For those of you who don’t keep chickens in the hot hot south, you can completely skip over this post. Delete it from your inbox! For the love of God, flee while you can!
But for those of you who do…
If you’ve noticed an unusual decrease in egg laying…or is that just the summer heat?
Pale, anemic looking combs.
Feather loss out of season…or really is that just the heat? Because when you’re farming in Arizona, you know that the summer is like everyone else’s hard winter. Nothing thrives. It’s not the time to plant that new crop or start the next building project, it’s the time to rest, don a very small swimsuit and work on your golden yes-I-live-in-the-desert tan.
Animals respond in all sorts of weird ways to the heat. But if you’ve come into primo laying weather, and those eggs just ain’t a-comin’, it might be time to inspect your coop and your birds for poultry ticks.
You can go months and not even know you have them. They are the ‘bed-bug’ of the chicken world (coop bug?), they hide in tiny cracks in the wood during the day, and come out at night to feast on your fine feathered friends.
Regular ticks are no match for chickens. They gobble them up lickety-split. But a tick that hides during the day, and only comes out when your beloved chickens are in their sleepy-stupor (is anything more uncoordinated than a sleepy chicken?) now that’s something to be reckoned with.
We were experiencing all of the above symptoms, getting worse and worse for months without any clue what was happening (and maybe this is where you will step in and say, ‘Ghee whiz! Inspect your chickens more often!’ to which I would reply ‘Touché.’).
We were in the middle of constructing a new coop to house the meat birds when we discovered these!
Ew, Ew, Ew, Ew, Ew! Burn your clothes, people. This is gross.
The little black dots are tick-poo, they will leave it around the cracks where they are living.
(Good news, no black dots=no ticks, bad news, black dots=ticks for sure).
After doing some research, mostly this article, we had a better idea of what we were up against. We had such a cute little chicken coop (a wedding present, too) with it’s shingled roof and little nesting boxes.
But definitely not a coop designed for the desert. All those close walls where the chickens sleep, designed to help keep your hens warm in the winter (not a necessity for Arizona) housed primo hiding places for ticks. In the end, the infestation was so bad we ended up burning it. (This was an extreme case, if you find yourself with ticks you might consider other options first).
We also needed to inspect each chicken one by one, and pull off any ticks that we found. Ticks deposit their little tick-children onto the chickens at night so they can live in a semi-permanent feeding frenzy until they’re big enough to leave the chickens and find a crack to live in. The little tick-children need to be pulled off with tweezers one by one. They are worst under the wing-pits, on the legs and the neck, though they can be anywhere. We cleaned each chicken, and then checked and re-cleaned them a week later.
Poultry ticks are a possibility in the desert. They just are. Even if we got rid of them with pesticides (which we tried) for the season, it’s still a possibility they would return next season on a flock on pigeons passing through. We decided that what we needed was a coop that was as inhospitable towards ticks as possible. That would mean no cracks for the ticks to hide in.
I spent an outlandish amount of time on the internet looking for desert chicken coop designs and came up empty. So we did a bit of our own thinking.
What do chickens need in the desert?
Dirt to bathe in
A place to lay eggs
…food…of course….I’m sure there are some other basic ones…
I concluded that in the desert, without the extreme cold, these needs could be met in a much more stream-lined, open aired way. So here’s what we came up with:
Basically I knew that there couldn’t be any cracks (between wood joints, knots in wood, etc) anywhere near where the chickens were sleeping. In the end, we decided to be really minimalistic with the wood altogether, just enough to hold the coop together (I suppose really, if we were welders, we could have gone without wood altogether…but we’re not…so, there you go). In the places where there had to be wood near their roosts, we’ve gone over all of the cracks with a clear silicone caulking.
So here we are with this beautiful open-air style coop, and we realized that this introduced another problem: predators. Now we don’t have a secure little house to lock them up in at night, just a large enclosed run, and we have coyotes, foxes, bob-cats and mountain lions near by! Oh my!
Fortunately, we built the coop right against the side of our house, which is enough to deter the bob-cats and mountain lions (in our neighborhood at least), and we dug the wire in to the ground several feet and piled either side with stones to deter the coyotes and the foxes. So far this has been enough to keep them safe, but we also installed high roosting poles for them to sleep on, hopefully to buy us a little more time if anything did successfully break in. And, good or bad, their coop is on the wall of our bedroom, so if they’re stirring at night, we can hear it!
Another good idea is a lot of fine dirt or diatomaceous earth on the floor of their run. Poultry ticks dry out easily and so the dirt makes the coop very inhospitable to them. Between that, inspecting each chicken individually, and the new coop, we are now tick free. Or, as tick free as we need to be, since now an infestation would be very unlikely.
I’m sorry if this was all just way too much information. If you keep chickens in Arizona and don’t have ticks, that’s terrific! I wouldn’t lose too much sleep worrying about it. But if you do have ticks, it’s nice to have a resource to come to!