We all know that chickens love to dust bathe – and very frequently in the areas of our garden that we would prefer they didn’t! So why do they do it, and how can you manage it so that your girls can live in harmony with your garden, rather than destroying it?

First of all, the ‘why’. Dust bathing is important for a chicken’s hygiene. The dust penetrates down between the feathers, removing excess build-up of oil and dander (dead skin cells), which some parasites such as lice, mites, etc. feed on. It also kills the parasites by covering them with a fine coating that blocks their breathing pores, causing them to suffocate and die. Dust bathing is also a social activity for chickens – if the area is big enough then they will often bathe as a group. If it is too small, then the pecking order comes into play, with the top hens going first, and those lower down the order having to wait (a bit like when we were kids and my older sister always got the first bath, and I had the second-hand bathwater!)

Secondly, the ‘where’. Given no specific area to dust bathe, chickens will create their own wherever they can. If they are confined to a run then they will simply scratch in an area to create a chicken-sized hole in the ground. If they free range, and you have borders that are regularly turned over, or other areas of loose soil, then these will automatically be targeted by your chickens as they require a lot less work. This can be extremely frustrating for any gardener, so by creating a dedicated dust bathing area for your chickens you can hopefully minimize damage to the planted areas in your garden.

I had just prepared this bed for some tomato plants when the girls found it and decided it was perfect for a quick dust bath!

And last but not least, the ‘how’. In order to get the most from a dust bath the chicken will first spend some time wriggling down to create a hole in the earth with her body, using her beak to scratch the dirt around her to loosen it up. She will kick up the dust with her legs and wings, causing it to fly all over the place. When she is satisfied that she has created enough loose material, she will begin to rub herself into the dirt – lying on one side and getting the dirt well and truly between her feathers. At this point your chicken starts to look a lot like a ragged feather duster that’s only fit for the bin!

Igor (foreground) just about to start dustbathing, with Braveheart (background) doing her best feather duster impression.

Once she has finished rubbing, she will stand up and shake herself, so that all the dust falls out. (Try not to be standing downwind of your chicken at this point, or she will treat you to your own mini-dust bath.)

Braveheart shaking herself down before leaving the dust bath.

So now that you know all about dust bathing, how do you create a place that your girls will be happy to use? You need to take several factors into account. It should be somewhere that is sheltered, so that in bad weather it will still be dry enough to use. (It is meant to be a dust bath, not a mud bath, after all). It must be large enough for a chicken to move around in and flap their wings comfortably. It doesn’t have to be huge – a bowl, a cat litter tray or similar will suffice, but the smaller the container, the more time you are likely to spend refilling it, as the contents are spread far and wide. (Trust me - I learned that the hard way).

Photo of Henrietta and Beaker dust bathing © Chris Koester - Flickr .

If you suffer from long winters or lots of rain then it is best to keep the dust bath close to (or even inside) the coop or run, so that the girls can use it even if they don’t want to go outside in bad weather. However, it also needs to be far enough away from food and water bowls that they won’t get contaminated by flying dirt.

My girls’ dust bath area is a wooden frame about 1m x 1.5m (about 3 ½ x 5 foot) covered on three sides with chicken wire and pieces of Perspex to contain the dirt. The roof is made with old secondary double glazing panels that a friend gave me. All of this allows the light in, keeping it bright and warm, so that even in the winter it is a place that the girls are happy to go and use.

As it is outside on the lawn, I placed an old piece of rigid plastic (the sort they use to separate stacks of water bottles on a pallet) on the ground before I filled it with dirt. That stops all the grass and weeds growing up through the dirt and invading the area. Since the Perspex doesn’t come all the way up the walls, in the winter I cut up clear plastic feed bags and use them to cover the gaps to prevent the rain getting in. I remove them in the summer, allowing more air to circulate so that the girls don’t cook in there.

If your dust bath is going to be inside a covered run or similar area, then you don’t need to get as complicated as I did – you simply need a way to retain the dirt within the desired area. The larger the dust bathing area, the less ‘spillage’ will occur, and so you can get away with using something such as old railway sleepers or a couple of rows of bricks to create a ‘sand pit’ style dust bathing area.

Here is a simple but effective dust bath idea from PetDIYs.com (notice that even with this size of dust bath there is still a lot of material being thrown out over the side) : http://www.petdiys.com/gallery/diy-chicken-dust-bath-box/

Once you have created your dust bath, you need to fill it with something that your girls will want to bathe in. As with everything chicken related, each flock has their own likes and dislikes, and what works for one flock may not work for another, so a bit of trial and error is often involved.

Common substances (or ‘substrates’ as they are properly known) for dust bathing include potting compost (the cheapest brand you can buy – your girls don’t need fertilizer or other fancy additives in their bath!); wood ash from your fire; sand; mulch; or simply loose soil from the garden. Many people find a mix of ingredients work best. My girls love the fireplace ash, but it gets a bit sticky in the winter, so I mix it with a cheap bag of potting compost to give a better texture.

Some people also add diatomaceous earth to the mix, although this is a controversial issue, and very much a matter of personal choice. DE is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock which crumbles into an extremely fine powder. It is claimed that it can kill parasites both internally and externally, and can be used as a food supplement for both humans and animals. Aside from the fact that I’m not convinced about these claims, the packs contain the warning you should wear a mask when using it as inhaling it can be harmful to health. Since the chickens are going to be throwing it around in the air when they dust bathe, they are bound to inhale some too, so I choose not to use it.
However, if I notice a particularly bad outbreak of mites or lice then I will sprinkle a small quantity of a natural dusting powder containing geraniol and pyrethrum extract (but no DE) onto the surface of the dust bath. As they bathe, the chickens cover themselves with the powder far more efficiently than I could ever hope to do if I dusted them myself. As far as I am concerned it is a win-win situation – the girls enjoy doing all the dirty work themselves, whilst I get to have fun watching them!

Hopefully this article has given you some information about why dust bathing is so important to your chickens, and some ideas to get you building your own area to keep your girls clean and happy!

Further reading:

Topic of the week - Dustbathing

When do chickens start dustbathing?

Dustbathing.... what to use?

How can I create a dustbath