For those who free range their chickens, the sight of the birds rolling around in the dirt, lounging about in the dust before shaking themselves clean with a spectacular, plumage-rustling display, is a familiar one. At first glance, it might seem like the birds are playing around or perhaps trying to cool down on a hot day. Both of those suspicions are likely true, but rolling around in a shallow hole in the ground serves an even more important purpose. For chickens, getting clean is a dirty business.
Dust baths are often a social event for chickens as they help each other pack as much dust as possible into their feathers. It’s fun to watch, but absolutely essential for the health of the chickens. As the abrasive dust rubs removes dead skin and dirt, it also smothers mites and lice that may be lurking in a chicken’s plumage. This instinctive behavior keeps chickens healthy as well as looking and smelling good. When given the opportunity to free range, chickens will dig a shallow pit and may linger for hours, luxuriating in their makeshift spa. For chickens confined to a run, the process may be a little trickier. If the soil beneath the run is loose and not too rocky, the chickens will find a spot to set up shop within the run, cooperating to establish a dust bath. If the soil isn’t bath friendly, they may need a little help.
All that’s needed to provide a dust bath for your flock is a span of loose soil deep enough for a chicken to accumulate dust as it rolls. While chickens dig in the ground, the same result can be achieved by placing a sturdy container in the run and filling it with an appropriate medium.
The container chosen for a dust bath can vary by the number of birds in your flock, but should be no smaller than 15”x24” with a depth of 12”. A galvanized tub or large wooden crate will make an effective dust bath, but sturdy plastic bins can be used or even enclosures as large as a child’s wading pool or sandbox. Chickens like having a “bath buddy,” so try to provide a bath large enough to accommodate two or more birds at a time.
The recipe for the dirt in your DIY dust bath can vary, as long as the blend is a clean, loamy mix free of chemicals. A loose soil that is free of fertilizers or chemicals should be a primary component of the mix, but a semi-abrasive blend may include ingredients like wood ash and builder’s sand for best results. Food-grade diatomaceous earth is sometimes recommended for its effectiveness in killing mites, fleas and other parasites, but airborne DE (as experienced in a dust bath) has been associated with respiratory problems. While the risk is minimal, my inclination is to skip it, unless parasites are a particular problem in your coop.
Place dust bath containers when rain will not be an issue and rake or sift occasionally to keep clean. Your chickens will thank you.