By Amy Murillo
Backyard chicken flocks are growing in popularity, and hobbyists all over the country are keeping birds for eggs, meat, or just for fun. However, when you introduce a new animal to your home, you’re also offering a tasty buffet for some of the local arthropods that may be laying in wait.
Just as your dog can bring home fleas or ticks, chickens have their own suite of parasites. It can be difficult to find veterinarians with poultry expertise, especially in urban areas, and reliable information, especially regarding management, can be hard to come by. Many of these pests are uncommon on typical production farms, and there is little university research or extension information being conducted on backyard flocks. At the University of California, Riverside, we are conducting research on parasite management that can be applied at all levels of poultry production (conventional, organic, and backyard). Here we highlight the most common pests encountered in backyard chicken flocks.
Chicken Body Louse (Menacanthus stramineus)
This louse species is specific to chickens. All life stages live on the bird where they feed, mainly on feathers but sometimes on the blood from pin feathers too. Lice can be found on the breast, back, vent, and under the wings of birds. Lice are an annoyance and cause feather loss and reduced egg production. Examine your birds by parting their feathers and looking for flat, yellowish lice.
Sticktight Flea (Echidnophaga gallinacaea)
These fleas are dark brown and flattened like cat or dog fleas, but the adults embed themselves in the skin of the face of chickens. The adults feed on blood, causing considerable stress and sometimes death in young birds. The flea eggs drop into the soil or litter, where the immature stages feed on organic material. When treating for adult fleas, be sure to do your best to clean the area to prevent reinfestation by developing fleas. Sticktight fleas are not species specific and can get on dogs, other pets, and people!
Northern Fowl Mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum)
These mites can be introduced by wild birds or their nests. All stages live on the chicken and are generally found in the vent region. The mites feed on blood, which causes discomfort and decreased egg production in birds. They can get onto people who are handling heavily infested birds, though they do not like to feed on non-avian hosts.
Chicken Mite (Dermanyssus gallinae)
The chicken mite, or poultry red mite, closely resembles the northern fowl mite. However, this mite spends most of its time away from its host in cracks and crevices. At night, the mites travel to birds to feed. They can be very irritating to birds and can cause a decrease in egg production. These mites are very difficult to get rid of once they’ve been established.
Management of these pests is best achieved using an integrated approach. Parasites can be introduced to your flock in a variety of ways — from wild animals, new birds, contaminated equipment, or people. Exclude wild birds and their nests as well as rodents, which can carry parasites into your yard. Clean equipment and inspect goods and animals at the store before bringing them home. Many farm stores have animals of their own which may be infested. Regular cleaning of bedding or litter can help to remove parasite life stages.
It’s best to catch an infestation early, so monitor regularly for parasites, both on the animals and in their living quarters. Once you have identified which ectoparasite you may be dealing with, there are several control options. Traditional pesticides are available at farm stores, but be sure to read and follow the label instructions before applying anything to your chickens!
There are also alternatives to conventional pesticides, such as covering sticktight fleas with petroleum jelly to suffocate the adults. Carefully bathing birds with non-abrasive soap can also be used to dislodge permanent parasites, especially lice.
Research at UC Riverside has shown that diatomaceous earth (DE) can work well to manage mites and lice on chickens. Mixing DE with sand (one part DE, four parts sand) in a container, like a plastic swimming pool, should attract the birds to dustbathe in the mixture. Dustbathing will get the DE up into the feathers and on the skin where the parasites live, where it will cause parasite desiccation. Always wear a dustmask while handling DE, which is safe for birds but can cause irritation in humans.
Applying DE to straw or dirt is not effective on its own at ridding birds of on-host parasites. DE may be effective for off-host parasites when applied to cracks and crevices, but it still needs to be tested for sticktight flea control.
Parasites are not fun (except to the people who study them), but they do occur. Keep your birds happy and healthy by ensuring that they are parasite-free!
For more information on poultry parasites or veterinary entomology visit: http://veterinaryentomology.ucr.edu
Amy Murillo is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on host-parasite interactions on domestic chickens with an emphasis on integrated pest management.