By Laura E. John – The goal of most poultry flock owners is to reap all of the benefits from their investments of time, money and labor. An essential step in reaching this goal is to maintain a healthy flock, one that is free from chicken mites and Northern fowl mites. The health of your flock is important regardless of whether you are maintaining backyard chickens for pleasure, raising chickens for eggs or meat, or breeding top-quality birds for exhibition purposes.
General sanitation and cleanliness will help prevent infestations of parasites. Poultry houses should be clean and parasite-free before moving new birds in. All new birds should be checked to make sure they are parasite-free before they are brought to your farm. It is also important to remember that wild birds and rodents can harbor and spread external parasites in your flock.
Undetected infestations by external parasites in small poultry flocks can lead to serious loss in the form of decreased egg production, decreased growth, inefficient feed conversion and mortality in severe cases. Constant monitoring of your flock, through physical examination of the external surfaces of each bird’s body, is the first step in detecting and preventing external parasites. Learning to identify and treat chicken mites can prevent a minor condition from turning your flock into an unsatisfactory hobby or a less than profitable enterprise.
All poultry are susceptible to the damage caused by chicken mites. Mites feed on blood and can cause a great amount of damage to your flock, in a short period of time, if they remain undetected. The life cycle of mites can be as short as four days and as long as two weeks from egg to maturity. Short life cycles allow for quick turnover and heavy infestations. Unlike lice, some mites can live in the environment as well as on the host. Therefore, treatments should be applied to your birds as well as their housing.
Detecting and monitoring the chicken mite population level is an important factor for effective control. A minimum of 10 randomly selected birds should be examined for mites weekly. Infestation levels can be estimated by blowing on the bird’s feathers and counting the mites that are immediately seen. The following index can be used to estimate mite infestation levels:
- 5 mites counted = Bird may be carrying from 100 to 300 mites
- 6 mites counted = Bird may be carrying from 300 to 1,000 mites (light infestation)
- 7 mites counted = Bird may be carrying from 1,000 to 3,000 mites – small clumps of mites seen on skin and feathers (moderate infestation)
- 8 mites counted = Bird may be carrying from 3,000 to 10,000 mites – accumulation of mites on skin and feathers (moderate to heavy infestation)
- 9 mites counted = Bird may be carrying 10,000 to 32,000 or more mites – numerous large clumps of mites seen on skin and feathers; skin pocketed with scabs (heavy infestation)
Two poultry mites of concern in the United States and addressed in this article include the Northern fowl mite and the red chicken mite.
Northern Fowl Mites
Northern fowl mites are the most common and are the most economically important among poultry mites. Northern fowl mites infect chickens, turkey and game birds. They also cause considerable infestations in pheasants. The northern fowl mite is a serious pest concern in all areas of the United States and throughout temperate zones of other countries. It can be mistaken for the red chicken mite, but unlike the red mite on chickens, it can be found on birds during the daytime as well as night. The northern fowl mite has been reported as being seen on many species of birds and may be carried by the English sparrow. This parasite is most commonly seen in caged layer facilities and on range turkeys.
Northern fowl mites are blood feeders causing anemia in birds that are highly infested. Anemia reduces a bird’s efficiency, production and ability to withstand and overcome other diseases. Meat birds infected with northern fowl mites will have reduced value due to blemishing by scabby areas on the skin. Infected laying flocks will experience a fall off in egg production. Infestations exceeding 200,000 mites will produce fatal conditions due to anemia and its interference with the bird’s immune response. Birds stressed by mites will lose weight, have pink combs, and their feathers are generally soiled with mite excrement. Feathers around the vent area also become soiled. Due to the tendency of mites to congregate around the vent, they can also reduce a rooster’s ability to mate successfully.
The life cycle of the Northern fowl mite requires less than one week. Eggs are laid along the shafts of feathers and hatch within 24 hours. The entire life cycle is spent on the host with growth from egg to maturity completing in about four days. Infestations of northern fowl mites may dwindle during the summer months but are more severe during winter weather.
Total control of the Northern fowl mite requires the use of chemical pesticides. Mites are more resistant to pesticides than lice, so treatment may require a rotation of pesticides used. Pesticides for treating infestations of the northern fowl mite must be applied directly to the bird as a wettable powder, emulsion concentrated spray or as a dust. Effective treatment for small, floor-reared flocks can include the application of a dust — treating the bird, litter and providing dust boxes for the birds to dust bathe.
Feather blackening and scabbing, a result of feeding by northern fowl mites. ©U.C. Regents.
The chicken mite is a common external parasite that is most often seen in small, non-commercial poultry flocks. Red mites on chickens is the most common, but they can also infest turkeys, pigeons, canaries and wild birds. Human dwellings have become infected with chicken mites due to sparrows making nests beneath the eaves of a house or building. Chicken mites are also referred to as red mites, gray mite,s and roost mites. They are seen worldwide and are a particular problem in warmer climates. Chicken mites are most prevalent in poultry houses that contain wooden roosts.
Chicken mites feed on blood and cause birds that are heavily infested to become anemic, lethargic, and exhibit a pale comb and wattles. Feed efficiency and egg production decrease. Young chickens and brooding hens may die due to blood loss. Birds in production may refuse to lay in chicken nesting boxes that are infested with chicken mites. All of these symptoms are good indicators that your poultry housing should be examined for mite infestation.
