Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ask Bee - Lice, Mites, Bumblefoot, Poor Feathering... Where Am I Going Wrong?

Dear Bee,
I live in Colorado and have 9 backyard birds ranging in age from 7 months to 5 years. The birds sleep in a coop overnight but are allowed to free range in the yard the rest of the time. The pen that contains the coop is covered with a metal roof and tarped on the north and west sides.  It is a 10 x10 dog kennel. There is also a small dog house in the pen that has a single nest box in it. The birds lay in the coop and the dog house. The coop is too small to house the birds indoor and so they are never locked up in it even in bad weather but they have access to a wind free, dry pen at all times. The bottom of the coop is covered in wood shavings and the nest boxes are filled with straw. I scoop the overnight poop off the shavings daily and change out the nest box straw monthly. The inside of the coop and perches are washed down spring and again in the fall before winter really sets in. I use a bleach and soap mix and let air dry in the sun completely before putting the birds back.
The area they free range in is divided. One side of the yard is wood mulch with no grass at all (I have a dog who has a contact allergy to grass). The other side is grass which is never sprayed with fertilizer or pesticide or herbicide.

They eat Purina layer crumbles, nutrena scratch wild bird seed with BOSS, I cook special meals for them regularly and they also get leftovers and scraps from the kitchen. They get some kind of a mash type breakfast every day. I add crushed egg shell 3 to 4 times a week to their feed as well as a kelp, nutritional yeast, garlic supplement 2x a week. They also have constant access to oyster shell. I feed minced raw game meat 2 or 3 times during molt which typically occurs in the fall (right now) and again in spring. The water dish is changed daily and has Apple Cider Vinegar added daily as well

The problems I am having are a constant battle with lice, thin shelled eggs, poor feathering, constant head shaking like they have ear mites and the jersey has had a bald patch on her chest since this past spring. I also have 5 out of 9 birds with bumble foot although none of them are evidencing pain or limping. I haven’t seen any worms in the poops. I don’t count on the silkies for eggs and the buff orp has never been a layer so that leaves me 6 active layers and I get anywhere from 3 to 6 eggs a day. I average 4 eggs a day from 6 birds so I feel like egg production is right where it should be but the birds aren’t in optimal health and I’d like to change that.

I have been dusting the birds weekly now for over a month. I dust with Diatomaceous earth (DE) one week and then with permethrin the next week. This summer I cut off the feathers with egg clusters around the vents and dusted birds in an effort to short circuit the breeding cycle of the lice - but no luck. I have washed dusted and sprayed the coop and perches and nest boxes as well. The nest boxes have DE in them. I have not attempted to treat the bumblefoot as of yet.

I don’t know where to go from here. I think I’m doing what I should be but I’m clearly failing somewhere.


I can't say for sure about things unless I actually saw your land and setup but I can make a few suggestions that may be a turning point in their health. 

First, it sounds like they may be a little overfed but I can't be sure because I don't know if you feed free choice or by the meal.  All the cooking and preparation of foods isn't necessary for chickens, though I know a lot of people think that's the way to go.  If you make any adjustments to your feeding regimen, I'd suggest moving towards just fermenting the layer feed and whole grains that you currently feed and feeding them once or twice a day until they are doing better, then maybe moving that to once a day. 

From the internet:
Bumblefoot - Causes:

When birds are overfed food that contains uric acid, such as boiled eggs, it will provide the blood with a high level of uric acid content, which will then cause the uric acid crystals to pool together in the joints and on the bottom of the bird's feet and toes. 

Unsuitable Roosts / Standing & Walking Platforms:
These abscesses are frequently caused by unhealthy "perching" conditions, such as sharp-cornered perches, the standard perches that tend to come with prefab coops of a uniform diameter, or wire floors.

Next, pumpkins are a good supplement in the middle of winter when they lack any good, fresh forage, so I'd let those ferment as well and feed them later on.  Not daily... maybe weekly or bi-weekly if you have the pumpkins.

