Chickens and other poultry like to have a dust bath from time to time to keep their feathers clean. Getting the dust (or dry soil / sand) between their feathers and the preening that follows helps them to get rid of irritating parasites (lice for example) naturally. Keeping feathers clean and in good condition also helps them control their body temperature correctly.
If your chickens are let out to free range from time to time, they will usually find somewhere with dry soil and make themselves a dust bath. They will flap their wings and roll around in the dirt, slowly making a hollow in the ground. Sometimes they will be stretched out and if it’s sunny, they may lie still, enjoying the sun and you may think she’s dead!
Once they have finished, they will get up, shake their feathers and bits of dust and dirt will come out from in between their feathers. They will then spend some time preening.
If they are enclosed in a run, it can be a help to them if you supply a covered box or area for them to dust bath but they will also bathe in clean dry litter if it’s bright enough in the hen house as you can see with my Light Sussex here.
Making a dust bath
You can make up a dust bath easily using garden compost or dry sand, optionally adding wood ash and diatom if you have some. Wood ash and diatom on their own is too dusty. Chickens are prone to respiratory problems and breathing in either of these two will not help matters but when mixed with compost or sand, it forms a good consistency that doesn’t normally create dust for it to be a problem.
The trick is to test the mixture you make, to ensure it’s not too dusty.
In this mixture, I am also adding Diatom (Diatomaceous Earth) which is a natural product and very popular with chicken keepers to rid their birds of lice and red mite. You can read about the benefits of Diatom here.
I’m using a square plastic tray from a garden centre, normally sold for standing pots in water. It has sides about 3 inches high. The final consistency of the mixture should not be dusty but provide enough loose material for them to flick between their feathers and roll around in, ridding themselves of irritating parasites and cleaning their feathers.
The dust bath should be placed under cover, where it won’t get wet from rain or it will soon turn into a mud bath and will be of no use to your chickens!
Periodically the mix can be changed, but chickens will normally flick the soil everywhere after using it a few times anyway, so it might be a top-up of dust bath mixture, rather than a soil change!
This short clip shows some chickens taking a dust bath. (Don’t worry the hens aren’t quacking, there are ducks nearby!)
Even chicks start to exhibit this natural behaviour when they are young and will take a dust bath in wood shavings from time to time, especially when there’s a few rays of spring sunshine to encourage them.