Owning chickens is a simple pleasure in life. Living in an urban setting with chickens just seems normal for this farmer’s-daughter-turned-urbanite. For all practical matters, the chickens don’t mind where they live, just as long as they have food, water, predator-proof shelter, and an area to take dust baths.
What? You haven’t heard of dust baths? Now while this doesn’t appeal to all the critters on your homestead or backyard, chickens absolutely love them. And the dustier they get, the more they seem to enjoy it. In case you don’t believe me, I have included a picture showing three of my Marans enjoying a leisurely dust bath (which they decided to do in one of my garden beds).
A burning question you may have is, “Why do chickens take dust baths?”. Well, the simple answer is this is how they protect themselves from external parasites such as mites and lice which can live on the skin, feathers, and shanks of the birds.
I would also add (as a frequent observer of this ritual) that dust baths are social occasions. If the area is large enough, multiple chickens will bathe together and after they finally settle in place, my girls will begin to coo softly, definitely a sign of a very contented chicken. They truly enjoy their ‘spa’ time and frequently take up to an hour in their dust bath.
If your chickens free-range, they will search out an area. For my girls, they prefer a spot in the shade and with very loose soil. They will start scratching with their feet, creating a chicken-sized hollow. Once they have dug down deep enough (generally 1″ – 3″) they will lay down on their side, never in the classic chicken-on-a-nest-box pose. Then using both their feet and wings in a coordinated effort, they stir up the soil. The feet kick up the dirt while their wings help distribute the resulting ‘dust’ on themselves. Once they have an established area, they will return over and over, but if the area is changed (soil is no longer loose or if a large plant is now in that place) they will seek out a different location.
My araucana, Frost, is in mid-dust bath. When I snapped the photo, she just started to roll to the other side. Notice how she squirreled herself at the edge of my carrots? As she bathed, she nibbled on the carrot foliage, and enjoyed a bath-time snack.
Please note that when a chicken has finished with their bath, they will stand up and shake themselves. If you are watching them, I would recommend standing back at least 4′ if you don’t want to get covered in the resulting dust cloud; 10′ back if you are wearing white.
When conditions prevent my chickens from free-ranging, they are confined to the coop and run. I create a dust bath area in the run so they can enjoy this ritual. Since I know they like shady spots, I select a shady corner of the run, dig out a hollow that is about 4 chickens wide and then fill the hollow with sand. They love the sand! It is even looser than the soil in my garden beds. They are in the bath area as soon as I step aside, which on some days, I am almost tripping over chickens to get out of the way.
So fellow chicken-lovers, embrace the dust bath. Not only is it good for their health, but it allows for some great social interaction. After all, don’t we all deserve a little spa time?