The worst way I have ever seen an animal die—and as a hunter, angler and outdoor photographer, I know how cruel nature can be—is when Boss, my rooster, succumbed to fly-strike five years ago. To see maggots streaming out of the near-dead heritage Rhode Island Red rooster broke my heart.
I vowed then never to lose another chicken to this affliction. Last year, Boss’ successor, Don, was also hit by fly-strike. But this time, armed with knowledge, I reacted quickly and he survived. If your birds get hit with this awful affliction and you’re prepared, your birds can survive, too.
What It Is
Fly-strike, also known as myiasis or blowfly–strike, can occur in any animal, including humans. Botflies, blowflies and screwflies are among the culprits. Veterinarian Paul Stewart, who runs the Avian and Exotic Pet Clinic in Roanoke, Virginia, says the affliction usually starts from some underlying condition. For example, a chicken might have a wound, a cut, diarrhea, swelling, some sort of cold or disease, or, in the most mundane circumstance, merely have moist feces clinging to its vent area. In all these situations, flies might enter into a body opening or wound and lay their eggs, and then, after hatching in 24 hours or less, maggots begin feeding on the skin or insides of a live animal.
When the affliction felled Boss, I hadn’t heard of it and was unaware of the symptoms. One May evening, my alpha male seemed a little listless; the next morning, he came out of the henhouse without having crowed and sat down in a corner of the run. Boss’ much smaller brother, Johnny, then strolled over and began mercilessly pecking him on the head. Later, I learned that such signs as these—lethargy, loss of appetite, being bullied—are signs of fly-strike and, for that matter, all manners of chicken illnesses.
After removing Boss from the flock, I placed him in our chicken tractor and left food and water, laced with probiotics, for him. I also examined him but couldn’t see anything wrong. The next morning, my wife Elaine and I observed maggots streaming out of his vent; a fly or flies had evidently laid eggs in the moist droppings clinging to that area. Thirty minutes or so later, Boss died.
“Fly-strike is more of an opportunity disease,” Stewart says. “Flies will take advantage of a chicken that is sick or in some way debilitated. A high percentage of the time, flies lay their eggs in organic material such as feces. In short, flies are going to find that weak point or wound and take advantage of it.”
Preventative measures include periodic applications of poultry dust, keeping the run clean and planting various fly-repelling herbs. For example, myiasis is primarily a warm season disorder, so spring through fall I now frequently check our chickens for irritations anywhere on their bodies and also for gobs of droppings dangling from their vents. Chicks with pasty butt can also fall victim to fly-strike. Also, about once a month—especially in the summer—Elaine and I apply a poultry dust to feathers, working it in particularly under the wings.
Poultry dust brands typically feature permethrin as a main ingredient. Permethrin is a synthetic that originates from pyrethrin, a natural insect repellent found in chrysanthemums. It’s EPA-approved and has long been known to repel many kinds of biting or stinging insects.
Bud Wood, owner of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, says some chicken raisers might avoid using poultry dust products because they are basically an insecticide. As an alternative, Wood suggests that backyard growers bathe their birds with soap or a dishwashing detergent, which makes it much more difficult for creatures to cling to feathers. If maggots are present, chicken keepers can remove them by hand, although this obviously would take some time if thousands of maggots are present.
A prudent preventative measure is to place a dusting bin in a run, filled with equal parts of wood ashes and diatomaceous earth. During our weekly coup cleanings, Elaine and I remove all soiled litter and sweep out the henhouse, put in fresh straw, then spray an insecticide on all walls, perches and nest boxes. We then puff little clouds of diatomaceous earth over everything inside. Another measure is periodically raking up the poop within the coop and placing the manure in a compost bin.
Finally, maintain a chicken first-aid kit consisting of such items as poultry dust, petroleum jelly, salves, insecticides, diatomaceous earth and Blu-Kote (antiseptic wound dressing that helps prevent “picking”) and other ointments as well.
“Just like humans sometimes need emergency
first aid, so do chickens; and we might not have time to run to a store to buy something,” Wood says.
After Don’s fly-strike episode, I also planted a number of fly-repelling plants in the run. Of course, these plants didn’t eliminate all flies, but they do seem to help. Among the possibilities are lemon balm, lavender and sweet basil. Wood also suggests placing fly strips or traps within the henhouse.
Timing Is Crucial
Immediate treatment is essential with fly-strike. For example, in Don’s situation, on a Friday afternoon, he seemed to spend an unusual amount of time grooming himself, which I now believe must have been the first maggots hatching. The next day before dawn, I had not heard him crow all morning, which in itself became a cause for concern. When I opened the henhouse, our rooster was sitting in a nesting box instead of on his usual perch. I picked him up and saw about a half dozen newly hatched maggots squirming in the straw under him. I promptly took him out of the run.
“You should definitely separate a chicken from its flock in this situation,” Wood says. “Chickens are very cannibalistic, and all of them will peck on a bird that they sense has been weakened. A separated chicken will also heal much faster than it would if left with its flock.”
I then placed Don in the driveway and ran to retrieve the poultry dust, which I applied to his feathers and cloaca. Immediately, thousands of maggots began falling off the rooster, landing in the driveway and writhing in their death throes. Don stumbled about on the pavement as the maggots leaped off him. In the basement, I constructed a miniature chicken hospital—which for us is a green tarp covered with straw, encircled by a child-proof fence and topped with a screen. I also supplied some food and water.
Don spent most of Saturday sitting in a corner, but he did occasionally eat and drink—an encouraging sign. Elaine and I additionally sprayed his body, again concentrating on the vent area, with Vetericyn, which is designed to help chickens recover from pecking sores, abrasions, irritations and injuries. We also put electrolytes in his water.
On Sunday, Don became a little more active. As dawn broke on Monday, we heard two soft crows – a sure sign he was well on the way to recovery. Tuesday brought more vigorous crowing, and by Friday, he had returned to his flock.
An alpha rooster such as Don is more likely to better fend off these attacks—as well as recover sooner—than a cockerel, pullet or subordinate hen. In all circumstances, make sure your bird has completely healed before returning it to the flock.
Protecting the Rest of Your Flock
As soon as I had treated Don with poultry dust and confined him to his chicken hospital, I returned to the henhouse and commenced a thorough cleaning. I applied poultry dust to all of Don’s hens and thoroughly examined each one of them, searching especially for abrasions and moist droppings dangling from their vents.
I was relieved to find that none of the other birds was ill. I then cleaned the house as described earlier and raked the run of all droppings. Wood emphasizes that completing a thorough cleaning is essential after a fly-strike attack.
Fly-strike is an insidious affliction that can attack our chickens or any animal. Indeed, a good friend lost his elderly dog to blowfly-strike. I hope my experiences will help you protect your flock.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.