Herbs in the Nestbox
This article is an update on using herbs in the nest box. This is an idea that I introduced to my audience 2009 on my own herb forum. I have learned more things since I introduced that idea, wrote some articles for Backyard Poultry Magazine 2010-2012 on pest management, and my continued observations of my flock have led me to share some feedback.
Way back when, I read research showing wild birds using native herbs in their nests. This primarily to be used to repel insects and to give their chicks a better start due to less eco-parasites in the nest while they are growing up. It was also interesting to learn that it was noted that once eggs were laid in some species, the herb nest building stopped. It seems it is done for the benefit of the chicks. It is important to note a couple of other things here. First of all research has shown by doing this, it did not kill the parasites, merely helping to reduce populations by repelling. But it still did not get rid of pests entirely. My own use bears this out since every few years a bird or two will get infested with scaly leg mites. I think this is also common sense. If you have ever used a bug repellent spray, you know that you can spray your whole body with bug spray and that one inch area you missed, the skeeters will be right there! Inconsistent coverage will leave loopholes. If you are sprinkling some herbs on top of bedding, that will leave unprotected areas.
Also the concentration of volatile oils is key. Again we know from bugs sprays and the concentration of DEET in sprays for example, the intensity of compounds directly relate to effectiveness. I personally have given up finding a truly effective “natural” bug spray for myself, for the huge population of skeeters I live with in my environment I have resigned myself to covering up with clothes to make sure my bare skin is unavailable. Or I would have to use DEET. Observation of bird behavior has shown the same. Various wild birds that have been studied show that picking from an array of aromatic herbs, wild birds were able to discern those with the highest volatile herbs at that time, and will ignore other aromatic herbs, even if they are more convenient to pick. In this regard, fresh native herbs would be preferable, although we have no discernable skills to measure the most volatile oils are in which herb to pick. As far as concentration we also have EO’s available, but I do not think EO use belongs in the poultry world, because of its strength, and most people will cause more harm than help due to not knowing how to use them correctly and effectively. Used incorrectly, they can cause problems for poultry pretty quickly.
Due to all this information, 3 years ago I switched to using red cedar chips, due to higher volatile oil content and uniform concentration. This seemed to make better sense to me. I will write about using red cedar in my next article. Suffice to say, it is not toxic for poultry as so widely reported from my observations with my flock. Nonetheless, in my 7 years of using herbs and/or cedar in the nesting boxes, I cannot measure how well it has been helping or not, to be frank, because my birds are also employing other methods of pest control concurrently like dust bathing for example. I have a very low incidence of pest infestation for sucha a large flock, but can I single out nest box herbs as helping? I can't unless I test them in a controlled environment. My flock can go years without any issues, then a random case of scaly leg mites will appear. I will say, in the three years I have used red cedar, I have had no issues, and that is a pretty good chunk of time.
Some things we need to think about is, wild birds do not live in housing like domestic birds do. Where aromatic herbs may be more effective in a nest in the tree, may have too much competition to deal with in a “pest heaven” in a coop. In that regard I have only seen scaly leg mites on birds living in my coops and not those that live in my open air wire pen. There is something to be said with reducing or eliminating places where pests can live. I think good litter management (pest live in ALL plant litter), herbal pesticides used in cleaning, access 24/7 to dust bathing, as much exposure to sunshine as possible, and keeping your birds as healthy as possible are far more important than putting herbs in the nest boxes. In fact I think that alone will probably be just as good.
What is now disturbing to me are the claims I see, usually from people selling herbs just for this purpose, are that it is “anti-bacterial, support reproductive systems, natural wormers, stress relievers and laying stimulants”, and as far as I know, are all unfounded. There is no empirical evidence to that, either from scientists or herbalists, that these kinds of actions will be invoked internally from an external application such as this. What I think happened is that someone read one of my articles where I listed herbal actions of aromatic herbs to be used to repel pests and grossly misinterpreted what I wrote. I certainly would not make those claims. At all.
The only consistent reporting I have seen so far is that aromatic herbs appear to somewhat help wild birds. How consistent this is, or how much it helps, there are no exact conclusions. As far as domestic poultry, I cannot make any definitive conclusions with my own flock. Nice idea, but as time has borne out, I can't see any great difference than if I practice good management. It smells nice, I can say that. If you want to do it anyway, I would use fresh native herbs, like Queen Anne's Lace, Yarrow or Goldenrod to ensure the best aromatics possible. Or better yet, use red cedar chips.