Audrey Pavia
June 14, 2010

Chicken coop

Photo by Audrey Pavia

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Our coop: the mites’ lair.

We’ve had Gwennyth Poultry the longest of all our hens, so she has a special place in my heart. She doesn’t mind being picked up and held, and loves to eat mealworms from my hand. So when she started spending entire days huddled in the nest box, I got worried. She wasn’t being broody—no eggs were forthcoming. She clearly didn’t feel well.
I decided to take her to my sister, Heidi, who is a veterinarian. Heidi noticed that Gwenny’s right eyelid was swollen, and prescribed an antibiotic eye ointment, along with an oral antibiotic. We could have drawn blood and done X-rays, but Gwenny was still eating and pooping, so we decided to go the conservative (read “cheaper”) route.
The best time to snag a free-ranging chicken for medicating is after sundown when they are roosting, so the next night, Randy and I went out to the coop to get Gwenny. I carried her into my tack shed so we’d have light, and that’s when I noticed them: little red bugs running frantically around her face.

“Dammit,” I said to Randy. “The chickens have mites.”
It just so happens I had just written an article on external parasites for Chickens magazine, so I knew what I was dealing with. These were clearly chicken mites, which live and breed in the wood of the coop and come out at night to feed on the chickens. They can cause a chicken to become lethargic, and make the whole flock stop laying. Is that why we hadn’t gotten any eggs in the past couple of weeks?
I don’t believe in using pesticides on my urban farm, so I had to figure out how I was going to tackle this. The only way to kill the things without spraying the coop with poison is to use something called diatomaceous earth, aka DE.

This is interesting stuff. It’s basically the fossilized remains of prehistoric algae that has disintegrated into powder. Because of its microscopically sharp edges, it slices up the outside of the bugs and kills them. It’s all natural and doesn’t hurt the chickens.

The catch is that it’s hard to find. I called Home Depot, and they said they had it. So I drove over there only to find that they had “pool” DE, which is different than “food” DE. The pool DE causes cancer. The other one is so harmless you can eat it. Guess which one you are supposed to use on chickens?
Good thing for the Internet. After two hours of driving around trying to find the right kind, I came home, searched the ’net and found out I could get it through Imagine that!
The next task was Randy’s. He had to clean out the entire coop, scrub all the wood with soapy water, replace the bedding and then use a flour sifter to send a shower of DE all over the coop. For good measure, Heidi prescribed Ivermectin for the flock to kill any mites that survived the DE and dared to bite the chickens. This meant giving a small dose of the liquid to each chicken while they were roosting. Yeah, they loved that.
It’s only been a few days, but so far, so good. I haven’t seen any mites. Gwenny is out running around with the flock now, and some eggs have started to appear in the nest boxes. Fingers crossed we killed the suckers.

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