Poultry mites, chicken mites, bird mites; whatever you call them, they are tiny but vicious. Here’s how I tackled an infestation of these bird mites without resorting to harsh chemicals.
Harvesting eggs from your flock? Be sure to save the shells for the garden!
Dealing with bird mites in your poultry flock
Bird mites come in several different varieties, but suffice to say, they are a chicken owner’s nightmare. We’ve had issues with poultry mites a handful of times over the past twenty years, but this past week I’ve seen our worst infestation yet.
One of our hens has been broody, sitting on a clutch of eggs. I made the mistake of allowing her to sit in one of the nesting boxes. The other hens didn’t seem to mind climbing in with her to lay their eggs, so it fell to me to pick her up a couple of times a day to remove the new eggs.
Signs of mites
Several days ago I realized that she had poultry mites, so I sprinkled the nest with diatomaceous earth. When her chicks hatched a couple of days later, I realized that this was not just a few bird mites, but a serious infestation.
I’d noticed that her comb was pale and dry looking, but what I’d attributed to broodiness was actually a symptom of the chicken mite infestation. I couldn’t touch her or the chicks without getting mites on myself. And she was sick. Her first time off the nest after the chicks hatched, she was stumbling and struggling to walk.
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I’m sure that hunkering down for weeks to hatch eggs exacerbated the problem. She wasn’t dust-bathing. She wasn’t preening. She was pretty much the perfect host for these pests.
Where do bird mites come from?
Wild birds and rodents bring in these minuscule pests and once they take hold, bird mites pass easily between hens as they share roosts and nesting boxes.
What kind of damage can bird mites do?
Mites are blood suckers and can cause anemia and a decrease in egg production. Hens suffering from chicken mites may become lethargic and their combs noticeably pale. Serious infestations can even cause death. And they bite. I can attest to this from my personal experience with them. Small, stinging bites that can last for a day or so.
How to get rid of chicken mites naturally
In two days we’ve gone from serious infestation, with chicken mites visibly crawling on the hen (and myself, when I’d get near her) to being able to pick her up without any mites transferring to me. She’s not completely clean yet, but I’m hopeful she will be soon, and that we can prevent any more of this grossness. Because man. It’s pretty gross.
A lot of poultry sites recommended using pesticides to combat the bird mites, but I prefer to avoid such harsh treatment if I can – this time especially so, since there were brand new chicks to think about. As I’m wont to do, when a big problem like this arises, I throw everything I’ve got at it. In other words, I did a number of things that collectively worked.
The first thing I did was to work out a system that kept the mites off of ME.
Before handling the bird mite infested hen, I put on disposable surgical gloves. I smeared coconut oil on the upper part of the gloves and on my wrists to stall them as they tried to move up my arms. The mites stayed mostly on the gloves with this method, though some did get past the barrier.
They are small and fast. Be prepared to dump your clothing right into the washing machine. Hit the shower as soon as you’re done treating the flock for chicken mites.
Treating the hen:
- I isolated the infected chicken and her chicks to avoid passing any more bird mites to the rest of the flock.
- A bath — or more accurately, two baths — in warm, soapy water was the next step. Even after two dunks I could still see lots of mites on her skin, though. I’m sure it helped, but this alone wouldn’t have done the trick. I followed her bath up by rubbing some Vet Rx under her wings, near her vent, and at a few other spots where I could reach her skin.
- I filled her box with fresh shavings tossed with a liberal dose of diatomaceous earth.
- I added a couple of cloves of crushed garlic and a teaspoon or two of apple cider vinegar to her water. (Ditto for the rest of the flock.) It’s good at supporting their immune system, plus I read that the garlic is toxic to parasites. Note: I did not take the time to research this in the midst of my infestation. It’s one of those things I figure can’t hurt.
Treating the coop:
Here’s where the problem lies. Chickens play host to mites, of course. But the cracks and crevices in the coop are also great hidey holes for mites and their eggs.
- I removed the bedding from all nesting boxes and raked out the floor to remove any bird mites that were harbored there.
- Killing all the mites hidden in the coop seemed like a difficult task. My friend Chris at Joybilee Farm suggested smoking them out with a very smoky herb burner if I could make the coop airtight. Chris’s suggestion gave me another idea: my weed burner. I ran the flame over all the nest boxes, inside and out, as well as any exposed wood. If you try this, make sure you don’t hold the flame in one spot long enough to actually catch the wood on fire. You do want it to really get hot, though. A second treatment a week later helped deal with any stragglers.
- I sprinkled a layer of agricultural hydrated lime on the floor and in the nesting boxes as suggested by the folks at Just Fowling Around. I covered this with a fresh layer of pine shavings.
- Finally, I dusted the nest boxes with diatomaceous earth and a little peppermint oil for good measure, then added fresh bedding.
Future prevention and maintenance:
- My friend Janet, the author of Chickens from Scratch: Raising Your Own Chickens from Hatch to Egg Laying and Beyond, tells me that bird mites will hide in the cracks of unfinished wood; she recommends painting all wood surfaces to prevent mite issues.
- We don’t have a wood stove yet, but I’ll try to create some wood ash in an outdoor fire pit and create a dedicated dust-bathing area with sand, ash, and diatomaceous earth. As it is now, the girls just dust bathe wherever the notion takes them; it would be good for them to have access to dust more suited to control of these pesky bird mites. (Ash is supposed to be really good at this.)
- At Janet’s suggestion, I’ll add some fragrant herbs like mint, thyme, basil and oregano to the nesting boxes to repel chicken mites in the future.
Hints & Tips for Keeping Chickens in Your Backyard
- How to Grow Fodder for Chickens
- Make a Chicken Swing
- Feeding Chickens on a Budget
- Butchering Chickens
- Mistakes I Made in the Chicken Coop
- Put Your Backyard Chickens to Work in the Garden
- Grazing Boxes for Chickens
- Plant a Chicken Garden
- Do Your Hens Need Supplemental Light?
- Chicken Coop Supplies
- Controlling Mites
- Keeping Chickens Cool in Extreme Heat
- Build a Chicken Coop Extension from Pallets
Originally published April 2016; this post has been updated.