No matter how good we treat our chickens, they have a finite lifespan and will need to be replaced from time to time. Or maybe we just ran across some that just had to come home with us.
Whatever the reason, it’s a fact that we will be adding chickens to our existing flock from time to time.
You might think it’s not a big deal. They’re just chickens, right?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Chickens are very social animals, and they have their own rules for conduct. They have a Pecking Order, and every bird must fit into that somewhere.
Sometimes it’s peaceful, and sometimes… well, not so much!
Checking The Pecking
The social order of chickens has developed over a few million years, and it is still around because it works, and works well. It may seem a bit authoritative by our standards, but it gets the job done. Attempting to interfere with it just causes chaos, and is detrimental to your flock. You have to work within the system. But first, you have to understand the system.
Each individual bird has a place on the social ladder, which is earned through aggressiveness and size. They compete for the best food, nesting, and roosting spots, and so on. Most of the time this is accomplished by shows of force, such as fluffing feathers, aggressive stances, etc… If that fails, they will use their claws and sharp beaks to drive home the point, so to speak. This can result in damage to the losing chicken, and sometimes, even death, so it’s really not their first choice. But the order has to be maintained. It’s kept them alive for several thousands of years.
Rock The Flock
Chickens will naturally segregate into small flocks of 12 or so birds, with one rooster for each. Each flock has its’ own area, and flocks have a pecking order just as individuals do. The rooster will always be the dominant bird. If there are more than 12 or so hens, the rooster will attempt to mate with all of them as much as possible, causing stress for him, and the hens. He will viciously defend his hens from the attentions of other roosters, occasionally even to the death. You should never have more than 1 rooster for every 10 or 12 hens, and it’s best if you can keep each flock in its’ own run. If you have less than 10 chickens, it’s best not to even have a rooster. Hens are a little less violent when establishing order among themselves. Usually, the Big Bird will be the largest and strongest hen. She makes decisions for the flock.
The dominant bird has responsibilities, and they do take them seriously. The Alpha birds keep a lookout for predators and escorts the flock out of danger. They scout out the best roosting areas, best feeding grounds, and shelter. They often mitigate squabbles among the lesser members.
New members to the flock have to establish their place in the order of the flock, and this can cause quite a bit of stress and chaos. Judicious human intervention can ease this process. That is our subject for today.
Smite The Mites
There is also the danger of introducing diseases and parasites into your flock. No matter how reputable your supplier is, things happen. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but your chickens are still just as dead.
If you want to minimize risk to your flock, and discomfort for your chickens, there are 3 main steps to follow: Quarantine, Controlled Introduction, Freedom.
Quarantine Before Introducing New Birds To Your Flock
There are several good reasons for quarantining new birds to the flock. The most obvious is observation for health issues that may be transmitted to the flock. Marak’s Disease is a disaster you don’t want. There is also the danger of other, less virulent bugs, parasites, mites, and fleas. These issues need to be dealt with before the new birds can begin to join the flock.
Before you bring your new chickens home, you need to have a separate pen for them. Portable dog kennels work great for this. It should be clean and sterile. Have it ready with fresh food and water. You are going to need to quarantine your new birds for at least 10 days, and maybe as long as a month. Place your new birds in their pen and observe them closely. Look for:
- Mites and other parasites
- Any signs of disease
- Shriveled, or dulled combs
- Runny noses and/or eyes
- Abnormally scaly legs
It’s not a bad idea to have them examined by a veterinarian, especially if any of these symptoms are present or suspected.
While they are in quarantine, you should supplement their food and water with minerals, to make them as strong and healthy as possible before introducing them to your flock. Give them all the food they want so they can bulk up.
Make sure you wash your hands with antibacterial soap after every visit to the pen, and especially before you go to your coop and run. This will help prevent the transmission of undesirable things like parasites and diseases.
Once the quarantine time is over, and there are no issues, it’s time to ease the new chickens into the flock. Don’t try to rush it. You want to make this transition as easy as possible for all the birds.
Move the portable pen next to the coop where the birds can see each other. If your run is big enough, you can place the pen inside the run. Either way you do it, this is to allow the chickens to see each other, but not touch. It will help prevent altercations when you let them loose. You need to do this for at least a week, or longer if it appears there may be trouble. Take note of the chickens that may be wanting to cause trouble. You may have to separate them from the others for a bit until they get the message.
