains (where exactly is this El Niño everyone keeps talking about?) and they’re cooped up in their … uh … coop, I need to give them a good place to clean up and get rid of those icky bugs.

Enter the dust box. Awhile back, I scored a few hundred 1×6 redwood fence posts, which I have used for anything but fencing. For my seven hens, I made the box two boards high (about 11 inches), 3 feet long and 2 feet wide. It takes up just one corner of their coop, and when filled several inches deep with equal parts sand, soil and food-grade diatomaceous earth, it gives the ladies a lovely place to scrub up. Heck, if I threw in an illuminated mirror and an electrical outlet for a blowdryer, I might be tempted to … actually, nah.

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Speaking of food-grade diatomaceous earth (and yes, it must be food-grade), sprinkling it in their nest boxes and inside the henhouse helps keep those gnarly bugs away. DE is the fossilized remains of tiny sea critters called “diatoms.” It kills insects when its razor-sharp edges scratch up the bugs’ protective coating, causing them to dry out, die and crumble away to nothingness. Awesome, right? Best part? Totally nontoxic to people and animals. We could even sprinkle it on our cereal. You can also use it for earwigs, fleas and bedbugs. Cool stuff. But I digress.

By setting up a dust box in The Girls’ coop, I can prevent those gross, disgusting lice and mites from getting a stronghold during those times when weather or a predator baby-boom make it necessary to keep them inside for prolonged periods.

Happy, dusty hens equals more eggs for me, which equals quiche for everyone! It’s a winning equation.

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