There are a number of external parasites that affect chickens. I’ve already posted about scaly leg mites and lice. This piece will cover two of the most common types of mites in North America: Northern Fowl Mites (Ornithonyssus sylviaru) and Red Mites (Dermanyssus gallinae).
If you’ve seen your birds frantically bite at their feet or bodies and dust bathing with a vengeance then that’s a sure sign they are hosts to external parasites. You might even see tiny dark-coloured bugs when you are collecting eggs or, even worse, crawling on you after cleaning the coop or handling your birds. Mites are a perennial problem: I don’t think we can ever get rid of them entirely because they are brought into our pens and coops by wild birds, rodents and sometimes even by us.
One of the challenges of dealing with mites is you often don’t notice them until there are a lot and then you’ll be working hard to eradicate them. At that point, you will see them in your birds’ feathers and running along their skin. Mites survive by sucking blood which can cause pain and stress for your flock. The goal is to keep on top of things so there isn’t an outbreak and infestation, which can result in severe blood loss and potentially, death.
Northern Fowl Mite spend their short life cycle of about four days entirely on their host. Off the birds, mites might live as long as four weeks, depending on the temperature and humidity. They prefer cool weather and lay their eggs on feather shafts. Can transmit Fowl Pox and Newcastle Disease.
Red Poultry Mite are found around the vent, breast and legs. They live in the environment (i.e. nest boxes, roost bars, crevices in the coop walls) during the day and come out to feed on chicken blood at night. They have a short life cycle and reach adulthood in less than two weeks. You are most likely to see them in summer as they prefer high humidity temperatures and are able to survive for up to nine months without feeding. Can transmit Fowl Cholera.
Both types of mites can be grey or black, turning red after a meal. NF mites are smaller than red mites.
NF mites can be seen any time of the day or night, while red mites are active at night. The best time to spot any mites is at night: go out to your coop at bedtime and, wearing a head lamp, check around your birds’ vents and under their wings, looking for thick, crusty skin, scabbing and soiled feathers. Spread their feathers, where mites live, and you may see tiny dark, slow moving bugs or bundles of whitish eggs along the feather shafts near the vent. Another trick is to place a piece of double-sided tape on your coop wall – come back later and see if you can spot any mites and what kind.
- dull/missing feathers
- anemia (pale comb and wattles)
- soiled feathers around the vent
- reluctance to go into the coop or onto the roost bars at night
- restlessness at night
- decreased egg production
- feather picking
- increasing dust bathing
- picking at their feet and bodies
Since NF mites spend their whole lives on the bird they are easier to treat than red mites which may be hiding in the shavings of nest boxes and coop floor, roost bars and crevices in the walls. For any kind of external parasite you’ll want to treat both the birds and the environment.
- Practice good biosecurity (i.e. quarantine new birds and be careful not to spread parasites between sites)
- Clean out your coop regularly and dispose of bedding where your birds don’t have access to it. After an infestation burn the bedding, if possible.
- Several times a year do a major clean which includes hosing down your nest boxes and coop walls
- Hang mesh bags with powdered sulphur in the coop, an effective way to eradicate NF mites
- Ivermectin: apply topically and repeat in 10-14 days (click here for more information on recommended dosage)
- Elector PSP spray
- Fipronil 7.5mg/kg spray on skin, repeat in 30 days
- Malathion spray
- Garlic spray: 10% garlic solution diluted with water, spray on vent and abdomen at one week intervals for three weeks
- There are a number of essential oils (e.g. lavender, oregano, cinnamon and thyme) which you can make into sprays, or dry herbs and add to the nest box bedding
- Add diatomaceous earth, sand and wood ashes to their dust bath
- Implement strategies to deter rodents in your coop and pen
Specifically for red mites:
- Whitewash or marine paint coop walls to minimize crevices
- If your coop floor is plywood put down sheet linoleum which makes it easier to clean and minimizes places red mites can hide
- Use permethrin or pyrethrin sprays on the roost bars, coop walls and nest boxes. Make sure your coop is well ventilated do it in the morning to ensure it’s aired out before the birds return for the night
- Dust your birds with insecticidal powders. Be careful as their respiratory systems are sensitive to dust. Do not use carbaryl (Sevin) which is a carcinogen and banned in many places
- Sprinkle diatomaceous earth (DE) around the coop and in the nest boxes
When using insecticidal powders and sprays be careful to use them according as instructed and make sure the coop is well ventilated. Check for guidelines around egg withdrawal times.
Like with most things: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Practice good biosecurity and good husbandry, keep on top of what’s going in your flock and deal with parasites proactively.
I’m not very knowledgeable in the use of herbs to treat parasites, but there is clear evidence that many alternatives to insecticides are effective, including the use of turmeric and wormwood. This article provides more detailed information.