Ah! There’s Nothing Like a Good Dust Bath in the Afternoon

Ah! There’s Nothing Like a Good Dust Bath in the Afternoon

By Carrie Cook
Verona, Wisconsin

Perhaps you’ve noticed your flock scratching and rolling around in the dust, tossing up clouds of dirt and digging out holes, and wondered if they’ve all gone nuts. Or perhaps you’ve long been aware of this behavior and never given it a second thought. What’s going on? Surely they aren’t only trying to annoy you by digging up that newly planted flowerbed. Is this something all poultry do? Do I need to provide for this behavior in any way? Is it just random flopping around, or is there a method to the madness?

What I’m describing is known as dust bathing. Chickens, turkeys, and quail all dust bathe, as well as many wild birds. On average, birds do this every second day, and most often at mid-day. Even if they are deprived of any decent substrate in which to dust bathe (for example, hens housed in bare wire-bottomed cages), they will still go through the motions. We know it’s stimulated by light and heat, and possibly by the sight of other birds dust bathing or discovery of a great, dusty spot. This article specifically refers to chickens — since that is where my experience and most of the research lies — but the general ideas apply to tiny Japanese quail as well as 30-pound turkeys.

Anatomy of a Dust Bath

Dust bathing is an innate, natural behavior that follows a predictable pattern. A full dust bath comes in two distinct phases, sometimes referred to as the “tossing” period and the “rubbing” period. Tossing comes before rubbing. Sometimes only the tossing phase is performed. It’s finished off with a general shaking to remove excess dust from the plumage.

The tossing phase consists of repeated cycles of bill raking through the ground or litter, scratching with one leg, head rubbing, and vertical wing shaking, all with fluffed out feathers. The most dramatic part is the wing shaking, in which a hen will lie on her breast and scratch both legs back and up, tossing up clouds of dust while she shuffles her outstretched winds. Feathers are fluffed out to help the dust work its way underneath to the skin. This will go on for about 10-15 minutes, and often results in a bird-sized hole being dug out in the litter.

During the rubbing phase, the feathers are held close to the body, unlike the tossing phase. Birds will lie on their sides with flattened feathers and rub all over, pushing off with one leg against the ground, the rim of their hole, or each other. Depending on what litter the hen is “dusting” in, rubbing can either be nearly continuous for around 15-20 minutes or frequently interrupted by shorter bouts of tossing.

What Does This Accomplish, Anyway?

Surely such a universal and specific behavior evolved for a reason. Actually, there are multiple explanations. The primary reason in the research literature (yes, scientists study this stuff) is that dust bathing provides a means by which old lipids (oils) are removed from the feathers, to be replaced with fresh oils as the birds preen their feathers. In this sense, dust baths are indeed baths. Oils produced by the oil gland at the base of the tail and on the skin itself are spread by the bird’s beak onto the feathers, which protect the feathers and help their insulating properties. However, after a few days, these oils become oxidized in the air and lose their effectiveness. Dust bathing removes these old lipids. On birds deprived of dust baths, oils build up and feathers loose their fluffiness. Again allowed to dust bathe, birds will do it more than normal until their oil levels return to normal. Also, it’s been demonstrated that birds with adequate dust baths are able to maintain a cooler temperature at their skin than those with sub-optimal dust baths.

There are most likely important benefits from dust bathing in addition to maintaining feather quality. One popular theory is that this discourages and/or removes parasites, by reducing the lipids they feed on and physically dislodging or suffocating them. There is also a social component. Chickens prefer to dust bath in groups. Even if the dust bath area is very large they will usually end up clumped together in one big jumble of wings, heads, and legs all askew. The pecking order is still enforced, the higher ranked birds getting the best, loosest soil, yet even the lower ranked birds will risk a peck or two to stay with the group. They will usually proceed through the tossing and rubbing phases more or less in synch. Finally, anyone who has watched birds engage in a good dust bath will agree this appears to be quite a pleasurable activity for the birds, accompanied by relaxed posture and contented soft clucking and trills.

Chicken Dust Bath
A mixed flock of standard breed chickens enjoying an afternoon dust bath.

How to Provide a Good Dust Bath

You don’t have to teach birds to dust bath; they’ll do it on their own with whatever means are available to them. However, birds do have a clear preference for different types of litter in which to dust bathe, and some substrates are more effective at others in maintaining feather quality. Their natural preference agrees with what one might expect. Given the choice, chickens prefer sand over peat, and those are preferred above fresh wood shavings or straw. Also, though, birds can get used to one thing or another, and be hesitant to switch to anything new, even if it is supposedly “better.” The best substrates are things that have small particles that can make good contact with the feathers down to the skin; most commonly, this will be loose dirt or sand. If the particles are too big, the rubbing phase will be interrupted by frequent returns to tossing behavior, as the birds attempt to get more material worked down to their skin.

Chicken Dustbath
A Welsummer and black Leghorn in the tossing phase of dust bathing.

If birds have access to a yard or free-range, they will choose one or several areas to dust bathe, even if it means digging through the lawn. If this is not the case, or if you find their choice of location is destructive (perhaps they’re digging up your garden, or alongside a fence), you should provide them with a dust bath area. A low-sided box filled with at least 2 inches of sand will do. A more sturdy option would be to build an open-bottomed square using, say, 1x 6” wooden planks, and filling this with 3” to 5” of loose soil. Make it large enough to accommodate several birds at once.

Conclusion

Dust bathing is a normal and important behavior. While we can enjoy watching this display of “chicken-ness,” we can also know that it is important for our flocks’ health and well-being.

Chicken Dust Bath
The rubbing phase has been joined by another Leghorn, Buff Chantecler, and Black Orpington.

Bibliography

• Hogan, JA and F Van Boxel, “Causal Factors Controlling Dust Bathing in Burmese Red Junglefowl: Some Results and a Model.” Animal Behavior 1993, 46: 627-635.

• Lundberg, AS and LJ Keeling, “Social Effects on Dust Bathing Behaviour in Laying Hens: Using Video Images to Investigate Effect of Rank.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2003,

• Petherick, JC, Seawright, E., Waddington, D, Duncan, IJH, and LB Murphy, “The Role of perception in the Causation of Dust Bathing Behaviour in Domestic Fowl.” Animal Behavior 1995, 49: 1521-1530.

• Van Liere, DW, “The Significance of Fowl’s Bathing in Dust.” Animal Welfare 1992, 1:187-202.

• Van Liere, DW, Kooijman, J., and PR Wiepkema, “Dust Bathing Behaviour of Laying Hens as Related to Quality of Dust Bathing Material.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 1990, 26: 127-141.

Originally published in the June/July 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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