Is it possible? A dust bath could be cleaner?
This is a fairly radical idea, especially since the pre-fab, sparkling clean convenience of the 20th century continues to shape our societies. But within that, or perhaps in response to that, exciting movements around farm-to-table activism and conscious food production emerge to redefine how people eat and what they expect of farmers and growers in their area. Even in bustling big cities, many families are spending the extra money to purchase free-range meat and dairy, exploring options like permaculture, and investing in community programs such as CSAs (community-supported agriculture). Some families and individuals are even taking it a few steps further in urban and suburban settings: they’re keeping backyard chickens.
Today we’re going to dust up on the nitty gritties of dust baths. This will be old news to farmhands and a strange discovery for first-time chicken keepers – and as it turns out, it’s a behavior taking place all over the animal kingdom.
So – what is a dirt bath? Why do chickens do it? What other animals engage in this behavior? And how does this information pertain to your new family egg-layers or burgeoning homestead operation? Should we be taking dust baths too?
Dust bathing, which is also sometimes referred to as sand bathing, is an animal behavior. It looks just like how it sounds – an animal will roll around in the dirt, dust, and sand.
Technically, animal biologists categorize this as a “maintenance behavior”. A wide range of avian and mammalian species take dust baths. Examples include sparrows, elephants, turkeys, ostriches, and quail. There are chinchilla dust baths, pig mud baths, and horses rolling around in the dry dirt.
Now that you know of it, you can probably recall a time or two where you witnessed a mammal or bird taking a dust bath. If not, the time has come to get outside and pay attention! There is also plenty of satisfying examples proliferating on the internet of just this sort of behavior. It’s hard not to assign a certain amount of joyfulness and relief to the animals engaging with flying dirt particles. This fluffy chinchilla knows just what to do. And animals in captivity and in the wild take part in the ritual.
Most humans have a weird thing with dirt and it can be hard for us to understand the impulse. Much of our commercial, medical, and societal conformities have to do with not being dirty. It can come as a shock that a dirt bath would actually be a very effective way for various animals to stay clean.
But unsurprisingly, our “enlightened” homo sapien assumptions can miss important details. Farming communities have long known this to be an aspect of certain animals’ lives and zoological and agricultural scientists are now conducting studies into what’s going on.
The consensus: dirt baths do work. Dirt baths can help keep external parasites away such as mites and fleas. A dirt bath can help an animal dry off from moisture in the environment or sweat from exertion from a hard day’s work. A chicken can clean her feathers for preening, and a racehorse is able to cool off in a sandy stable. Animals can clean off the build-up of excess oil, all the better to fluff up their exteriors and combat parasites for healthier lives.
Some scientists suggest that dust baths have an important communicator function for some animals as well. In the case of squirrels, for example, a strong odor is left in the dirt after a dirt bath. This may be a way individuals are able to signal one another – leading to other various behaviors.
If you have a pet chinchilla or llama or a racehorse, you are going to want to investigate how best to support your animal companion’s dust bathing regiment. Most people with dust bath quandaries on the internet and in communities around the globe are probably inquiring on behalf of their chicken, however, and so we’re going to focus in on that. Here are some things to consider for DIY chicken keepers, crafting the ideal chicken coop, chicken run, and dirt bathing environment for the pecking members of their household.
First of all, the chickens will want regular dust baths in the proper season – and this is a necessary behavior for laying hens, so if you want eggs, you’re going to want to facilitate dirt baths.
The chickens are going to do it whether you create the ideal environment for it or not. And while it can seem like more dirt = more clean from our discussion so far, it actually depends greatly on what dirt the chickens are using for this to truly be the case. Without your help, your chickens may end up dirt bathing in areas that are unclean and potentially full of manure or dead and decaying material. All of this can harbor deadly bacteria for your birds, which can lead to wasted effort on your part, unnecessary animal suffering, and no home-layed scrambled eggs in the morning. These are some truly sad endings that can be avoided.
Luckily, building a dust bath for your roost of feathered ladies is a quick and easy task. And this way, you can guarantee that your birds are showering in the dusty matter that is beneficial instead of harmful, empowering them to preen away and live their best chicken lives.
You can build a sandbox, use a kitty pool, or even a plastic bin for a dust bath. Plastic containers will be easy to clean of any wayward droppings that are sure to happen. Sprinkle in food-grade diatomaceous earth and maybe even some products like MitesBGone. You could also go the herbal route and incorporate lavender, oregano, and wormwood into your sandy dirt – all of which have antibacterial, antimicrobial properties in their essential oils. There’s really no need to mix things up much in your container – your chickens, in their dirt bathing splendor, will do that work for you.
The European Union has had strict legal requirements around dustbathing material since 2012 – and the same may be true where you live. It can be important (and instructive) to look into city and country ordinances in your area regarding this subject to make sure you are meeting these requirements.
Generally, “adequate substrates” include food particles, some brands of cat litter (just not the litter that’s already been used by feline friends in the litter box!), feathers, straw, wood shavings, and wood ash (which contains a healthy dose of vitamin K and magnesium for your chickens). Scientific studies suggest that chickens prefer sandier combinations – though that substrate can be difficult to supply depending on your area and the functionality of the supply chain system. The dryer and sandier, the better.
There’s a lot to learn from the animal world – and perhaps the time has come to rethink our own human ideas about dirt, dust, soil, clay, and other messy elements of our geographical landscapes.
We may still be debating exactly why the chicken crossed the road – but the perks of cleanliness of a dust bath are easy enough to understand. Indeed, while you may not want to forgo the use of your house shower, it can apply to us as well.
Examples include cleaning dishes on a camping trip, beating out the living room rug in the snow, or bobbing around a spa in Iceland and spreading earthen clay all over your face. Sometimes, dirt can be cleaner for us too.
The fact of the matter is, our lives depend upon dirt and the animals remind us that it’s in our best interest to collaborate and embrace the dirt for health, and also for the dirt-bathing fun of it.