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If you keep chickens, you have to accept that at some point you are going to be faced with various pests or diseases. Lice, mites, and Scaley Mites are just three such pests that you need to be vigilant for.
I have been keeping chickens for over 20 years, and I spend much of my time these days giving chicken keeping and breeding talks at clubs and shows around the country.
The subject of chicken lice makes a regular appearance in the Q&A sessions at the end of each talk.
In this article, I will share some of my own personal experiences on how best to identify, treat and prevent chicken lice in your flock.
Chicken lice are essentially small, external parasites that live on chickens, feeding on their dead skin, blood, and other debris around the base of the chicken’s feathers. Chicken lice flourish in warm conditions and left unchecked they multiply quickly. Chicken lice are not contagious to people, and if they get on your skin they will do you no harm.
What Are Chicken lice?
Chicken lice (or avian lice to be more accurate) are small-bodied creatures that usually measure around 3.0mm to 3.5mm in length.
There are in fact several different species of lice that can live on your chickens, and the different species will often live on different parts of the chicken’s body. There are lice that choose to live on or around the chicken’s head and neck, some that lives mainly on the chicken’s body, and even one that chooses to live primarily on the chicken’s wings.
1. Chicken body louse; 2. Shaft louse; 3. Fluff louse; 4. Chicken head louse; 5. Menacanthus cornutus; 6. Chicken wing louse
For the purpose of this article, we will assume that any louse that may be living on any part of your chicken requires the same action.
Where do chicken lice come from?
There are essentially two major sources of chicken lice when it comes to our backyard flocks becoming infested.
The first, and to be honest the main source in my experience, are wild birds. Wild birds are notorious for introducing many different pests and diseases into our flocks.
Chicken lice are easily transferred between the wild birds and our chickens, especially if there is close contact between two birds.
The lice can also be spread from a wild bird if the wild birds use the chicken’s feeder, which is probably the most common way the lice are transferred.
The second major source of lice is when we introduce new birds to our flock without proper quarantining of the new hens.
If the new hens being added to the flock already have lice, even in very low numbers, the lice will quickly spread from one hen to another, usually when the hens are roosting side by side at night, or when an infected hen leaves the nest box and another hen heads in and sits in the same spot.
There is a third way we sometimes see lice spreading, and that is when we borrow equipment from fellow chicken keepers. Chicken crates, which are used to transport birds, are a classic way by which lice can spread between flocks that otherwise would never come into contact.
How Can We Prevent chicken lice?
Total prevention is hard, but not impossible. It usually requires us to be vigilant and ensure we employ good hygiene practices.
In my experience, there are 5 things we can do to reduce the chances of our chickens becoming infested with lice. They are;
Keep wild birds away
If we know that wild birds are the primary source of lice, then the best way to prevent lice is to keep wild birds away from our flock.
This is often easier said than done.
The only way I have found to truly keep all wild birds away is to cover my entire chicken runs in debris netting (which is also sold under the names scaffold netting, shade netting, or construction netting). I recently purchased this roll from Amazon.com.
Providing you fit the netting over the entire run, and secure it well using zip ties or something similar, there is no way wild birds can come into contact with your chickens.
Other ways to keep wild birds away include hanging old CDs or other shiny objects around the perimeter of the run or placing plastic replicas of predator birds like hawks or eagles on the top of the run.
In my experience, anything other than a well-fitted net is just a temporary solution.
Provide a good dust bath
Dust bathing is the way chickens have evolved to deal with lice and mites and ensuring your chickens have access to a good dust bath all year round is essential.
Chickens will make a dust bath wherever they live, although to make a proper one, the ground has to be permanently dry and dusty.
When placed in a new run, the chickens will often identify a spot where they will scratch and roll around, breaking the surface of the dirt and creating a slight dip. This will become their dust bath.
If your chickens do not have access to an area of dirt that remains dry all year round, then you will need to provide them with a dedicated dust bath.
I have found that large kitty litter trays filled with either chinchilla sand or diatomaceous earth make the best dust baths.
Diatomaceous earth is a special type of dirt that consists of the fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled microalgae.
When chickens dust bath in diatomaceous earth, the hard, sharp pieces that make up the diatomaceous earth actually piece the lice, killing them.
Dust baths in general help the chicken dislodge any parasites living on them, including lice. The dust also dries any excess oils that may be on the chicken feathers, helping keep the birds in good condition generally.
Quarantine new hens
Quarantining new hens is simply the process of keeping new hens separately from the main flock for a week or two before mixing them, just do ensure the new hens do not introduce any unwanted pests or diseases to your existing flock.
I always recommend the new birds live in a separate coop and run for at least 1 week, but 2 weeks is better, just so you can assess them can check for any unwanted pests.
Bringing new hens in from another flock and adding them to your existing birds is a classic way to spread lice.
Don’t borrow equipment from others
Much like introducing birds from another flock is a great way to spread lice, so is borrowing equipment from another homesteader.
Borrowing equipment is a good way to save money, especially if you are only borrowing the equipment for a one-off task.
However, whenever you borrow anything that has come into contact with birds from another flock, there is a chance to cross-contaminate your own birds.
