Chickens: Dust Baths and Boxes

I remember the first time I saw one of my pullets (female chicks) bathing. I thought she was dying! She was lying on her side sporadically scratching with one leg and flopping a wing around. When she flopped over and started doing it on the other side, I finally caught on to what she was doing.

All birds bathe in some fashion. Mike, my grandmother’s naughty green parrot, loved his daily shower in the bathtub. Even the pitiful birds in wire cages in the factory egg farms will try to bath each day—poor things.

My chickens are a little more down to earth. Before my husband built their dust box, they bathed in the dirt of the yard and the litter in the bottom of the coop. If they have been off the roost for a half hour before I open the coop for the day, I will see signs that they have been down in the pine shaving litter taking their first dust bath of the day.

Birds seem to enjoy bathing, but one of the most practical reasons for doingit, one that is hardwired into their peas-sized brains, is to control vermin. There is a pest that specializes in almost every part of a bird: head, neck, body, and even feather shafts! With even the cleanest coop and yard, chickens can pick up lice and mites from wild birds and other sources.

Why provide a special box for dust bathing when the birds already seem to be taking care of the job? I want to have a little more control over the bugs at all times of the year. My dust box is out in the chicken yard because it takes up too much floor space in the coop. I cover it with a plastic cement mixing trough when it looks like rain or snow. I keep it supplied with a mixture of sand or sandy soil and clean hardwood ash in a 6:1 ratio (six parts sand to one part ash). I also sift the mixture so that there are no chunks of charcoal or other matter that might damage their feathers.

When the birds bath in the dirt/sand and ash mixture, they scratch it up and puffit under their wings and through all of their body, neck, and head feathers. The ash coats their skin and feather shafts with a fine, base coating of ash that discourages bugs. Bugs breathe through little holes in their exoskeletons and the ash clogs these holes. The pH of the ash also may have some effect.

Two Is Company.

The dust box should have high sides and a rim that keeps dust from puffing out of the box too much. The box should be able to hold more than one bird at a time. My box is made of plywood and the edge on top is about two inches wide. The box is about30 in by 30 in. My husband used a pattern from an article in Backyard Chicken magazine. (This is a great publication. You can get a free copy by going to their website, , or by sending in a postcard  from one of those back-to-the-land postcard promotion packs.)

Our dust box had to be modified from the original pattern because my girls wouldn’t

Three Is a Crowd!

use it after the first try. We figured out that they didn’t like getting into something that they couldn’t stand up and see out of. I think it made them feel too vulnerable to predators.  As soon as five or six inches of height had been removed, they started fighting each other to get into it. They also seem to like to bathe in groups. Sometimes there will be three birds in the box at one time!

My girls enjoy their box many times a day and use it year round. They are beautiful healthy birds, and it is the least I can do for all that they give back to me in the form of eggs and enjoyment. Begonia

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