Yesterday was sunny and ‘warm’ (45 F), so rather than watch the Superbowl, we treated our chickens for lice. After talking with fellow members of the Seattle Farm Co-op, I opted for the soapy bath with neem oil treatment in conjunction with a deep coop clean.
We filled a 6 gallon bucket with warm water, stirred in ~1/8 c. of dish soap, and ~2 tsp neem oil (neem concentration ~ 1:2000). Scott held each hen in the bath for 10 min, massaging the water into her feathers (while simultaneously holding wings to prevent freakout in the flightiest birds). Then he would lift the bird out, wipe down the excess water, and wrap her in a towel.
My job was to blow dry them. I kept my hair dryer on low and my hands bare so I could sense the heat. With a hen on her back nestled in my lap, I carefully moved the warm air over her breast and haunches, then flipped her over to get her neck, back, wings, and butt. But 10 min is not enough time to dry a sopping wet chicken. So after I moved on to the next bird, each damp hen joined her friends in the waning sun. Nobody died of exposure.
As I ‘blew out’ the hens, I saw a lot of dead lice and some, but not all, of the eggs masses had loosened. I saw no moving lice. If we killed all of the adults, then we have only the unhatched to deal with. A louse that hatched yesterday would start laying eggs in 14 days. So that is the absolute latest that we can do a follow-up treatment.
Turns out it wasn’t just Blanca who was infested. Four of the five birds had egg clusters on the feathers of their lower abdomen. When I picked up neem oil at the Seattle Farm Co-op today, Fynn told me that every fourth person was complaining of lice on their hens. It turns out that many flocks experience autumn or winter lice infestations, most of which are caught from wild birds (sparrows are particularly susceptible to M. stramineus).
After treating the hens, we emptied, and then vaccumed, the coop. Finally, I sprayed all of the crooks and crannies with a dilute neem solution (1 tsp in a 20 oz spray bottle).
And then I geeked out on chicken lice.
Menacanthus stramineus is a member of the ‘chewing’ (rather than ‘sucking’) family of lice, taxonomically belonging to the same Order as human head lice, but not the same species, genus, or family. As a result, they only live on some birds and die within a week of separation from their host.
Phylum: Arthropoda (includes animals as diverse as beetles, butterflies, scorpions, crayfish and crabs)
Class: Insecta (insects)
Order: Phthiraptera (chewing lice, including human head lice)
Suborder: Amblycera (most primitive group in Phthiraptera)
Family: Menoponidae (bird lice)
I even delved into the scientific literature on chicken lice and treatment methods.
The only highly relevant study on neem oil and chicken lice was a 2009 paper by Pablo et al. published in International Journal of Poultry Science [8(9):816-819] in which various plant extracts, including neem oil, were applied to treat M. stramineus. They found that neem was highly successful as a ‘dip’ at a ratio of 1:2000 (oil:water). Not only did the neem eliminate lice over three treatments (84%, 94%, 100% removal), lice continued to be 100% susceptible to neem treatment after two sets of reinfestation. Wow.
UPDATE: I did not have to do a follow-up treatment!