Few chicken activities are as entertaining to humans as the dust bath. To the uninitiated, stumbling upon a dust-bathing chicken can be alarming and is often mistaken for seizure activity or death. Prior to getting my first chickens, I had read about dust baths, so I was prepared for the sight and the first time I witnessed it, I found it hilarious- I still do. A dust bath is the chicken equivalent of a shower- it is both functional and recreational; chickens use dust baths to clean themselves, to relax, and to socialize. The fact that they are entertaining to us is a collateral benefit.
Dig, snuggle into ditch, scoop with beak, toss into feathers, roll, repeat, shake.
Chickens care for their feathers and skin by digging shallow ditches in soil, mulch, sand, even pine shavings, then tossing it onto themselves. The dirt coats their feathers and settles next to their skin, absorbing excess moisture and oil. It also serves to repel parasites that would otherwise set up housekeeping among the feathers, causing skin and feather damage, irritation, weight loss and interfere with egg production and fertility.
In hot weather, chickens dig down into the ground to rest in cooler soil.
Post dust bath shake-out.
From a very early age, chickens enjoy tossing bedding up into their feathers and settling down into the shallow ditches they have made. Baby chicks appreciate a sand box for this purpose, but will dust-bathe in pine shavings if sand is not made available.
This is a baby quail. Quail enjoy dust baths as much as chickens!
When I was a new chicken-keeper, my chickens were confined to the run, which consisted of clay-laden earth that was much too dense for an enjoyable dust bath. I had read different suggestions for concocting dust baths that ran the gamut from sand to fireplace ash, road debris, peat moss, food grade diatomaceous earth and garden powder. I opted for plain, unadulterated, construction grade sand. The truth is: sand performs all of the functions chickens require of a dust bath- there is no need for additives. I use sand on the floor of my chicken runs and for litter in all of my coops and the chickens dust-bathe in all seasons and weather conditions.
ABOUT DIATOMACEOUS EARTH
I am often asked about the utility and safety of food grade, diatomaceous earth (DE) in dust bath areas and have come to the conclusion that, not only is it unnecessary, it is unhealthy for chickens and the environment. Food grade diatomaceous earth is a fossilized mineral dust with microscopic, razor-sharp edges that acts as a mechanical insecticide, slicing into insects' bodies, dehydrating them to death. Regular exposure to diatomaceous earth is a health hazard to chickens since, when inhaled, its crystalline silica particles adhere to and scar their lung tissue. DE manufacturers recommend the use of respirators when using DE, yet none make respirators for chickens. For a deeper look at the subject of DE and opinions from experts, see these two articles here and here. I do not use DE in my chickens' dust bathing areas.
My baby Polish Crested chickens, enjoying a nice, mulch dust bath.
Winter dust bath in the sand, under the coop. As long as the sand stays dry
it will remain loose and good for dust-bathing all year.
Chickens that are free to range will select their own areas in which to dust-bathe. Invariably, they will choose the driest, most dusty spot available. By far, mulch and sand are my flock's materials of choice. I long ago resigned myself to the fact that my chickens would scatter my mulch beds and dig up certain plants; that's their natural tendency and that's okay with me.
Thank goodness for that third eyelid!