Chicken mites are true mites and therefore are arachnids — a member of the spider family. Chicken mites can run rapidly on the skin and feathers of a bird. They live in secluded areas of poultry housing including cracks and crevices on the chicken roosting bars, walls, ceiling, and floors. Chicken mites are nocturnal feeders (night feeders) and are not usually found on birds during the day. However, hens setting on eggs may be attacked during the daytime. Infestation by red mites on chickens can go undetected unless birds are examined at night.
Red mites visible in the poultry house. Photo courtesy of Terry Beebe.
The life cycle of a chicken mite requires only 10 days from egg to maturity under favorable conditions, making many generations per year possible. Infestation of chicken mites builds during the spring, summer, and fall. With the exception of heated poultry houses, chicken mites are generally inactive during the winter. In empty chicken houses, the chicken mite can remain dormant for periods of four to five months during the summer and even longer during the winter.
Properly identifying the species of mite your flock is infested with is the first step in effective control. It is very important to differentiate the chicken mite from the northern fowl mite when diagnosing the problem. Once properly identified, effective control of the chicken mite requires a thorough cleaning and disinfection of the poultry building followed by one or more applications of an approved miticide. In extreme cases, the poultry housing may have to go unused for a long period of time. In some instances, heavily infested buildings may no longer be used for housing poultry.
Treatment Northern Fowl Mites and Chicken Mites
|PARASITE||SIGNS||LIFE CYCLE||DESCRIPTION||BEST DETECTION TIME||TREATMENT||COMMENTS|
|LICE||Poor weight gain, poor egg production,
scratching and pecking at the skin, discoloration of
the vent, tail and breast
|4 to 6 weeks
Eggs laid on
|Full-grown lice can
measure up to 1/8 of an
inch; Wingless, flat-bodied,
double claws and
round head; Body
color can vary between
yellow, gray and black
|Daytime||Carbaryl (Sevin®) –
spray or dust
Malathion – spray
Permethrin – spray or
parasite, entire life
cycle spent on the
|Northern Fowl Mites||Very important to differentiate between the
Northern Fowl Mite and Chicken Mites when
diagnosing the problem; Anemia, weight loss, pink combs;
Feathers stained with mite excrement; Red or black
specks, or debris around the vent, decrease in egg
production or weight gain, Mites often seen on eggs
|4 days from
|Adults measure 1/26th
of an inch in length
|Carbaryl (Sevin®) –
spray or dust*
Permethrin – spray or
Rabon** – spray or
Ravap – EC spray
Mites tolerant to
Carbaryl in some
Mites tolerant to
Rabon in some
|Can transmit fowl
and other diseases;
Can survive 3 to 4
weeks away from
avian host; Capable
of harboring avian
viruses after feeding
on infected birds
(Other names include Red Mite, Gray Mite and Roost Mite)
|Very important to
Chicken Mites and the
Northern Fowl Mite when
diagnosing the problem;
Anemia, high mortality in
young birds and setting
hens; Pale comb and
|10 days from
Eggs laid in
|Adults measure 1/35th
of an inch; Two major
body parts – cephalothorax
spray or dust
Permethrin – spray or
Rabon – spray or
Ravap – EC spray
|Mites feed at night
and may not be seen
or found during the
day; Can transmit
|Scaly Leg Mites||Thickened skin on shank and feet; Scales on legs become elevated and are easily detached; Scabs form and a fine white dust sifts from beneath them; Lymph and blood exude and red blotches form on the legs||2 weeks
from egg to
|8-legged adults are
1/150th to 1/100 of an
inch; Pale gray with
entire leg with
petroleum jelly or
salve such as
dipping the feet
and shanks (up to
the hock) in motor
oil, diesel oil or
through entire flock
with direct contact
External Parasite Identification and Treatment Chart
When treating mite and/or lice infestations, read and follow all directions for proper mixing instructions, application rates, and precautions. It is illegal to use any pesticide/insecticide in any way that is inconsistent with the label. No product endorsement is intended, nor criticism of unnamed products implied.
Prevention is the best method of treatment. Many insecticides are available to help control external poultry parasites. One of the most effective broad-spectrum insecticides is permethrin. Permethrin has a significant residual activity, thus making it ideal for treating poultry housing and equipment. At reduced concentrations, permethrin can also be applied directly to the bird. Additional remedies used to treat poultry lice and mites include wood ashes and diatomaceous earth (these remedies are believed to smother lice and mites without a chemical effect). There are also new natural enzyme-containing lice and mite sprays that are non-toxic such as Poultry Protector.
When treating mite infestations, it is important to properly identify the parasite, then read and follow all directions for proper mixing instructions, application rates, and precautions for the product you choose to treat the infestation. It is illegal to use any pesticide/insecticide in any way that is inconsistent with the label. No product endorsement is intended, nor criticism of unnamed products implied.
Laura John lives with her husband, Matt, and their four children at Shady Lane Poultry Farm in Winchester, Kentucky. Laura has a BS degree in Poultry Science from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Originally published in Backyard Poultry October/November 2007 and regularly vetted for accuracy.