Black Flies/Buffalo Gnats Claim Chickens, Pet Birds

By University of Arkansas

First posted on 05-25-2010

Tiny buffalo gnats, also known as turkey gnats or black fly, can cause big damage during their short life cycle, said Dustan Clark, extension veterinarian for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

“There have been reports this spring from central and southwest Arkansas of losses in poultry and outdoor pet birds from black fly bites,” Clark said.

The late spring is when the female flies emerge and seek a blood meal. The fly’s entire lifecycle is 4-6 weeks, depending on species.

“Fortunately, the adults only live two to three weeks,” Clark said, adding “However, it is possible for several generations to be produced each year.

The buffalo gnats are so named because of the humps on their backs.

“The bites of the buffalo gnat are very painful and itchy, and some people and animals may have an allergic reaction to the injected anticoagulant,” he said. “The adult females feed on the blood of many animals, including horses, cattle, sheep, goats, poultry and humans.

“The bites are usually concentrated around the head on the ears, nose and face,” Clark said, but “they will bite any exposed area.”

In large animals, blood loss and irritation can keep the animals on the move to avoid being bitten.

At times, the gnat swarms can be so dense they can kill mammals and poultry from blood loss, irritation, shock and suffocation.

A May 7, 1934, “Time” magazine article described black clouds of buffalo gnats in eastern Arkansas that suffocated horses and mules, leaving 1,000 dead in a week.

Farmers were advised to smear their stock with “rancid lard and kerosene with cottonseed oil and pine tar, or with a mixture of soap, water, petroleum and powdered naphthalin. But what the farmers really hoped for were a few good hot days, which drop gnats dead as quickly as they come,” the article said.

Clark said “fortunately, in Arkansas, the time for buffalo gnat activity is short and declines when temperatures get above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Poultry that have been bitten by buffalo gnats usually have small, scabbed cuts on the face and combs, or there may be blood-stained feathers on the head, neck and wings.

“Some birds may be found dead with no apparent lesions; however, closer examination usually reveals the very small gnats in the feathers covering the ear or on the head,” he said. “The face and comb of the bird may also be swollen due to large numbers of bites.”

Horses and cattle usually have swollen ears and small scabbed-over cuts on the edge of the ears and may ooze blood.

Clark said the gnats prefer to feed in the daytime.

“Livestock and poultry should be sheltered during the daytime in darker areas to lessen the chance of being bitten,” he said. “Gnats also prefer to feed when there is little if any wind, so the use of fans to circulate the air where the animals are kept may also be helpful.”

Insecticides containing pyrethrin compounds can be used for temporary reduction of buffalo gnat numbers; however, these products only kill the flies they contact and as such animal areas, yards and barns need to be sprayed periodically.

Some poultry owners use compounds containing citronella oil on their birds with some success. Other methods of prevention used by poultry owners include hanging fly strips or shiny aluminum pie plates coated lightly with oil in the sunlight. The black flies rest on the yellow fly strips or coated pie plates and become stuck.

“Since people can also be bitten by buffalo gnats, it is important to protect yourself,” he said. “If you have to be outside when the gnats are active, wear long-sleeved, bright-colored clothing. Insect repellants that contain DEET may also be helpful.”

For more information on insect control, contact your county extension office, or visit For additional information, listen to Clark’s podcast at