Chicken Behavior: The Dust Bath

Reader Contribution by Fala Burnette and Wolf Branch Homestead
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To hear the words “dust bath” together seems contradictory, yet this is a very important piece of poultry behavior to help them clean themselves. Exhibited by the chicken rolling and kicking within a dip in the ground, or a provided space for birds that don’t get the opportunity to free-range, the act of covering themselves with dirt is actually a method to rid themselves of problem pests.

The Importance

Having an area to take these dust baths is extremely valuable for chickens, in that it is shown to reduce external parasites that commonly plague poultry, such as lice and mites. In warm Summer months, there is the added benefit of providing a chance for the bird to cool down. While it may appear to be a frenzied action as you watch on, this behavior is noted by chicken keepers to signify a happy bird!  As a backyard chicken owner over the years myself, I came to know each flock on a personal level, and studied their actions daily. I noted that they appeared to be in their most relaxed state while dust bathing, showing contentedness as they closed their eyes after a good roll.

The Process

Dust baths begin naturally with the bird approaching a spot of loose soil, scratching the area as if they were foraging. They scratch the dirt out of their chosen spot, creating an oval shaped dip in the ground. Depending on the weather, they tend to select a sunny place for cool days, or a shaded area when it is hot. The chicken will then lower themselves into the hole they’ve made, taking a position that resembles laying.

Leaning to one side, they will use their leg to kick dirt onto their back. The chicken will then straighten up and puff their feathers, shaking the dirt around in an attempt to cover themselves fully. During this time, a chicken will also rub the side and back of their head in the dirt as well. If the area lacks loose dirt at any point, they will use their beak to pull outside dirt into the hole near their chest.

This process can last for a good deal of time as the bird repeats the process of kicking, rolling, and shaking the dirt on themselves. When they are finished, they may close their eyes and remain relaxed in place, or they may stand up and go about foraging once again.

The Homemade Dust Bath

In the event your chickens are unable to free range, or live in an area with hard-packed clay that makes it difficult for them to find loose soil, consider providing a homemade dust bath mixture for them! Start by selecting a deep container to put the mix in, with short enough sides the chicken can hop onto. Examples of containers include old tires, kiddie pools, and even litter boxes. With larger flocks, a kiddie pool is an ideal option, as it allows multiple birds to bathe instead of fighting for a small spot.

While recipes and measurements for the mixture vary, the basic ingredients are loose dirt and sand. Other ingredients include wood ash, food-grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE), and dried herbs such as Lavender or Mint. Caution should be taken when using Diatomaceous Earth if the mixture is too dusty, as it can irritate the nasal passage of humans when breathed in. Be sure to follow the directions and precautions on the package label.

A commonly used recipe for the provided dust bath is:

• 2 parts loose soil
• 1 part sand
• 1 part cooled wood ash (wood only, not from burning charcoal or garbage fires)
• 1/2 part Diatomaceous Earth.
• OPTIONAL: 1/2 part dried/powdered herbs (Lavender, Mint, Rosemary, and Sage)

While it is an important action to the chicken, it can also be enjoyable to watch from a distance, especially for someone who has not seen the behavior before. Consider the benefits to your chicken’s health and well-being by ensuring they have a place to dust bathe regularly.

Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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