Whether you’re new to homesteading, or just want to tap into a bit of the rural aesthetic, chickens are an easy way to start. But sometimes, even chickens need a little help. Like every other animal, they have predators, diseases, and parasites like mites.
Everyone knows that foxes sneak into henhouses, but the diseases and parasites of chickens are less well known. That’s because in general, chickens manage to keep themselves healthy with minimal help from you. But that also means that when you notice something is wrong with your hens, it’s hard to know what to do.
Fortunately, for all their sneaky invasiveness, mites aren’t hard to get rid of. All you need is a little knowledge, a few tools, and a lot of determination.
What Are Chicken Mites?
Mites are tiny little parasites that love your chickens. You’ll notice them a lot during warm and wet weather, but they can also thrive in colder temperatures as well. (Though it is less common.)
Chicken mites are one of the most surprising parasites I’ve come across. They’re so small, that it’s hard to notice them until your henhouse is overrun with itchy, miserable birds, and destructive mites.
Chicken mites are closely related to ticks. They even look a little like tiny ticks. Mites are arachnids, with eight legs and a fat little body. They live on the bodies of birds and feed on the blood of your hens – like tiny vampires. Unlike vampires though, mites have a very short life cycle. They’re born, reproduce, and die within about a week. During their entire life, mites feast on your hens. That causes your itchy, painful birds to peck and scratch at themselves.
You’ll know you have a mite issue if your hens begin to lose their feathers, or if you begin to see them biting under their wings or around their vents. If you look closely at your birds, especially around the vent, you’ll often see tiny grey or red specks. Those are the mites.
The most common chicken mites are the Northern fowl mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum) and the red mite (Dermanyssus gallinae). Northern fowl mites are the most common bird mite in the United States. The red mite is less common in the US, but prevalent in the UK and Europe. Both mites are black or gray when hungry, and red when full of chicken blood.
The mites are spread by contact and they can live for up to three weeks off of their host.
Both can devastate a flock if left unchecked. In small numbers, they’re irritating to your birds, but a large infestation can drain the health of your chickens and even kill them.
How to Identify an Infestation
Because they’re so small, and they’re primarily active at night, it’s hard to recognize a mite infestation early on. But there are a few ways to hunt down your mites. If you suspect your coop is being invaded, start by inspecting your birds.
Grab a hen. Hold her by the legs with her head down until she relaxes. Relaxed, she’ll allow her wings to spread out. You can look under the wings and part the feathers around her vent to check for clumps of tiny parasites on her skin. Take this opportunity to look at her skin as well. Does it look scaly, red, or inflamed? Are there blood smears on her legs? These are all signs of mites.
Other signs that your hens may be hosting mites are feather loss, reduced laying, scabby legs and feet, and a pale comb. But these signs can point to other issues as well. So inspect your birds well to be sure you’re dealing with mites.
If you see any sign of mite damage on your hen, then you know there’s an infestation. Mites reproduce quickly. Mite damage on one bird means that it’s likely your whole flock has some level of damage. It’s time to fight back.
If the chicken inspection is inconclusive, or you’d like to know the extent of the damage, check your coop. This is best done at night. Bring a strong flashlight and a piece of white paper. Chickens are groggy at night, so they’re easy to handle. They’re also easy prey for mites while roosting.
Nocturnal mites come out to feed at night. If you have a bad infestation, you may be able to see the mites simply by shining the light on your perches. Otherwise, rub the white paper along the perch and inspect it under the flashlight. If there are red smears on the paper, you have mites feeding in your coop.
If you know your coop is infested, it’s time to get to work. Mites are hard to get rid of. Most chicken owners joke that the best response is to burn it all down and start over. But then we sigh, grab the diatomaceous earth and start treating our birds.
Start by dusting all your birds with diatomaceous earth. DE slices up the mites on your chickens and it feels amazing to your birds. It’s sort of like the feeling you get from rubbing a gentle scrub over dry, itchy winter skin. If your run is dry, try mixing a cup of diatomaceous earth into a sandbox of dirt and sand for your birds to rub in.
Dustbathes are a chicken’s natural way of fighting off mites, so give them the opportunity to take dustbathes often.
Also, keep in mind that mites can cause your chicken to be anemic. You’ll want to boost their immune system by feeding them greens, meat, and eggs. This will help boost their iron levels.
Add a splash of apple cider vinegar to your chickens’ water supply. Apple cider vinegar doesn’t do much to drive away mites, but it does help your chickens stay hydrated and boost nutrition while you’re fighting off the mites.