Bleaching any environment or equipment in the coop is just not something I ever recommend, nor dusting the whole place with powders of any kind – including Diatomaceous earth (DE).  All that does is kill everything... unfortunately it also kills all the beneficial bacteria, yeasts, good microbes and other organisms that keep a healthy balance in their environment.  Doubly unfortunate, the bad guys grow and populate that now empty slate much quicker than the good guys and then they rule once again.  This necessitates repeated bleachings and poisonings and so the cycle goes round and round, where it stops nobody knows.

Diatomaceous earth (DE) just kills all the goodies in the soil.  Not a good thing to do… ever.  

Start a deep litter going in your coop (see the Deep Litter tab at the top of the page)...  I know you said you have pine shavings but deep litter is a little different than just having deep shavings in the coop that you keep raking out.  Leave that poop and work it into the litter and keep building on that.  Contrary to theories that deep litter is a hiding place for mites and lice and will promote their life, it is also a hiding place for those creatures that prey on their larvae.  Yes, even parasites have parasites.  Make a good home for the parasites of the parasites and you won't have a good home for the parasites.  I hope that wasn't too confusing. 

A good deep litter system is a healthy way to help chickens who need good bacteria in their lives, as the deep litter is just a petri dish for the growth of beneficial microorganism. 

So... to recap, good fermented feed to populate their insides with good bacteria and deep litter to grow good bacteria in the coop environment.  These are long term fixes that, when nurtured and developed, will keep your flock from getting these bad things instead of trying to treat for them once they have been gotten. 

For fast relief of the current problems, place NuStock on those nits at the base of the feathers, on the skin of their face and ears, and dust these chickens thoroughly with wood ashes.  Not Diatomaceous earth (DE).  Wood ashes worked lovingly and deeply under the feathers and into the skin.  Then set up a good dusting area of the same.  You can even place the ashes in the nesting box. 

Speaking of the nesting box... get rid of straw.  Hay - yes, straw - no.  Straw has lovely little tubes where bad boys like to hide and live until they can come out at night and bite someone.  You can use hay or pine shavings for the nest boxes and even place a little wood ash in there. 

If the coop is too small for them to get into and out of cold weather, this is something I would change.  I assume CO has weather somewhat similar to where I live and though an open air coop system is nice for the ventilation, birds like to sleep somewhere a little more snug and out of the wind when cold weather blows.  If not, they will be using all the nutrition in their feeds to keep warm instead of for health and growth.  If your coop is too small for all your birds at once, change the situation... either eliminate some of the birds or construct a bigger coop space. 

If eliminating, I'd start with your Buff Orpingtons and the Silkies... eating lots but not producing much.  In these economic times, it just isn't feasible to keep supporting non-producers.

- Bee



  1. Great advice! I've been following this closely and while I've already been doing the ashes, I didn't know about the NuStock! Getting some!

  2. Thanks for your advice Bee, however I have a few questions, when you say "wood ash" for dusting are you talking about something special, or the ash I shovel out of my fireplace once a week?

    My particular concern is mites. I haven't seen any on my bird, but I'm pretty new at this and might not know what I'm looking for, but there are some outword signs that all is not right in one of my hen's life. She is a 7 month old Ameracauna. She use to be the biggist of my 4 birds. Now she is defineately lighter than my other Ameracauna that were hatched the same day. Her wattle and comb are very pale, the feathers around her face seem bare or even brocken. She hasn't laid eggs for several weeks, she doesn't sleep on the perch with the other hens any more, rather she perches on the lip of the door to the hen house at the top of the ramp. She seems to have lost her perk. Would you suggest treating for mites? Her legs/feet look fine. When I cleaned the hen house today I did see a few reddish tiny bugs that could be mites.

    1. Use regular wood ash - the kind you get after having a fire in the fire place or if you have a wood-burning stove in your house. (I don't have either but I have a friend with a wood burning stove and they supply me with plenty of ash for my birds' dusting areas.)

      To treat for mites, you can fill up a large bowl or plastic container with a few inches of ash, plop your bird in and work that as through their feathers to the skin. Use NuStock around the eyes, ears and vent. Probably want to treat all your birds if you can to prevent them from just trading mites back and forth.

      Use neem oil (find it on our gr8 products tab) on your roosts to control mites in your coop.

      Just to be sure - it wouldn't hurt to chop up pumpkin seeds and feed them to your birds for a week (with their regular food) to control internal parasites.

