Friday, February 25, 2011

Nit One?

the 'pearly masses' of nits
If only nits came in a count of  just one.  Though a count of none would be better.  This photo shows something poultry keepers wish to never have to see: nits.  These are the eggs of the poultry body louse, Menacanthus stramineus and are often described as "pearly"-- so poetic for something so creepy.  

There are nine species of lice that effect chickens.  Fortunately, only four species are common in N. America.  The above species and the head louse, Cuclotogaster heterographus are very common in the Pacific Northwest.  These external parasites are most likely to show up during autumn & winter.  They are typically introduced from wild bird populations and have nothing to do with the cleanliness of one's husbandry practices or lack thereof.
white crowned sparrow
The USDA recommends keeping wild birds as separate from one's flock as possible as part of their biosecurity program.  While parasites and/or disease can be introduced from other feathered beings, overall I think that this idea is folly.  Yes, these birds can be an "unknown factor" if we are faced with a massive outbreak of some poultry plague, but people have been farming for thousands of years and they didn't do it in a vacuum.  Keeping domestic birds separate from nature and natural surroundings can weaken their immune systems as well as their general hardiness.  It is also rather impoverishing to not have songbirds flitting about.  Yes, they eat food meant for the flock, and can introduce things like lice, but I believe that on the whole they keep my birds' health on its toes in a way that will be a boon to my future poultry generations' long term resistance to disease.

The body louse species that I am dealing with feeds on skin detritus, as well as chewing on skin & feathers.  It is a small--about 1/8" long, straw coloured insect that is moves rather quickly.  It is specific to birds and does not feed on mammals; not pleasant, but easy to control.  So far, even though I have a chicken flock of over fifty birds, I have found the presence of nits and the occasional louse on only one these chickens- my Golden Brabanter rooster, Bigfoot.  (He just will not dust bathe and this rebellious personal habit has now created consequences.  Some new foundlings were also brought to me recently with lice as well.  They were quarantined and have since been treated.)  However, I know that like fleas, if I see one of these buggers more must be around.  Though I have yet to see one of them on the waterfowl, the guineas, or the other chooks, and I handle ALL of my birds regularly- some of them every day.
Me? Lice? Will you still cuddle me?
diatoms- wow!
A natural choice that a number of flock keepers turn to is food grade diatomaceous earth or pyrethrin/permethrins, which are effective products.  Diatomaceous earth ( is composed of the exoskeletons of diatoms, a microscopic marine invertebrate.  It is sharp to the soft bodies of insects like fleas, lice, etc. It slices the adults, and dries/ruptures eggs (though not lice eggs).  Pyrethrin/permethrins are an insecticide produced from chrysanthemums that disrupts the nervous system of insects (but has little effect on eggs).  DE & pyrethrins/permethins are very fine and powdery and not advisable to get in your lungs.  For this reason, I choose not to use them with my poultry for dust baths or sprinkled in bedding, though I would consider fumigating the coop with DE (while wearing a mask) to get rid of any parasites that might be hiding in crevices.  If I find I ever have to do this, I would keep the chickens out while dusting and then vacuum up the residue.  Since the act of dust bathing or scratching at bedding produces clouds of dust, I believe that if it's not healthy for me to be breathing, it's not a good choice for creatures as small as a chicken to be inhaling.

An unnatural choice is Ivermectin.  Introduced in the 80's, Ivermection is a broad-spectrum parasitic medicine.  It is often injected into the nape of the chicken's neck.  It can be challenging to administer the appropriate dose, and side effects can include blindness, tremors, and seizures.  Not something I want to chance.  (Like so many medical products, I doubt the companies manufacture them because of the goodness of their hearts.)  Eggs should not be eaten for a couple weeks after administration.  (If you read the poultry sites there are people who do eat them and say they did not become ill, but really folks, toxins can stay in your body a long time and they are rarely benign indefinitely.)
Instead, I use aromatics in their bedding-- clippings of fresh rosemary, lavender, sage, mint, fennel, chamomile, etc.-- whatever I have in abundance on the farm.  For the coop they get branches and long stems; for the dust bath, I cut these herbs finer.  In summer these help keep down flies as well.  Flies do not care for chamomile or fennel.  Shredded, dry citrus peels are also a good addition to the coop bedding.
rosemary-not just for roasting

Cedar shavings often get a bad wrap on poultry sites, but I have not observed any problems using them for coop bedding and have spoken with a number of farmers that have used them for over forty years without detriment.  They are certainly effective when it comes to deterring insects.

A monthly tea of garlic in the flock's water is also beneficial for removing/preventing both external & internal parasites.  I use 8 minced cloves per gallon that I let steep the night before.  In a pinch, 1500mg garlic oil tablets also work-- 2 per gallon.  (I also offer a non-treated container of water, to prevent dehydration in case a bird will not drink the flavoured water.  The treated water is always completely consumed long before the untreated one.  I have yet to experience eggs with off or sulphurous flavours like a lot of literature suggests.)

To remove the existing parasites, I gave Bigfoot (and the foundling pullets) a bath in warmish water with a gentle liquid soap and lavender oil.  Prior to his bath, I used olive oil to dissolve the clusters of nits at the feather bases.  Coconut oil is supposed to also be great for this as well as having other healthful benefits--  For the other birds, they get spritzed every few days with a spray composed of warm water, lavender oil, coconut oil, and lemon juice.  There is a product on the market called Poultry Protector that works well-  It's an enzymatic that I have used will good results, but it is rather pricey and does not remove nits.  All of these treatments are also good for mites, fleas, ticks, etc.  Thankfully, ticks & fleas are pretty uncommon on chickens in our area.  I am knocking on wood right now, as I have not had these other parasites on my birds.
A clean Bigfoot
For those of you that do buy birds from me-- please know that I am very conscientious about their health/well being.  I give a three month health guarantee with all my birds.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Yard, Garden, & Patio Show

UPDATE:  Just had to share that while explaining the terminology for chicken anatomy with a tame hen on my arm, she become very fidgety which was unusual for this bird.  Within seconds, she emitted a squawk and an egg shot out of her, forming a perfect arc from the edge of the stage to the floor where it bounced slightly, but did not break!  The crowd went wild.  Pretty amazing!

I am been a little behind on my new blogging venture of late, but wanted to let people know that I will speaking at the Yard, Garden & Patio show in Portland, OR at the Portland Convention Center this Sunday, February 20 at 11:30a.m.-  on what else-  "Keeping Chickens in Your Backyard".  The talk will be an hour and will be featuring some of the more exotic members of my flock.  It is free with admission to the show.  The YGP show is a lovely gardening exhibit with great local vendors, display gardens, and expert demonstrations.  It's worth checking out if you love plants, gardening, or maybe just want some weekend entertainment.  They also feature local wineries.

New posts will be up shortly about keeping Guinea Fowl, as well as natural treatments for deterring chicken lice (icky!).  Recently hatched some Blue Copper Marans, Wheaten Marans, & Wheaten Penedesencas.  Eggs for Russian Orloff bantams and frizzled Ameraucana are what's now in the incubator.