The News Hog: Bird Bugs

A new study finds external parasites are a problem for backyard chickens, but you don't need to worry—too much.

by Lisa Munniksma
PHOTO: David Goehring/Flickr

There’s something bugging backyard chickens: ectoparasites—fleas, lice and mites or any parasites that live outside of the chicken. You might have noticed your chickens seeming “off” at one time or another, being unusually irritated or having less egg production. You might have even seen bright-red mites on eggs you just collected. External parasites are a fact of life for chickens and livestock. They’re often dealt with by your birds without any intervention, and beyond that, they can be controlled and aren’t the end of the world.

University of California, Riverside, researchers studied 100 backyard chickens in 20 spots around Southern California during the summer and found that outdoor flocks are more likely to have ectoparasites than chickens kept indoors. This makes plenty of sense because chickens kept indoors for their whole lives aren’t exposed to most natural elements, whereas those with access to the outdoors get the good and the bad of the surrounding environment—of which parasites are a natural part. I don’t see the UCR finding as being terrible news, though it’s a topic that I think every chicken keeper should learn about for the health of your flock. I have personally dealt with mites on chickens, and those chickens have lived to tell the tale.

Reality Check

In this study, 16 of the 20 chicken-keeping properties surveyed had ectoparasites. On many properties, a few to a dozen individual parasites were found per bird, but some louse and flea species were “abundant”—meaning dozens to hundreds of individual parasites were present on some birds. Researchers even considered damage by one species of flea to be “severe” on two properties. One louse species in particular was most prevalent, found at half of the properties and on about one-third of the birds.

Three thoughts on this:

  • I’d really like to know what the four properties with no parasites at all are doing to eliminate the bugs on their birds! To have a flock that has access to the outdoors with no parasite issues at all is surprising.
  • I wonder if the owners of the two flocks that had severe flea infestations were aware that something was going wrong with their birds. I haven’t dealt with fleas, but I noticed mites on my chickens pretty quickly and dealt with them accordingly.
  • Taking the issue of ectoparasites with all due seriousness, I would still rather see birds be kept outdoors to roam, scratch, peck, socialize and be a chicken under the sun, rain and snow. Poultry have been dealing with ectoparasites since the beginning of time, and this is simply a matter of management.

Ban Parasites From Your Coop

When an external-parasite population gets out of control, it can decrease reproductive potential, egg production and weight gain in poultry. In very serious situations, it can also cause anemia and death. Some veterinarians suspect they play a role in transmitting diseases, such as encephalitis viruses, fowl pox virus and bacteria.

“Parasite diversity in peridomestic flocks greatly exceeds what is routinely observed on commercial chicken flocks and highlights a need for increased biosecurity and development of ectoparasite control options for homeowners,” the study reports. I definitely agree with this statement. External parasites are a reality, but there are things that can be done to reduce their populations:

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  • Bring only parasite-free birds into your flock.
  • Examine coops and nest boxes and keep them clean, as parasites live in the cracks and crevices.
  • Practice common-sense biosecurity. Don’t share equipment between flocks. Don’t allow visitors to your flock who have been with other flocks.
  • If you visit other flocks, change your clothing and footwear.
  • Inspect your chickens, coop and nest boxes regularly, both during the day and at night, as some external parasites are nocturnal.
  • Provide areas for your birds to have dust baths. If you find you have an ectoparasite infestation, include diatomaceous earth in the dust baths to kill parasites.
  • When ectoparasites are present, spray or dust the birds, coop and nest boxes with organic or synthetic compounds designed for ectoparasite control. Ask your vet about these, and follow the instructions carefully! Both the organic and the synthetic chemicals are powerful products.

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