Safe Dust Baths

Dust bathing is essential for chicken health. It’s how a chicken keeps external parasites at bay. It’s good for feather maintenance. It’s also essential for chicken happiness. If you don’t have your own flock then you probably haven’t seen the pleasure that hens get from wallowing in the earth. You can see that joy on this video.

Chickens prefer to take dust baths in shallow pits of earth that they’ve scratched up. They prefer it dry, hot and sunny. Here in New England, those optimal conditions are rarely met. So, I provide my hens with a dust bath indoors. I fill it halfway with coarse sand and add a cup of food-grade diatomaceous earth. These two materials both desiccate and shred parasites, and my hens love the feel of them under their feathers. Sometimes I add fireplace ashes (wood only, not burned trash.)icon

This is a bird in bliss.

dust bath

Recently, a reader brought to my attention that bags of builders sand had health warnings on them. This is because sand is crystalline silica, a basic component of rocks such as quartz, and sand on the beach, which are certainly not dangerous materials. However, on construction sites with jackhammers and blasters, or in quarries where rock is mined, the crystalline silica becomes a fine airborne dust. Breathed in it can damage lungs. Years of inhaling it can cause disabling diseases. Years. Like 15 to 20 (this according to OSHA.) Because of this danger, bags of sand have warning labels.

If I were a stone mason, I’d wear a mask on the job. But, my chickens don’t need to. The value of dirt baths far outweighs the minimal risk of kicking up some dust.


  1. What a photo! Her eyes are closed, soaking up the pleasure! I’ve been saving the fireplace ashes this winter, and what I don’t use right away are in containers in the coop for the summer months. I have also been using those bags of sand and DE. All this thanks to you Terry!

  2. I get 50# bags of play sand at Lowes. I figure if it’s OK for kids, it should be OK for MY kids [chickens : ) ]. Have read pros and cons on DE, but am currently using it. Some have said since people are supposed to wear masks when using DE that it might not be good for chickens to breath in either when they dust bathe. My 2 year olds seem fine, and I’ve been using it in their dust baths since they were chicks. Any thoughts?
    Love your site Terry!

    • I bought a 40 pound bag of food grade DE (also called Shell Flour) from my local Henco store. I use it everywhere; the coop, nesting boxes, the enclosed run and in the yard where the hens dust bathe.

  3. True happiness! One day my husband went out to give a treat to the girls and he got very worried when one of them didn’t come running. So he walked around calling for her and after quite some time of this, she came staggering up to him making this deep throated barking sound. He thought she had been attacked because she was walking in this weird crouched position so he starting looking for a wound or blood. At some point in this process, she spied the banana in his hand, stood up straight, and shook herself. A torrential cloud of dirt poured off of her and she proceeded to eat as much of the banana as possible. All was right in her world but my husband was traumatized. LOL!

  4. I noticed my Home Depot had several types of sand, builders, playground etc… IS there a certain one that is better to use?

  5. I’d really recommend playground sand over builder’s sand. Playground sand is cleaner and safer – since it has the potential to be eaten by small children – and it can even be safely used in sensitive saltwater fish tanks (after rinsing). The food grade DE should be fine for chickens as well, but I agree – avoid the standard garden grade. Like builder’s sand, it’s not as cleaned of toxins, since it’s not intended for use where it could be ingested or inhaled.

    Just as a side note: While it takes years for dust to affect a human, chickens are considerably smaller and can be susceptible to breathing problems. Also, there is dust present in the bags of builder’s sand regardless of whether or not you are using a jackhammer. Why risk it?

    • I appreciate your comment, but I disagree with several points. The issue with crystalline silica isn’t that it has chemicals that are toxic, rather over time, when a person breathes fine dust (which only occurs in specific situations, not when the sand is static and on the ground) it can physically affect the lungs. Playground sand has been sifted so that the texture is fine. Builders sand is larger and sharper – this is necessary for both building and for good soil drainage. So, builders sand is better for spreading in chicken runs to keep things dry. Chickens need to dust bathe. They’ll kick up dirt and dust. In fact, they shred everything to a fine dust. I think that the benefits greatly outweigh the very small risk that your chickens will get lung disease from dust baths in sand. Also, garden DE doesn’t have additional toxins, rather it is made from sea diatoms which are too sharp to safely inhale in any quantity.

  6. The video was fun to watch and hear! I cannot remember when I last heard chickens clucking.

  7. Inspired by your practice, a while back I put a kitty litter bin of sand in our coop, but oddly our hens will not dust bathe in it! During the warm months the run looks like a war zone with all the holes they’ve dug for dustbathing, so they know how to do it… they just don’t see the bin as a place to bathe. They sit placidly in the sand, or they use the edge of the bin as a perch, but no bathing. I tried sticking the cleverest one in there and flinging sand on her, hoping she’d get the idea, but no dice. (I know it would just take one doing it for them all to want in there.) Did you have this problem initially with your flock? Maybe I should show them the picture of your hen in bliss! (It looks like she’s doing chicken yoga!)

    • There’s an old expression, “you can lead a chicken to a dust bath but you can’t….” Actually, unless you have a cam in your coop you don’t know for sure that they’re not dust bathing. If they’re sitting in there, then they’ll bathe if they want to. Maybe they’re shy around you? :) BTW, they like it placed in a sunny spot. Fussy.

