Dear Chicken Lady, Why are my chickens getting in their feed bowls and knocking all the feed out? It’s really annoying and a waste of feed. Don’t they mind that they are making such a mess? Sincerely, Distressed that they Messed
Dear Messed and Distressed, Winter can be tough on the birds as dry dirt to take a bath in is in short supply right now. A warm winter combined with precipitation means mud around here, lots of mud. Desperate chickens resort to desperate measures which means taking a bath in the food bowl if possible. After all, especially if you feed a finely ground mash for feed, you have lots of fine powder that as the bird sifts it through its feathers will clog the breathing pores of whatever bugs are along for the ride which leaves them gasping for air and easy to shake off when your chicken shakes, causing dust, bugs, and bug eggs to go flying through the air.
Out in the bird pens the ducks and geese are perfectly happy with a mud puddle. If there are a few inches of water in it they will splash away and not mind the mud one bit. If there are no mud puddles they sometimes try to take a bath in the snow which never seems quite satisfactory. Birds also clean their feathers with a good preening, pulling each individual feather through their beak and oiling by rubbing their beaks in oil from a gland at the base of their tails. This waterproofs the feathers, knocks off a few bugs and keeps the bird’s bill from getting scaly and dry.
Geese in a muddy snow puddle.
We humans have a long history of bathing, with the first soap factory found in Babylonian ruins from 2800 B.C. The bathhouse was a popular place for the Romans and other cultures, but in the European countries epidemics and diseases were spread via them and lead poisoning from the lead lined viaducts of the Romans may have contributed to health problems attributed to the baths. By the late 16th century bathing became suspect as a proper behavior. Churches complained about illegitimate children created during encounters and cleanliness was considered sensuous and sexual. Spiritual purity was shown by your lack of personal preening, showing you were not self absorbed or vain. Dirt was also considered protection from germs that numerous plagues had spread through England and Europe killing off large parts of the population. Body odor was considered to be a good thing, but if it got too bad it could always be dispelled by a bit of snuff to clear your nose. Powders and perfumes, wigs and layers of clothes hid the dirt and smell.
Unlike our chicken friends, the dirt and powders did not kill pests such as lice, and lack of bathing did not prevent the plague. The English in the early 1800’s found water was not part of the problem, rather part of the solution and became leaders in bathroom technology as they tried to provide the average homeowner with clean water.
While imitating the bathing preferences of our poultry such as coating oneself in dust or splashing in mud [aside from carefully-designed spas where one can properly luxuriate in the experience] have lost favor in our quest for personal hygiene, the birds continued to contribute to the pursuit of cleanliness in various other ways. Early soap makers would float an egg in the lye solution that was needed to make soap from the animal fats they collected to determine if it was at correct strength. And when looking for a source of animal fat to collect for soap, the pleasantly plump Christmas goose or duck was always a good place to start.
I respect the birds in their quest for cleanliness. While no birds that I have ever heard of can be potty trained, the wild birds who raise their young in a nest keep the babies clean by eating the droppings of the babies which are well endowed with partially digested food items rich in protein and no bacteria until the babies get older. Once the bacteria starts to build up in the droppings the parents will carry them away from the nest to drop them. Grackles have gotten a bad reputation because they normally nested by water and dropped the fecal sack in the moving water which carried it away from the nest. Now that they have become urbanized, they drop those fecal sacks in your swimming pool or bird baths.
If you don’t want your birds taking baths in the feed, provide them with an alternative or change the type of feeder you use so they can’t get into it. Saucers that you can buy to put under your houseplants make great bird baths when filled with some sand if you can find any that isn’t frozen solid. Some people use diatom powder for their birds to bathe in but that is not only bad for the bugs’ lungs but for your birds lungs as well. Respect the fastidious fowl in their quest for purging their bodily pests. Sincerely, Chicken Lady
Guinea hens in a summer dust bath.