1 September 2014

The bliss and function of dust bathing

Welcome spring, and aren't you wet today? But the recent spell of sunny days has seen my chickens dust bathing regularly. I love watching them do it - they seem so blissed out as they squirm in the dusty ground, usually on a sunny afternoon and often with a pal or two - but why are they really doing it?

I'm sure they do enjoy it immensely, and even some scientists suggest it is motivated by pleasure. It's certainly a major behaviour of chickens, and they can't do it in battery cages. Animal welfare scientists haven't been able to prove that they 'need' to do it in order not to suffer (they won't consistently 'work' for it, by pecking a key or squeezing through a tight space, like they will for a nest box, for example). But if they're deprived of a suitable substrate to dust bathe in, they bathe like mad when they do get to a decent patch of dry dirt, as if to compensate.

Of course most of the chickens in this world never see a patch of dirt. They dust bathe in what they can: food pellets, sawdust, woodchips, sand and other substrates that, at a stretch, take the place of a nice dusty spot. (Mine would turn their beaks up at most of those, but backyard chickens have it very, very good compared to most of their type.) Disturbingly, they also 'vacuum dust bathe' on wire floors. Sad.

The 'function' of dust bathing is also a bit murky. They are said to do it to remove stale oil from their feathers, and to dislodge ectoparasites (mites, lice etc). We've noticed our chickens standing around a dust bathing bird, pecking at it occasionally as if getting tasty morsels. That said, I've never seen a single insect on their bodies.

Dust bathing also smooths their outer feathers and fluffs up the down underneath, and dries them out. But to confuse things, even naked, featherless chickens dust bathe!

I think this is a case where scientists can experiment all they like - and sometimes it's needed, for example to provide evidence to change legislation about what farmed chickens must be provided with - but it's obvious to everybody that chickens should be able to dust bathe for their physical and mental welfare. They don't need to do it every day, but they need regular access to dry, dusty ground.

What do you do to enable your chickens to dust bathe?

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