A couple of Christmas’s ago I took a call from a poultry keeper who was going through their first winter with chickens. They were looking for advice on how to deal with the constant downpours of rain we’ve been having. We discussed different ways to keep the run as dry as possible and keep the chickens out of standing water and reduce the amount of muck they traipse into the coop, but one thing they said caught my attention: “The birds seem to get soaked every day, they didn’t even look dry when I let them out this morning.”
I asked if the birds emerged from the coop eager for a drink or to get some feed and I was told they just seemed to stand there looking miserable, particularly the cockerel. This suggested something more than just the cold wet weather to me, and as the keeper only lived a few miles away, I offered to pop around to take a look.
A casual glance at the cockerel would have suggested it was simply wet on its back, but its sunken stance along with a more greasy appearance to the feathers suggested a possible northern fowl mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum) infestation. I picked the cockerel up and parted the feathers at the base of the tail and the mite was very much in evidence crawling over the skin (and heading across my fingers).
These mites become far more active during our winter, as they prefer cooler climates. Once they find a suitable host bird they will multiple at an alarming rate. Like the summer pest red mite, these are blood suckers but unlike red mite these little nasties complete their entire lifecycle on the birds and are far more aggressive, feeding around the clock. The greasy look of the feathers is caused by their faecal deposits: they are capable of killing a bird within a matter of days if the infestation isn’t dealt with.
In this instance referral to the local poultry vet was required as the off-the-shelf products may not have acted quickly enough. Regular dusting of your chickens (for example with a pyrethrum-based poultry powder) will help keep northern fowl mite and other external parasites at bay, but dusting wet birds can be difficult, and given the soggy ground conditions the chickens’ normal dust bath may not be available. It is easy to understand how this new keeper was caught out.
The key is to inspect and handle your flock regularly. A lot of the skill in poultry keeping is husbandry by eye, as chickens can have a canny way of disguising ailments until it’s too late. So if you sense something isn’t quite right then check, double check and seek advice. Prompt action could save time, money and above all, the chicken’s life.