Feeding your chickens strong-smelling herbs and spices like garlic, mint, rosemary, and onions. These will simply help your chickens taste less attractive to the mites.
Northern fowl mites live out their whole lives on their host chickens. Red mites tend to hide in the coop itself when not feeding. Despite those differences, when you’re dealing with either mite, it’s essential to clean house. Pull out all the bedding and dispose of it far from your birds. Burning the bedding is the best option for killing mites, but if you’re in town, or in a dry area, it may be better to simply pack it up and take it to the dump.
Once the coop is empty of birds and bedding, it’s time to make sure the mites know they’re not welcome back. Dust with diatomaceous earth or spray with neem oil.
Made from the seeds of the neem tree, this gentle and highly effective oil disrupts the life cycle of mites, lice, ticks, and fleas. Neem oil also nourishes the skin, which means that you can apply it to your chickens directly as well.
To spray the coop, mix 2 teaspoons of neem oil into a spray bottle of apple cider vinegar and water. Spray the interior of the coop, especially the corners and nesting boxes. Then let the coop air out for at least 3 days, preferably a week. Keep your chickens somewhere else while cleaning the coop. I use old dog crates to house my birds or give them an open run in good weather.
You can spray a mixture of neem and water directly onto your hens. I prefer to dip my birds in a neem bath. Mix a few teaspoons of neem into a gallon of warm water and dip your birds into the water.
Sometimes, the natural remedies just don’t cut it. I’ve never had an infestation so bad that my natural choices can’t fight it off, but I also live in the frozen north, where mites (who prefer warm spring and summer temperatures) tend to die off for 5 months out of the year.
In more temperate regions, where mother nature never helps you fight off the mites, you may need a stronger solution. Unfortunately, most chemical mite killers are also dangerous to other animals. The safest option is Permethrin.
Permethrin comes in both liquid and powder form. It’s intended for direct application onto your hens and as a coop spray. Permethrin is highly toxic to cats, however, so keep your cats away from the coop during treatment and make sure to wash well after treating your birds.
Scaly Leg Mites
If you notice that your birds’ feet have a thick skin on the top, it could be scaly leg mites.
Scaly leg mites (Knemidocoptes mutans) can survive in the winter, and while they don’t look like other types of mites, they can still disturb your flock. You’ll realize you have them by looking at your chickens’ feet. These mites burrow under their skin and cause the scales on their legs and feet to stick up. It is painful for them because these nasty parasites bite and suck blood from your chickens.
Obviously, if you see this, you’ll want to treat the situation immediately.
How to Beat Them
So your chickens have gross-looking feet, and you’ve figured out it’s because a parasite has moved in on their legs.
First, you can follow this recipe from Fresh Eggs Daily. It’s a garlic juice solution that parasites don’t much care for. It kills them off and deters any others from making a home on your chicken. Then you’ll rub down their legs with Vaseline.
The other option is to rinse your chicken’s legs off with warm soapy water. You can use a washcloth, but you want to be gentle. You aren’t trying to exfoliate the scales or anything like that and you don’t want to harm your bird’s legs. Not only would it cause discomfort but then it opens them up to possible infection.
Next, you’ll dip their feet or rub their feet down with oil. Oil smothers mites.
Once you’re fought off mites, you never want to do it again. A little prevention can go a long way towards keeping mites at bay. You can hang a few, dried herbs in your chicken coop to help deter mites. Studies show that herbs like chamomile, mint, garlic, and thyme will make the coop unfriendly to chicken mites and can boost your flock’s health.
Be sure to keep DE sprinkled throughout the coop regularly. I actually make it part of my weekly cleaning schedule in an effort to avoid infestations. When you’re mucking out the coop, spray a little neem oil and sprinkle a bit of Diatomaceous earth in the coop.
Make sure your hens have access to a dusty patch of dirt to roll in as well. They can keep themselves relatively mite-free if you give them the chance. If the weather is damp and humid, it can be difficult for chickens to find dusty ground. During the humid months, give your birds an application of neem spray to help them keep mites at bay.
Can Mites Move from Chickens to People?
No, they don’t usually infest people, but they can bite them. That said, there have been cases of human infestations by chicken mites.
Chicken mites typically infest a wide vareity of birds. If you keep ducks, geese, guineas, or turkeys, they are at risk. But while mites will happily bite you, they can’t live off of you. Mite bites can cause you itchiness, discomfort, swelling, and irritation.
Your dogs and cats are generally safe as well.