After this phase is over, and everyone appears calm, it’s time for the Moment Of Truth. If you are Free-Ranging your flock, then it is just a matter of turning the new chickens loose in the run, and let them work things out. A few squabbles are expected, but be sure they don’t get too serious. If this happens, return the new birds to segregation for a bit longer, or isolate the flock birds that are wanting to fight. It is important to pen the flock up, and let the new chickens into the run first, and allow them to get to know the area. Then let the flock out after a few minutes.
Making A Proper Introduction
Once the new chickens can safely be with the flock in the run, you have to get them into the coop. If you are lucky, when the flock retires to the coop in the evening, the new birds may just follow them in and find their place. If the new chickens want to return to their pen, let them. Wait until dark, then place them into the coop with the flock. They should integrate OK. The next morning, they should all be one happy flock.
Different breeds react to newcomers differently. Luckily, most heritage breeds are easy-going, and tolerate new additions well. But there are some, like Rhode Island Reds, that are very territorial, and don’t like intruders. They may take some work before accepting new birds. It may be necessary to segregate them for a bit until they learn to get along with each other.
Take Your Time
It may seem like a lot of time to get this done, and it does take 5-6 weeks to do it right. But it is worth the time. Sometimes it may take 4 or 5 times of going through these steps before all the chickens get integrated into the flock. Don’t try to rush it.
After everything seems OK, be sure to watch the flock closely for a few weeks, especially the laying habits, It is not uncommon for chickens to go off the lay for a bit when newcomers are added. Be sure everyone’s drinking and eating well.
If you bought chicks, do not try to introduce them to the flock until they are almost grown, and are of a similar size to the existing birds. Keep chicks, and incubator-hatched chicks in their own pen until they are almost grown. Once they reach the proper stage of maturity, you can go through the steps just like for any other chickens. You can skip the quarantine stage.
Be careful when mixing breeds. One of the main things to consider is the size of the breed. Larger chickens will tend to dominate and bully the smaller ones. It is usually not a good idea to try to mix Bantams with Jersey Giants. A lot of it depends on the breeds, Some larger breeds are gentle, and will tolerate smaller birds. Others will not, You just have to play it by ear.
A Few Last Tips
Sometimes, relocating the whole flock can help integrate them easier. This puts them all on an equal basis because they are all exploring a new piece of land.
Make sure your run, and coop is big enough. Overcrowding is bad for all living things, even humans and plants. In the run, each chicken needs about 10 square feet, and you shouldn’t have more than 12 chickens in any flock.
That comes out to a minimum of 120 square feet for each flock. More is better. Inside the coop, each chicken needs a minimum of 12 square inches per bird. So this comes out to a minimum size of 12 square feet for the coop. And as before, more is better. Also, you need one nesting box for every 3 hens, so a 6 hole nesting box is about right. It’s always good to have an extra or two.
If you have a particularly aggressive bird that will not leave the new residents alone (usually a rooster), you need to isolate it for while, around 3 or 4 days, within the run where they can see the other birds. Then maybe they will get the idea. They will eventually get tired of getting incarcerated and will mellow out.
You should always have treats available to distract the birds if you need to break up a fight, or do anything else in the run. Be careful breaking up fights, because you can catch a stray blow. Beaks and claws are sharp, and they will hurt.
Never add just one new chicken to a flock. The new bird will get the flocks’ undivided attention, and they will make life pure hell for it. When you add several new birds, the punishment is spread out somewhat, and it is not as bad for each new resident.
Be patient, and try not to interfere unless it is absolutely necessary. They need to develop a pecking order, and interrupting the process only makes it take longer to establish. Be observant, but mind your own business as much as possible. It’s hard to stand back and watch a chicken fight, but unless it is overly bloody, or maybe deadly, don’t try to interfere.
Roosters are another story. Never try to introduce a strange rooster to an established flock that already has a rooster. The fights will absolutely be very bloody, vicious, and maybe fatal for one, or even both roosters. They are difficult to break up because they will not want to quit. One rooster has to go. Also, breaking up a rooster fight can be dangerous to you as well, so be sure to wear leather gloves, jeans, and wear eye protection. The best way to stop rooster fights is to stop them before they happen. New roosters will need their own flock.