Have you just watched one of your chickens frantically shower dirt all over herself? You’ve probably just seen her take a dust bath! If you’re new to keeping chickens, it might be alarming to watch your girls take a dust bath for the first time. Don’t worry! It’s the perfect way for your chickens to stay clean and healthy.
Some new chicken owners worry when they see chickens digging holes out in the chicken run. They wonder if the birds will start laying eggs away from their nesting boxes. Chickens like to keep their roosts and laying areas very separate from their bathing areas, so don’t fear.
I’ve written up this little article to explain what dust bathing is, why chickens do it and how you can help give your girls the best dust bath experience. I’ve even done a bit of troubleshooting for you about how to help your chickens’ dust bathe during cold and wet weather. Let’s go.
What is a chicken dust bath?
It helps to remember that chickens were once wildfowl. If you think about it, you’ll soon realize that chickens need to keep clean as any other animal. It’s natural for chickens to use loose dirt and sand to help keep them clean and healthy.
Chickens will scratch out a small depression in loose sand, dirt or even wood chip shavings. Then they’ll sit in it and use their claws and wings to cover themselves in the dirt. Your girls will be sure to work the loose particles into every nook and cranny.
It might help you to think about dust baths as similar to using dry shampoo. The dirt will soak up excess oil and leave the feathers nice and clean. It’s also fantastic for suffocating lice and mites. It’s their natural way of warding off those nasty parasites.
While dust bathing, your chickens will use the time to preen out old feathers, remove sheaths from new feathers and generally freshen themselves up.
Dust bathing can take quite a lot of effort for a chicken. Don’t be surprised if you find your girls asleep on their sides or even on their backs after a good bathing session. It looks alarming but they aren’t dead, they’re taking a well-deserved rest.
If one of your girls decides to take a dust bath, you might see the other chickens following suit. Soon your flock will all be frantically writhing around in your coop, having a spa party. It’s a good idea that it happens at the same time – it’s another way chickens help to control a pest infestation among themselves.
Where do chickens dust bath?
Chickens will seek out an area of loose dirt or sand in your coop. If that’s not available, they might use wood shavings that you’ve laid down in the nesting area. Some people think that the hollow depression is a laying area for eggs, but it’s not. Don’t worry, they will continue to lay in their nesting boxes.
If your soil is very heavy or mostly clay, you may need to get a delivery of some builder’s sand. Leave it in a flattened pile in one area of your chicken run. Your girls will flock to it. As they use it the sand will spread out, helping to improve the soil quality for bathing over time.
How can you help your chickens dust bathe?
There are ways you can supercharge your chicken dust bath area. Think about adding some of these easy to access ingredients. They’ll help ward off bugs, make cleaning easier and keep your girls nice and clean.
This naturally occurring substance is a powerful antibacterial and antiparasitic. Sprinkle it lightly over dust bathing areas. You may already have some to hand if you’ve treated the coop for mites and lice in the past. It’s made of very fine particles so wear a dust mask when you apply it.
Be sure to only use a little, as it’s quite potent.
Do you have a fire pit or wood stove at home? Collect the wood ash and sprinkle it around the coop for delightful dust bathing. It’s made of fine particles so it will help to reach every area your chicken wants to clean.
If your birds eat a little of it while they’re scratching or foraging, they’ll get a little vitamin boost of magnesium and vitamin K, too. Please only use uncontaminated wood ash. If you’ve used liquid fuels or fire starter blocks the remnants can make your chickens sick.
I love adding fresh and dried herbs to my nesting boxes, but they can also be used as a dust bathing supplement. Dried lavender will help deter flying pests like mosquitos and also crawlers like mites and lice. Dried lemon balm is another antiparasitic and may also help protect any cuts or scratches as an antibacterial. Rosemary and mint are also said to help.
If you want to turbocharge your dust bathing area then lay some sand down in your chicken run. You don’t have to get high-quality sand, builder’s sand is fine. This is particularly helpful if you have clay-based soils that aren’t naturally loose enough to use for dust bathing.
It would be very simple to mix up a bin with these ingredients. Keep a tight lid on it and use a scoop to add to your chicken dust bathing area whenever you notice it’s looking a little sparse.
What about dust bathing in winter?
Do you live in an area that gets very cold in winter? You might notice that your girls can’t bathe if the ground is frozen, muddy or covered in snow. Chickens do need to take a dust bath even when the weather is cold. You can’t deprive them of this process until the weather warms up.
So what can you do to help your chickens dust bath in winter? It can be as easy as building them a little sheltered dust bathing station. You’ll need to make a raised sandpit and fill it with sand and dry dirt. Wood shavings can also be a useful filler, and chickens seem to love it.
Be sure that the sand is deep enough for your girls to burrow into. It should have four to six inches of material. Remember that the dust bathing process is quite messy, so if you want to contain the dirt as much as possible, try to leave at least a foot of wall above the dirt line.
To keep it try (and to keep predators out of it) make sure it’s covered at night. Use a tarp or another lightweight covering to protect it from rain. Covering the dust bath should also help prevent the dirt from freezing during cold spells.
If you want to put a bit more effort into it, you could build a shelter over the top of the dust bathing station. The aim will be to keep the rain off the dirt, so it remains dry enough to bathe in during the day.
If you’re not willing or able to build a weatherproof dust bath in winter, see if you can make some changes to your closed coop. Adding sand, dirt and wood shavings inside the coop itself may help your girls bathe in peace. Make sure it’s as far away from the nesting boxes as possible.
The great news is, you don’t have to retire the dust bathing box when winter is over. Let the girls use it all year round. Just remember that you’ll need to maintain the dust bath a little more regularly than the other open bathing areas. Top it up with sand when required, and don’t be afraid to add some of those ingredients I mentioned above.
Conversely, if it’s too hot for your chickens to bathe in the open, the sheltered versions will do well to keep the dirt cool. Get creative – you could use a large beach umbrella over popular bathing spots to help keep the sun off the dirt and your girls at the same time.
So what do you think? Are you feeling more prepared now? I hope I’ve given you enough information to help your chickens keep themselves clean and happy. Dust bathing is such a vital component of overall flock health. Without it, parasites like mites and lice can quickly take hold.
Here are my top takeaways about chicken dust baths:
- It’s great fun to watch your flock fluff around in the dirt
- Dust baths soak up oil and remove dead skin cells which are food sources for parasites
- Chickens can fall asleep after a bath in some surprising positions, but they are ok
- Use additives like diatomaceous earth, wood ash and dried herbs to turbocharge your bathing area
- Add builder’s sand to your chicken run if your soil is mostly clay
- Build sheltered, weatherproof dust bathing areas to help your girls stay clean all year round
What ideas have you tried? I’d love for you to share your experiences in the comments below.
Joseph Hudson has been raising chickens for over 15 years. In 2018, he completed the Agriculture & Natural Resources program at Mt. San Antonio College. He currently raises over 1400 chickens on his 7.5-hectare farm. He keeps sharing his experience on raising healthy and happy chickens on Chicken Scratch The Foundry.