Pass the Dust: the dirt on how hens keep it clean
by: Lynn Kavanagh, Humane and Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner
It might seem strange to wash yourself by flapping around in sand or dirt but dust-bathing is the hen equivalent of having a shower. Like most other creatures, hens have a strong desire to groom and clean themselves. A dust-bath, the act of squatting, flapping and coating the feathers in sand or a sandy-like substance, is both pleasurable for the hens and functional, since it rids the skin and feathers of parasites and unwanted dirt and oils, and it helps to keep the feathers clean and dry.
A typical dust bathing routine involves a hen scratching the ground to create a shallow depression in the earth or litter. She then lifts her feathers and squats. Once nestled down in the sand, she performs four movements: vertical wing-shaking, head rubbing, bill-raking and scratching with one leg. The dust collects between the feathers and is then shaken off. Following dust bathing, hens will then proceed to preen themselves. In addition to keeping the skin and feathers clean, dust bathing also helps to keep hens cool in hot weather.
Hens confined in battery cages are not provided with anything that enriches their lives or space which permits natural behaviours, including materials necessary for dust-bathing. The result is that hens in cages are highly frustrated, and where dust-bathing is concerned, some will perform "sham dust-bathing", a behaviour that mimics the motions of having a real dust-bath. Research on hen behavioural needs has determined this ritual indicates frustration.
You may notice that WSPA stresses the importance of hens being given opportunities to dust bathe. When hens live in a cage-free system, not only are they free to move around and stretch their wings, but they can nest, perch and have regular dust baths. Rarely does a hen seem more content than when she is hunkered down, billowing in the litter or sand for a good cleanse. It is a delightful sight to see!