      Keep an eye on that bird - her behavior doesn't sound good. Let us know what happens!

  3. You need a more experienced person than me for good advice, but I'm itching already just reading this.
    In my novice opinion,

  4. Hi Bee...does the wood ash have to be hardwood or a particular type? Thanks so much!


    1. Dawn - I'm sorry to say Bee has decided not to be a part of the blog any more - but I can answer that question for you. Pretty much any wood ash should do! If you can burn it in a fireplace or a wood stove, the ashes should work for your chickens.

  5. i steal cant get rid of the bugs what should i do!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. I have tried lots of ways and i just need more advices someone please reply

    1. I'm sorry you're still having issues! The key to getting rid of the bugs is to treat everything at once - ALL your birds with wood ash, spray Neem Oil on the roosts...

      What kind of bugs are you dealing with? How big is your flock? Do you do Deep Litter in your coop? Do your birds free range? What do you feed?

  7. Hi, after reading this article I have a question? I just got finished dusting my entire coop with DE. Then I learned about the wood ash about a week ago. That is how I found this site. Which I really like by the way.
    I want to start using the deep litter method , Will it still work since I dusted with the DE or do I need to get it off the dirt floor in the coop some how ?
    V Marks

    1. Well... I'd hate for you to waste your bedding, so I'd say just leave it. DE becomes harmless to your deep litter once it gets wet. If you're worried about it and want to jump start your deep litter, you could always do a light spray of water - just enough to "deactivate" the DE. Then just air the coop out really well.
      Welcome to the blog!

  8. Hello there! Love the site!

    So I've been reading up on deep litter and DE...I've mentioned deep litter to a few people and I don't get very positive I'm some slacker not taking care of my flock. I even got a "OMG you don't use DE?!" I don't know anyone who uses the deep litter method. Do you get this response a lot? I tried to explain the method but it was like I was speaking to a brick wall. People can be very closed-minded. Do you have other sources that refer to the use of deep litter? It totally makes sense to me but I want to be able to point people to several places for why the deep litter method is good. Also, do you personally have any infestation issues with your own coop since you are using the deep litter method? Are there specific reasons you don't like DE other than it kills the good guys too?
    Lots of questions...I just got bombarded today and feel a bit on the defense now;)

    1. Thank you! All of these are good questions! Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily also uses the Deep Litter method, although she does use DE in hers. This is personal choice. My belief is that DE will kill off the beneficial microbes and therefore I do not use it in my coop litter. DE does have other good purposes - for instance just a sprinkle in bulk scratch grains keeps the bugs from breeding in the storage container. Just from a scientific standpoint, it seems contradictory to me to use it where I want all the microbes to thrive.

      Most of the people I know do use the deep litter method - we rarely hear anything negative about it. (Visit us on BYC on the Natural Chicken Keeping thread. <-- Click this link.) I have not personally had any infestation issues while using this method - the only time I ended up with a mite issue was in a new grow-out pen where I had only put fresh, clean shavings. I got rid of the mites (wood ash) and put some of the good older litter from one of my other coops in the pen... and haven't had an issue since.

    2. Here is another link with old research on deep litter. The writer mentions lime, but also says not to use a lot due to burning! We don't use any lime.

      I have a vinyl floor in my hen house so I start mine out with some dirt - just brought over a wheelbarrow full from the garden to put down as a base (amount depending on your coop size, of course!) Then I began the litter on top of that.

      Here's the link:

    3. I have a question .. I can't find Mites or lice, but I have ten hens and five of them have NO feathers on their backs -- all back. A few are starting to lose feathers on chest. They are not molting, lay good, good feed etc. I've dusted with DE (but see that isn't good) How does everyone like deep litter. I have cleaned coop floor twice. WHAT to do? Oh and they are the best chickens I've ever had NOT to peck each other. We had a rooster and decided to get rid of him thinking he was the problem. That's been a month ago and no feathers.

    4. Well - if you live in the northern hemisphere (USA, Canada, Europe, Asia, etc...) it is actually molting time. :) Late summer through mid-fall is when most chickens aged 9 months and older molt in order to grow new, healthy feathers for winter.

      If you live in NZ, AU or elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, than this could be feather picking by a dominant hen.


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