I would always recommend sterilizing any equipment borrowed from a fellow chicken keeper.
Keep the chicken coop clean
My final tip for preventing lice from spreading around your flock is to keep the chicken coop, and especially the nestboxes as clean as possible.
Lice spread easily from bird to bird either when the hens are in close contact, or when they are sitting in the nestbox.
Lice like a warm, slightly damp environment, and when they are not physically on a hen, they will love the warm, damp conditions a dirty coop provides. A clean coop is usually dry and lice do not enjoy living in dry conditions.
What are the signs a chicken has lice?
There are a number of different symptoms to look out for that might indicate your chickens have lice.
Some of these symptoms are common with other pests too and almost all of these symptoms are common if a chicken has mites (which in many ways are similar to lice).
The main symptoms of lice on chickens are:-
If you believe your chickens might have lice, pick one of the hens up and part her feathers. Lice will typically scurry away quickly when the quills of the feathers are exposed to light.
How long do chicken lice live?
Chicken lice have a fairly short life span, and they have to cram a lot into the time they are alive.
It takes around 4 or 5 days for the lice to hatch from their eggs. The exact time depends on environmental factors like temperature.
Once hatched, the young lice, known as nymphs, spend between 8 and 12 days living in this immature life stage. During this period the nymph molts 3 times, growing in size slightly with each molt.
After the final molt, the lice are adults and they live for around 12 to 14 days as adults, feeding on the dead skin cells, blood, and other bits of debris they find around the base of the chicken’s feathers.
During the adult stage of their lives, the female lice lay between 1 and 2 eggs each day.
Normally an individual louse will spend its entire life on the original host bird, although they do occasionally transfer to another chicken, which is how they spread.
How to treat chickens for lice?
In my experience, by far the best way to treat a flock of chickens that have chicken lice is to provide the birds with a dust bath that has very fine sand or diatomaceous earth (or a blend of the two) in it.
Dust bathing is a chicken’s equivalent of us taking a shower. The dust helps dry out and dislodge any external parasites living on the chickens, including lice and mites.
Dust baths also help prevent a very small number of lice living on a chicken from becoming an infestation. Chickens can cope with a small number of lice, it just becomes a problem when the number swells due to the close quarters that we typically keep our chickens in.
Sometimes you may need to resort to chemical treatments to rid your chickens of lice. I like to use natural treatments where ever possible, and I have had great success using Premo Guard Poultry Spray which is both natural and non-toxic.
With the Premo Guard spray, you spray the birds every 2 to 3 days until the lice have all gone, and you spray the coop once or twice a week as a preventative measure. I typically spray the coop every time I clean it out.
There are other chemical treatments for lice, but I am not a fan of using anything that means I can’t eat the eggs during or immediately after treatment.
How to deter chicken lice in the first place?
There are a number of practices we can all put into place that helps deter lice (as well as other parasites like mites) from wanting to infest our chickens in the first place.
Change the nestbox material frequently
As mentioned above, one way in which lice spread between birds is when the hens are sitting in their nest boxes. By changing the nestbox bedding frequently you reduce the chances the lice will be living in the bedding waiting for a new host.
If you know you have chicken lice, consider burning the nestbox material rather than adding it to the compost pile.
Pour boiling water into coop cracks and crevices
If you have a timber coop with wooden nestboxes, consider carefully pouring a little boiling water into the cracks and crevices each time you clean out the nest boxes.
Many pests live in these cracks during the day, only venturing out after dark. Pouring boiling water will kill off most pests on contact.
Seal up any cracks around the nest boxes
Even better than having to pour boiling water into the crack and crevices is sealing them up altogether.
There are a number of ways you can seal cracks in wooden nest boxes, but I personally prefer to use a two-part filler that goes off quickly and sets rock hard.
Try to avoid using silicone-based fillers that create a rubbery seal. There is a good chance the chickens will peck at it, and small pieces can look like worms when they break off, and the chickens might be tempted to eat them.
Use hemp bedding
There is a lot of talk in the industry recently about the benefits of using hemp bedding in nest boxes.
There are claims the natural aroma of hemp bedding deters many pests, including lice and mites.
Hemp bedding is a little more expensive than some of the traditional nestbox bedding materials, but if it helps keep the chickens happy and healthy, it is probably worth the extra cost.
Can People Catch Lice from chickens?
No, people can not catch lice from chickens. The species of lice that live on chickens can not live off of humans, and if a louse climbs onto you from one of your hens, it will soon die without a suitable food source.
Chicken lice are a constant problem for homesteaders, but with a little planning, some ingenuity, and a dose of observations, we can spot the early signs of lice and treat our birds accordingly.
I am a big fan of covering my runs with netting to prevent wild birds from mixing with my hens, and I also take quarantining new birds seriously.
If you do spot signs that your chickens may have lice, take steps to cure the issue and you should find the lice go quite quickly.
If you found this article helpful, why not check out another I wrote recently titled ‘Are My Chickens Bored?’.
- Lice – British Hen Welfare Trust
- Diatomaceous earth – Wikipedia
- Pyrethrins – National Pesticide Information Center
- Menoponidae – Wikipedia.com