The proliferation of parasites in a flock can result in unthriftiness and general depression, to ultimately death of any or all of the birds, therefore it is important to recognise the symptoms and to act swiftly to eradicate the problem, before secondary disease decimates the entire flock. There are a number of reasons why pests can get out of hand.
Overcrowding: Over-stocking the hen house is a common problem with novice poultry keepers. Birds kept in overcrowded conditions are far more prone to parasitic infection and disease than those kept in less close proximity.
Poor sanitation: Like any pets, chcikens must be kept in hygienic conditions. I am not saying that hospital-like cleanliness is required, rather that houses and yards should be kept clean of old manure and waste food, and that the floors must be kept dry.
Infestation from outside sources: The most common source of parasites is new birds brought in from other places. Obviously, chickens are the main carriers of chicken parasites, so it is important to quarantine for a few weeks, all new stock before introducing them to your main flock. Even taking all these precautions, sometimes the nasties can slip through anyway, most commonly carried by wild birds such as sparrows or starlings and pests such as rats and mice.
There are other pests found in localised areas, but we will concentrate on the main ones described below.
Lice Menopon gallinae appear as small, creamy brown looking insects that proliferate on the body of the bird. They seem to congregate mostly towards the bird’s butt end and it is here that they lay their eggs (which appear as chalky white blobs stuck to the base of the feathers. They are transmitted by direct contact with infested birds. While it is believed that lice do not actually bite the birds, but rather eat dead skin and feather debris, the irritation they cause can result in the birds picking at themselves (and each other) which can cause sores and general depression. Now for the good news… lice are easy to destroy as they live their entire life cycle on the host’s body and they cannot live on humans or other non-birdie critters! A quick dip of the birds in a malathion bath and liberal use of a sulphur-based insecticide dust will soon get rid of lice.
Red mites Dermanyssus gallinae are more sneaky and much more dangerous. These tiny blood-suckers hide away during the day and only come out in the darkness hours to feed on the blood of your chickens. Often left undetected, they can breed at such a rate that within weeks, there can be literally millions of these beasties in your fowl shed… and you probably won’t even realise it. The other bad news about mites is that they will happily bite you, your kids and pets with gay abandon and can hide away in your bedding, under carpets and in wall joints. And boy, get bitten and you will break out in tiny lumps which itch terribly and burn. So mites should not be made welcome around your birds. They are mostly spread at night by rats and mice, and the younger mites may hitch rides on sparrows and other wild birds. Left unchecked they can cause chronic anaemia and death, as well as spreading more dangerous diseases. As mites do not spend all their time on your chickens, they are harder to eradicate. Of course, firstly you have to find them in the shed. Look for white powdery dust on the perches, at wall joints and under feeders, nestboxes and water containers. Tiny brownish-red blobs (the colour of dried blood) may be apparent also. These are the mites’ poop. Take a look in the shed at night using a flashlight. Mites will appear as tiny blackish-red dots that will crawl away from the light (the baby ones look pale grey). On white birds, they stand out very clearly. Eradication is a two stage process. Firstly, you need to protect the birds from the insects at night and secondly, the bugs have to be killed in their hideaway homes. The good old malathion bath is the best thing to protect the birds. Remove all nests, food containers and waterers from the shed, clean out the old litter and preferably burn it. Scrape any hard manure off perches and floors as mites love to hide underneath such stuff. Liberally paint kerosene on all perches, floors and along cracks and wall joints. While malathion sprays can be used, they do not kill the eggs which can hatch and reinfest your shed very quickly. Another way to treat small sheds is to clean as before, hang feed bags over the wire netting and use one or two of those “flea bomb” insecticides. Of course, make sure your birds are safely outside and that you do not spend any time inside the shed until a safe period of time has elapsed. While the “bombs” are working, you will probably find squillions of tiny bugs trying to escape the poison by crawling out of the walls on the outside of the shed. These are easily contained by systematically misting them with a fine malathion spray. In this way, most of the adult and hatchling mites will be destroyed. Follow this up with the kerosene painting exercise and you will be well on the way to success. It is most important to repeat this procedure three more times at five day intervals to make sure all hatchlings and nymphs are killed.
Fowl Ticks Argas persicus are also blood sucking critters that can cause paralysis and death if allowed to remain unchecked for any length of time. They may carry a dangerous disease called spirochaete or tick fever. They have a similar life cycle to mites and should be treated in the same way.
Scaly-leg mites Cnemidocoptes mutans are strange little critters that live under the scales of your chickens’ legs. Left untreated, they cause the scales to lift and eventually the legs become quite grotesque with a crusty, grey substance. In severe cases, lameness and loss of toes may occur. These mites are transmitted by contact and seem to be picked up from infested ground. To successfully eradicate these beasties, a prolonged treatment is required. Firstly, wash the bird’s feet and legs in hot soapy water to soften the skin and scales. Using a nail brush, scrub away the grey mess and dead scales, but take care not to scrub so hard the legs bleed. Dry the legs. Make up a mixture of one part methylated spirits, one part olive oil, half a part of kerosene and half a part of an aromatic oil (eucalyptus or camphor are ideal). Shake the mixture in a bottle to blend the ingredients and paint onto the washed (dry) legs making sure the mixture is pushed up under the scales. Repeat this nightly for at least a week. An added bonus is that the aromatic oil acts as a fumigant which helps keep bugs off the birds at night. Clean the shed floors and use a malathion spray. It may help to sprinkle sulphur based insecticide powder about also. Once the mites are killed, providing the legs were not allowed to become too bad, they should return to tiptop condition at the next moult. Unfortunately, scaly-leg mites seem to keep returning so be ever-vigilant.
Fleas Ceratophyllus gallinae are similar to mites, in that they infest the birds but breed in the soil or litter of your fowl shed. They can be treated in the same manner as described for red mites. Unlike normal fleas, Stick-fast Fleas Echidnophaga gallinae bury their entire heads into the host and spend days attached in this manner. They usually appear around the eyes and face as black “eyebrows”. Smear a light coating of an oily substance over these insects and they suffocate very quickly. Olive oil and baby oil are useful for this, as they do not irritate the birds’ eyes. Treat the shed floors as for mites and ticks. Like mites, all fleas will infest your home if left unchecked and will feed on any living warm-blooded animals.