Even if your chickens have lovely fluffy, feathery bottoms
and look perfectly fine, they probably harbor lice. Your hens usually keep their parasite load to a healthy minimum by taking dust baths and preening. But, in the winter, when there’s snow on the ground and no place to get good and dirty, and it’s too cold to sprawl out, anyway, lice will multiply. Pick up a chicken and take a look. You’ll need to hold her upside down and push the feathers aside to inspect the skin. I’ve got a video to show you how. Lice are almost transparent and move fast. I’ve got photos here. The first time you see them will be a “ewww” moment.
Keeping the coop clean and adding food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) to the litter on the floor and in the nesting boxes helps. DE, which comes from microscopic lake creatures, dessicates and shreds lice bodies. (Don’t use agricultural DE, which is made from marine diatoms, and which is so sharp that it can tear internal organs!) In the summer I add DE to the dust bath wallows.
I’ve been concerned about my old hens who are stiff and lack the energy to preen. They lie in one place for hours – a perfect breeding ground for lice. I checked Eleanor, and sure enough, she was lousy, but not so severely infested that the feathers look like Q-tips from the lice detritus. (When you see that it’s really a “ewww” moment.) I checked all of the girls, and sure enough, everyone was lousy. Chicken lice don’t suck blood – they chew on feathers and skin – but they will, effectively suck suck the life out of your hens or at least make them uncomfortable and less thrifty.
I could have dusted all of the hens with DE, but I decided to pull out the chemicals. Most feed stores sell poultry lice powder in a shaker cardboard tube that looks like Ajax powder for your kitchen. It’s a chemical called permethrin- which is the synthetic form of pyrethrum, an organic insecticide derived from flowers. Poultry keepers have used pyrethrum for over a hundred years. My 1895 Biggle Poultry Book recommends it. Permethrin is more stable, with a longer shelf life and so it’s what is sold. It’s safe for poultry, but toxic to cats and fish. I only use it when I know that my hens are enclosed in their coops and not going anywhere.
So, on Wednesday I picked up each hen, turned each upside down, dusted each bottom, and set each back down. (I then put my barn coat in the wash.) Today, there’s not a louse in sight.
By the way, those of you with rescued battery hens have to be extra-vigilant about controlling external parasite because your hens can’t preen with their blunted beaks. (The factory farms dub the tips to prevent cannibalism in their crowded buildings.)