Small is not always beautiful when we take a closer look at your birds...
Through June, July and August it is an incredibly busy time here at Mantel Farm. With every aspect of our business nearing full capacity, our customers are taking full advantage of the time of year, particularly this year, as we've had some very fine weather. With most of June being a scorcher, the extreme heat at times making some of our poultry keeping ‘hot weather check list’, even more important to adhere to...
Firstly, supply plenty of water - think about providing two drinkers. This provides additional water and is also an insurance policy against one getting knocked over. I would always advise hanging your drinker if possible. This has many advantages; it can no longer be knocked over (minor spillages only), prevents dirt being scratched into it and if hung at the birds lower neck height can prevent unwanted visitors (vermin), getting a drink. (All the same applies to the feeder.) Next, provision of shade; unless your chicken set up is sited in partial shade, summer shading must be provided, particularly in a full sun position. This could be via a temporary tarpaulin, sheet of ply wood or hazel/willow screening panel, in fact anything would be better that nothing! The next point is one where I always have particular concern – ventilation of the indoor accommodation. For the hotter times make sure there is plenty of ventilation, even if during rough or cold weather the extra ‘summer vents’ can be closed off. If your set up is such that the birds are able to put themselves to bed at dusk, generally temperatures will be much lower by then. However, if you are shutting them in early to mid evening in the summer, temperatures can still be incredibly hot, particularly in a full sun position. So spare a thought for your birds, it may be necessary to provide a shade to the whole indoor section – or consider a relocation to alleviate the problem.
So, let’s have a look at those ‘non-beautiful small things’ - the pests, beginning with fleas & lice, particularly as most people are familiar with these little critters in the keeping of our old favourites, cats and dogs (not to mention the possibilities on ‘ourselves’!). With poultry there are a few common problems that can be dealt with or prevented by following some quite basic methods, often saving pounds on what could have turned into an expensive trip to the vets.
Chickens can be affected by both fleas and lice, the latter being more common and living directly on your birds whilst the chicken fleas live mainly in the bedding, jumping aboard the birds to feed. Except in severe, unchecked circumstances neither are usually life threatening, however can quickly result in loss of egg production and will make your birds’ life a misery carrying a whole load of unwanted, constantly irritating passengers. Whilst these fleas and lice cannot live on you, if you are an avid handler, they can certainly survive long enough to bite, just to see whether you taste like chicken!
Signs to look out for are any bird looking lethargic, or anaemic (noticeably loss of redness to comb, wattles and face/head in general. Loss of feathers is another common sign, often self-pecking, from trying to stop the irritation. (Though there can be many reasons for feather loss, which we will cover later.) When inspecting your birds for lice, you will find them clustering mainly around the vent (the chickens bum) and to the underside of the belly. Other places are under the wings and around the neck - basically the birds’ hotter areas. They are 2-3mm long, a pale yellowish brown colour and move very quickly, often meaning that you have to have a sharp eye to spot the first beginnings of a problem as just a few can run and disappear quicker than you can part the feathers! The egg clusters are fairly easy to spot, the main area for these being around the vent. They appear as what looks like a small, slightly flat, greyish cotton wool bud at the base of the feathers. If just a few, it is possible to simply ‘pluck’ out the affected feathers, suitably disposing of them away from you birds, then treat as below. However, if there are many egg clusters, I don’t think your birds would appreciate too many of their live feathers being pulled out in this way! If this is the case, then treatment will be necessary.
Even if only one bird appears to be affected by the problem, it is best to assume that all birds do have it, and all should be treated. I should mention at this stage that (although I have heard of people doing so with some success,) at no point should cat and dog flea treatments be applied to chickens, as some can prove fatal to them. It is best to apply a product produced for the purpose, or another that is tried, tested and guaranteed to work safely. There are many powders on the market, the one I use and firmly believe in being ‘Diatomaceous Earth’ (Diatom or DE for short). There is still some debate as to whether it is definitely safe, however, it is of organic origin, being a fine powder derived from a naturally occurring sedimentary rock, comprising fossilised remains of diatoms (single-celled, siliceous organisms!) Under a microscope it appears as millions of razor sharp shards of glass. The powder works by dehydrating the chicken fleas & lice. Sprinkle the powder liberally around the inside of your birds housing, nesting boxes & perches. It can and should be also applied to you birds at skin level where possible, concentrating in the main affected areas. You will find it much easier with a second person helping, one to rub back the feathers, whilst the other applies the powder. It can be an interesting experience, particularly if the bird manages to start flapping her wings, you can end up more “deflead” than the bird! (I definitely speak from experience!) Try applying the powder with an icing sugar shaker or sieve, I find these work well, also great for evenly spreading the powder over the flooring.
Some years ago I took advice from an old and very experienced poultry keeper regarding his well tried and tested method of powdering a chicken. This being to very carefully hold it upside down by its legs (holding it in place until it stops struggling, this is usually quite quickly achieved), then, working swiftly with a helper, powder the bird as necessary. In this position the wings naturally fall open, making powdering easier, and the feathers are easier to rub back, and hold the powder at skin level much more effectively. If you have several birds to do, take an up turned dustbin lid balanced on a bucket to make an excess powder catcher, this excess powder can then be sprinkled over the flooring to save wasting it. I did read a recent article where holding birds upside down was being criticised as likely to cause damage to legs & well-being, I've no doubt this could be the case if not undertaken in a responsible calm manner, however, I have been using this method very successfully for years. It should be possible to powder each bird and return it to the ground, the right way up in around 30 seconds.
New fleas and lice will be hatching from the eggs every 7-14 days, so I would advise repeating the process 3 times at 5 day intervals once an infestation is discovered as this could be at any point in the cycle.
The above does sound like an awfully lot to take in, however, as we said at the start, we focus on prevention...
Apart from general good poultry husbandry, regular and thorough cleaning out, you have to go a long way to beat providing your birds with a ‘dust bath’. Have you ever watched a wild bird dust bathing in a corner of your flower bed, on a dry spring day (if you are unlucky, right in the middle of your newly sown seed bed?!), similarly all poultry love to dust bath. Dust bathing is a birds’ natural way of keeping themselves ‘clean’, in good condition and ridding themselves of fleas, lice and other mites as best they can. In summer, it also helps with cooling. If you have a decent sized run, or your birds are allowed to occasionally free range the garden, they will very quickly find a spot to form a dust bowl. In dry weather this could be almost anywhere, flower beds etc, or during damp weather maybe under a dense bush or at the base of a tree such as Leylandii. However during times of prolonged wet conditions, small or exposed runs, your birds will be unable to dust bath. It is then I would strongly suggest that you provide them with a dust tray, with a suitable dust mix in it. Either bring this in and out according to the weather or make a covered area within the run for it. The tray can be purpose made (Mantel Farm dust trays are of timber 16” x 16” (40cm x 40cm) and 4” (10cm) deep), or something you have knocking around that might do the job of similar size. If you have enough space, bigger is also good as dust bathing in the sun is a social event, your birds will love to ‘do it together’!
The ‘dust mix’ can be purchased, or mixed up yourself, and may contain a mix of dry dusty earth, sand, fine sawdust & wood ash. In addition, sprinkle over the top or mix in a good amount of the Diatom powder, hence, DIY treatment – the ultimate prevention!
Next month I’ll have a look at a few more of the crawly things, in particular, the one that I regard as poultry enemy No.1... the red spider mite!