Once the warmer weather starts, the poultry mite can become a real problem for your flock.
In this article you'll find all you need to know: what they look like, where they come from, how they affect your chickens, how to tell you've got them, how to get rid of them - and how to prevent them in the first place.
What are chicken mites and what do they look like?
Their biological name is 'Dermanyssus Gallinae' but they're more commonly known as "red chicken mites" or the "red poultry mite".
This is a very enlarged image of what they look like - in reality they're microscopic.
Mites are tiny. You may not even know you've got them. So, how can you tell?
The most obvious way is to look for symptoms in your chickens. These can include some or all of the following:
The most telling sign, though, is that when you examine your chickens individually, you'll see clumps of mites, particularly around the base of the feathers under the wings and around the vent.
Before the mites feed, they look like tiny grey insects; once they've gorged themselves on your chickens' blood they turn bright red.
This short video shows mites around the base of feathers. If you're not sure what to look for, watch the video to find out.
To be sure red mites are definitely what you're dealing with, go into your coop at night with a torch and a piece of white paper.
Check along the perches. If you have a large number, you may be able to see them.
Rub the paper along the bottom of the perches. Does it have red smears? If it does, it's confirmed - you have the dreaded red chicken mite to deal with.
If not dealt with, a few mites can turn into an infestation. And that can lead to death, because the chickens become anaemic and prone to infection.
Even if you find them before they have a chance to reproduce much, they'll be causing your chickens pain. Imagine being trapped in a small room with mosquitoes biting at you, and being able to do nothing to escape.
So if you have any suspicion at all that you have red mite, make sure you don't ignore it. It's not nice to have to deal with it, but better that than cause your chickens pain and possible death.
Firstly, whether you're going to use chemicals or not, there are steps you need to go through to prepare for treatment.
You'll see some information around the internet suggesting the only 'natural' way to get rid of chicken mites is to burn them with a blow-torch.
I don't recommend this. Why not? Because fire and chicken coops just don't go together. A wooden coop and roosts, flammable bedding, and flames aren't a good combination. Fire can spread very quickly, and with tragic results.
This involves introducing a second mite into your coop which feeds on the red mite.
I haven't used this personally, but there's a great article at this link by my friend and expert poultry keeper Tim Daniels, who has used it with success.
Tiny particles of fossilised remains with very sharp edges cut and dehydrate the insects.
Views about DE vary wildly, from some who say it's bad for the respiratory tract in chickens (and humans), to others who claim it works marvels for all kinds of poultry problems.
The reality is somewhere in the middle. Used sparingly around the coop where mites collect, and in dusting hens suffering from mites, it can be very effective.
For more information see my detailed article which explores the risks and benefits - and always wear a mask when using it.
Poultry Shield is only available in the UK in its liquid form. This is an organic, non-toxic product which is very effective at getting rid of mites from coops. Use it regularly for prevention, too.
In the US, although it's not possible to buy the liquid version, you can order its powder form for importation from the UK.
Yep - plain old ash from a wood fire. But do not use ash from a fire which has burned treated wood, or any other substance - it must be pure wood ash.
Some people swear by dusting chickens thoroughly with this in case of an infestation. The easiest way is to put it in a bowl or bucket and rub it into the feathers, particularly under the wings and around the vent.
A note of caution: If you're using this, make sure it is bone dry. Wet wood ash is caustic and will burn your chickens' skin.
If you already have an infestation, herbs will not get rid of mites quickly enough.
As with an infestation of rats, you might have to bite the bullet and use an insecticide first - and then opt for prevention methods by herbs.
The French marigold, tagetes patula, contains pyrethrum which is toxic to insects. See this article for more details.
Pennyworth and peppermint are also both natural repellents. Use them dried, and sprinkled in your chickens' dust-bath and coop.
I like to try natural methods of pest control wherever possible - whether it's with a rat infestation, or these pesky insects.
But because they are so adept at survival, mites are notoriously hard to get rid of. So sometimes chemicals are the only answer.
If the infestation is really bad, you may have no choice but to use a chemical powder to get the insects under control. You'll then be able to follow it up with the gentler, more natural methods of prevention described above.
Look out for these chemicals named on products available commercially. If you're at all worried about side effects, ask your veterinarian's advice.
I avoid using this because it's very toxic, and one of the worst killers of bees. There's no doubt, though, that it does get rid of mites.
If you use it, keep it well away from flowering plants where bees congregate.
Used in humans to get rid of scabies, head lice and bed bugs. It works by entering the bloodstream. When the bug bites, it ingests the drug and is poisoned.
It works in much the same way with chickens. It can have side effects, both on the chickens and on humans (which is why protective gloves and a mask should be worn - something like this one).
It's also toxic to waterfowl (so don't use it on ducks), some collie-type dogs, and kittens.
This is the product I use if I need to get rid of a bad infestation. It's less toxic to mammals, apart from cats who are particularly susceptible to its toxicity, and fish.
So keep it away from your cats and any water sources or ponds.
Prevention is always better than cure. There are a few fairly simple things you can do to make mites in the coop less likely.
A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.
The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.
Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.
1. Haag-Wackermagel, D, and Bircher, A: 'Ectoparasites from feral pigeons affecting humans'. Pub. Journal of Dermatology, 2009.
2. McCrea, B., et al: 'Common lice and mites of poultry - identification and treatment'.
3. Damerow, Gail: 'The Chicken Health Handbook' (2nd edition).
Please note: This page is written as general information only. It is not intended as medical or veterinary advice and should not be taken as such.
If you're worried about your or your chickens' health, you should always see your doctor or veterinarian.