Keeping chickens is an addictive hobby and once you get a few birds, often you start thinking about others you’d like to introduce to the flock. The big problem is that few people realise the problems that potentially can occur when introducing new chickens to the flock.
Chickens are best kept in small social groups as they live in the wild. Everyone has heard of the phrase ‘hen pecked’ or ‘pecking order’, well this comes from the order within a flock of hens and every hen knows her place so when introducing new chickens there can be problems until the pecking order is re-established again.
If you are lower down the ‘pecking order’ and you are feeding, you’ll get a short sharp peck, a kind of ‘what do you think you’re doing? I’m senior to you’. Every hen has their place. Over thousands of years of evolution, hens have learned to avoid predation by not fighting over their food which would otherwise draw attention to themselves.
Introductions can be made and are sometimes necessary, it’s often very hard on us the owners to see such ‘cruelty’ happening in the pen but often it is necessary for the first week or two until the ‘pecking order‘ is established again.
How to introduce new chickens
One of the best ways to introduce new hens is to put newcomers in a run / small fenced off area within the existing run so that they can see one another and get used to one another but with the safety of the wire between them. Once a week has passed, the newcomers can be popped into the coop at night, but make sure you are there at first light in the morning to rescue them if blood is drawn.
Another way is to put them with your existing flock in a house and run that is new to both of them with lots of space and lots of food distractions. Neither of them has an established territory and this can sometimes work well, especially if they have lots of space to stay away from one another at first. This isn’t always possible though.
Here is a list of things to remember when introducing new birds:
- Quarantine for Disease. Yes, they look healthy but trust me, I’ve had the heartbreak of destroying the flock after I brought disease into it with new birds. Ideally they need to go into a separate run for at least 2 weeks. Observed them to make sure you don’t bring a disease into the flock.
- Only introduce birds that are a similar size. Youngsters will get bullied, they need to be fully mature to stand up for themselves. Watch the size of birds. A little bantam added to a flock of large fowl will probably be hard work.
- If possible, divide the run up for a while, get a roll of chicken wire and lash up a make-shift fence or use a chicken fencing kit like this one from Omlet to give the newcomers an area of their own to settle in. Your established flock will get used to the sight, smell and sound of the new arrivals.
- Add a distraction. Hang a CD and some spring greens from different places in the run. It works wonders!
- Ensure there are adequate food containers. The chickens that are getting bullied need to eat and if they won’t come out of the house, they will soon have problems if they can’t get to food. Make sure the new arrivals have had food and water before they are introduced.
- Space. Give birds as much space as possible. Can you let the flock free range into the garden for a while? A bird that gets pecked can run off and get away easily if they have the space to do so.
- Blood. Chickens love pecking at red wounds. If damage is caused, remove the bird immediately or others will join in and can literally kill your chicken. If a small amount of blood is present on the comb, I usually keep a close eye but try to make sure it doesn’t escalate. If more than a few spots appear, I remove the bird but try to keep it close to the flock so they can continue to see the bird.
- Cocks. Yes, sadly we’ve all heard of cock-fighting. Well, sometimes they do and it can be to the death. Many breeders place young cockerels into a pen together with an older cock (a male under 1-year-old is called a cockerel and a cock [U.K.] or rooster [U.S] if he is over a year) who soon teaches them the right way to behave. I have one particularly placid cock who will sort the youngsters out as they start to fight over the girls but ensure you know your birds as some can kill youngsters very quickly.
- Introduce birds into the chicken house at night when it is dark but make sure you are there at day break so they don’t get pecked to death in the morning… remember space.
- Do not mix different age groups that you are rearing e.g. chicks and growers as it can cause disease in the younger birds who haven’t yet built up immunity but also, the older birds (often twice the size if only a month or two apart) can easily kill the smaller birds.
Expect a certain amount of bullying. It’s hard to watch but often after a week, sometimes a little longer, things suddenly click into place and the pecking order is re-established.
You can learn more about the pecking order here which also contains a short video demonstrating it in action.
Keep an eye. Make sure you watch what happens. Can they run off and get away from an attack? Can they find somewhere to eat and drink? Don’t leave them unattended for too long. Get up to let them out as soon as it’s light and make sure they can get into the house at night.
The Haynes Chicken Manual by Laurence Beeken
I certainly wouldn’t be without it on my book shelf as a reference book that explains everything clearly.
Click here or on the image to view it on Amazon.
The same colour birds?
It is worth mentioning that many birds are reared in pens with the same colour and type of bird. So for example, a breeder keeps 300 Black Rock hybrid hens together in a pen until they are sold. They go to their new home and for the first time in their lives, meet Buff Orpingtons who have never met anything other than a Buff Orpington before. This is a huge shock for them, they have only ever seen the same type and colour as themselves. Understandably, the birds are shocked and will be aggressive towards the new birds who themselves are stressed at being moved from their own environment into a new place. If birds have been mixed with other colour birds, they won’t find it so difficult to accept a different colour bird.