  8. Terry,
    I am really enjoying your cams, website, and blogs! I have 10 hens, mostly rare breeds, 2 of which are Polish crested. One of mine looks exactly like Siouxsie! I am very fortunate to have 2 poultry yards from a company here in Mo. They are metal sided, wood framed buildings on runners, that my husband can move around with our tractor.
    The first one was a stock item with a 6×6 hen house on one end, and a 6×6 pen on the other. We had them put a tongue and groove floor in the house part, and they are shut up safely in there at night. We wanted them to have more covered run area, for when we could not let them free range, so we had a second one built with one end and the back sided with metal, and the front, and end that we put against the other with wire. This gives them 6×18 wire run and 6×6 house. Both have metal roofs that are tall enough for me to walk in. The girls also get 2-4 hr. free range outside daily, when I am home. While they free range there are 2 African geese, 2 runner ducks, and 2 guineas accompanying them! The guineas actually live with the hens, and roost with them at night! My hens LOVE dust bathing!!! Thanks for the tip about adding wood ashes! Everything here has been covered in ice for 2 days, so we got some sand, and will be cleaning out the fireplace ashes. The girls will now have an indoor “sandyash” dust spa!

    • I have old brochures of similar building being pulled to new pasture by teams of work horses. It sounds like you have an ideal setup (and easier to do with a tractor!)

  9. Terry,
    Have you ever done an article on chickens laying, pardon the expression, “fart” eggs?!!! The only pullets that had not layed eggs were my Polish, and the guineas. The past 3 weeks I have found various sized almost white eggs. They ranged in size of a malt ball to a banty egg, finally. Then I have found long skinny pointed ones, about the size of 2 joints of your pinky finger! Just when I think they are laying normal sized eggs, I find another small one! All my hens lay brown eggs, so it has to be the Polish, or possibly the guineas. I do not know what the guinea eggs will look like, nor do I even know if either of my guineas are even hens! They sound like males, according to what I have learned from the internet. Both Polish have been seen on the nests, but I have only seen the guineas on the roost.

    • I’ve written about wind eggs. I have a small collection of them. Do a blog archive search for “weird eggs” and you’ll see a whole selection of oddities.

  10. It was nice to see Candy. I miss her. We watched Pip and Caper today. The kids loved the bit about the weasel tracks. It went with our reading unit about following clues.
    Happy weekend,

    • What a great use of the track photos! Winter is the best time for looking for animal clues. Tell them that during a walk i the woods, that I saw a pile of broken up pine cones on the ground at the base of a big tree. I knew that a red squirrel had been feeding way up where I couldn’t see it.

  11. I’d like to post a warning about using wood ashes that have not been leached. Particularly if you’ve been burning oak. I put my wood ashes outside in a pile to let the rain leach through them. This removes the ingredient used to make lye (by adding water).

    One year, they had not leached as much (dry spring, sifted in spring instead of summer) and when I sifted them, I got lye burns on my finger tips. So make sure wood ashes have a chance to leach before using.

  12. Since we have a dirt floor in our coop (under the thick pine shavings) the girls dig down daily. They love to do it outside in the spring/summer/fall in the veggie garden. It’s funny too- once 1 starts they all start! Spa time!!!

  13. Terry,
    I had just fixed a box of sand (used for a sandbox) and wood ashes( cooled) from our fireplace, and placed it in the chicken run. I came back in and read the comment by Pam R. about leaching the ashes, and went back out and dumped it out, not wanting to burn my hens! I have read where others put ashes out all the time…. please explain. Is it only if the ashes are wet when the hens walk in them, that they could get burned? Where we have dumped ashes outside previously, the rain washes them away!

    • The lye is a product of moisture and ash. If they are dry, and come in contact with the moisture in skin, that’s where the problem starts. I suspect some of the ragged feathers I’ve seen in other flocks utilizing wood ash were a product of ash on wet feathers.

      I’ve never had ashes wash away here in New England. The ash pile has been there for 30 years. But we heat with passive solar/wood heat exclusively, so may have a lot more ashes in our pile.

      Quote from soap making site: “One traditional method of determining strength is to see if a chicken feather will start to dissolve when placed in the lye water.”

      Also, it depends on the wood burned. From another site:
      “Wood for Making Lye
      Only certain woods are good for homemade lye. You will need to any hardwoods, not softwoods such as Fir or Pine. The following common hardwoods can be used, along with all other hardwoods, Hickory, Sugar Maple, Ash, Beech and Buckeye wood give some of the better results. Other woods listed: Applewood, Aspen, Australian Red Cedar, Birch, Cherry, Chestnut, Elm, Oak, Olive, Walnut.”

      Also, it’s the concentration that’s the problem. I was working with my ash pile. I suspect the occasional addition of small amounts of ash to a dusting PAN might not be a problem. But regularly adding to a dusting AREA might cause a buildup over time, especially if it gets wet.

      Because I use an AREA, my ashes stay out to be leached, and when dry, are stored and added occasionally. Primarily I add DE to the areas.

  14. Here’s my take: most fireplace ashes are fine! We burn mostly pine, which is the least potentially caustic. In order to get lye you need to have a reaction between soft water and hardwood ashes. What Pam mentions, about skin moisture causing the ashes to be caustic is not that common. Don’t use piles of ashes that have been left out in the rain. But your hens will greatly enjoy dry fireplace ashes.

  15. Your Polish looks like she’s laying :} Wonder if you’ll find a present in the nesting box.

  16. My pappy had a saying “happier than a pig up to his eye balls in acorns and mud”. that’s a chicken dust bathing.

  17. I Have two chickens, a hen and a rooster. I went outside and they were laying down where my dirt and sand is from putting in a small brick patio for bar.b.q. pit and I thought they were dead till I got closer and found they were flinging dirt all over themselves, I thought they were being silly birds till I found your site! My mother is ordering me 3 chicks off your tractor supply Ad. Cant wait to get my Easter babys! Im getting all hens this way, im goin for eggs!