Backyard chickens — less healthy than you think?

BrownChicken_inGrass_blogA new study is showing that the seemingly healthy and happy chickens you see strutting around your neighbor’s backyard may not be living as well as we think — or at least compared to chickens on a commercial chicken farm. This conclusion was drawn after researchers found that ectoparasites, which are parasites such as fleas, lice and mites, are more common on backyard chickens than on those raised commercially on chicken farms.

Published in the Journal of Medical Entomology, the researchers surveyed 100 adult hens in 20 different backyards in southern California and searched the birds and their coops for ectoparasites. They found a much greater diversity of ectoparasites on the backyard chickens than have been found in commercial flocks.

According to the research, ectoparasites were found on 80% of the flocks surveyed, with lice being the most common and abundant. Six different species of louse were found on the chickens, with some individual chickens having hundreds of lice. Sticktight fleas were found in only 20% of flocks but infestations for some were quite severe. The northern fowl mite was the most common mite found, with the scaly leg mite and the chicken red mite also found.

Such infestations increase stress on chickens and may cause economic damage such as decreased egg production and feed conversion efficiency, the researchers noted. They also pointed out, however, that there is no risk to humans who eat eggs or the meat of infested chickens.

Commercial poultry flocks also suffer from a few of the same ectoparasites but most commercial birds are housed in suspended cages that give them little or no contact with the ground, which immature stages of these parasites need to develop. In addition, the research states, these cages provide fewer crevices that might harbor ticks or bed bugs when they aren’t feeding on birds. Also, birds in commercial flocks are generally all the same age and breed which may affect the suite of parasites that they host.

This research comes at a time when several states, including California, have banned or limited the use of isolated “battery cages” in favor of enriched cages or cage-free operations. The European Union has also banned battery cages and a bill that would have banned those cages in the U.S. was introduced in Congress, but failed to pass.

Not all is lost for backyard chickens, however, as the study also suggests some perks such as comfortable coops and access to the outdoors. According to one of the study authors, many of the chicken owners that participated in the study were surprised to learn that their chickens had ectoparasites, and almost none of the owners were practicing parasite prevention.

With that in mind, the author recommends backyard chicken owners focus on preventing ectoparasite infestations by implementing biosecurity measures such as excluding wild birds and other animals from coming into contact with the flock, limiting the addition of new birds to the flock, temporarily quarantining birds that are brought into the flock, and limiting outsider visitation.

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