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Excited about the new chicks, but nervous about how to fit them into your existing flock? Elizabeth Mac guides you through bird dynamics to keep everyone safe.
By Elizabeth Mack – Bringing home new chicks can be a stressful time, but it’s especially nerve-wracking when you have an existing flock. Old maids are rooted in their habits, know their place and have a routine. Add a new mix of chicks, and everything is thrown into a mess. Fights can break out and blood often flows. While you can’t avoid pecking and fighting when onboarding baby chickens, understanding flock dynamics and going slow will help you avoid at least some of the chicken fights.
I have a friend who throws in all his new young hens with the older girls and lets them fight until the feathers settle down, which can take weeks. While this is one way to incorporate new additions, it can also be bloody. I prefer to acclimate new additions slowly to avoid as much bloodshed as possible – and to reduce my own stress!
Assuming you don’t have a broody hen to mother – and protect – the chicks, keep the new chicks in their own broody space for the first few weeks. Once the temperatures are warm enough to spend time outside, I’ll take my chicks for a walk next to the old maids’ enclosure. This is their first opportunity to meet the older hens, but through the safety of the closed fence. It’s also fun to see them walking on the grass for the first time!
Older hens will naturally be curious and perhaps a little threatened by these new girls. They might strut back and forth and scream loudly. It’s their way of showing their dominance over the young chicks. Give them the opportunity to spend time with each other, but safely separated, which will allow older hens to see the new chicks and reduce the threat of new arrivals.
Around 4 to 6 weeks of age, the chicks will start to have their feathers and will be able to maintain their body temperature. If the weather permits, I will put them outside in a “park”. This enclosure is simply a temporary track where they will spend the day, located right next to the larger track. This slow process of acclimatization allows the new herd and the established herd to get to know each other. Every morning, I place the chicks in the temporary outdoor enclosure and let them spend the day next to their future home.
At first, older hens might “defend” their territory by guarding strange newcomers. But once they get used to seeing newbies, hopefully every day for a few weeks, they’ll get on with their business. I let my new chicks play outside in the temporary pen for about two weeks, long enough for the new flock and the older flock to get used to each other. The pen is temporary, so it is not predator proof. In the evening, I take them inside the garage to their brooder pen.
Is it a lot of work? Yes. But after a few failed integration attempts, the extra work is worth it.
There are many debates about how old chicks should be before integrating into an existing flock. Should you incorporate when the chicks are smaller so they don’t appear as a threat, or wait until they are bigger and on equal footing with older hens?
New chicks should be large enough to fend off older hens. Otherwise, they could be pecked to death by an overly aggressive hen. I joined too soon, and I regretted it. Now I expect the new girls to be about the same size as the older hens. By then they will have spent some time in their temporary range and the established herd will be accustomed to their presence.
Once they are big enough, I put the new girls in the race with the herd for a bonding day. It’s a chaperoned event, when I hang around to make sure there’s no aggressive combat. Before putting them together in the unsupervised pen, I make sure the younger hens have shelter and hiding places to get away from a pecking hen if necessary. I’ve also set up additional waterers and feeding stations so the battles over meals will decrease.
New chicks will quickly learn the established pecking order. Older hens will take care of it. Trying to cut the line for food or water will be met with a quick peck. Assuming there is no rooster in charge, the flock will always have one dominant hen. Chickens instinctively live in a hierarchical community. All members of an established herd know their place – when to eat, where to dust bathe, when it’s their turn to roost, where to roost – and every element of herd dynamics is established by this pecking order.
When new chicks are introduced to an established flock, the pecking order is upset. Chickens do not like change and are sensitive to stressors. Older hens may stop laying due to stress from new arrivals. When stressed, they can also become aggressive by pecking, feather pulling, ruffling their feathers, and even mounting other hens. Once the aggression turns bloody, it can quickly turn deadly, as the flock will be attracted to the sight of blood and may peck the injured chicken to death. When embedding, it’s a good idea to keep a wound kit handy with styptic powder to stop bleeding.
Although all of this sounds barbaric to humans, it is a flock’s way of creating social order, a “government” that has been functioning since the beginning of the age of chickens. Chickens below the hierarchy rely on the security of this dynamic. The dominant hen is the protector of the flock, warning lower-ranking hens of threats from predators. The top hen also looks for treats, such as earthworms or larvae. My dominant hen squealed and flapped her wings so wildly one morning that I knew something was wrong. I ran out to find a coyote manning the enclosure.
In a perfect world, once you’ve mixed the new girls with the older hens, they should follow the older hens into the coop at night. But not always. When this happens, you can simply place the young chicks on the roost at night. It’s actually a good way to avoid quarrels and a method I’ve used to slowly integrate herds.
By waiting until the older hens have gone to roost and are relaxed and sleepy, you lessen the threat of a bloody fight. Sit the new hens on the perch with the other hens. In the morning, they all wake up and leave the chicken coop to feed and feed, not paying attention to who is sitting next to them. Make sure you have enough rest area; each hen needs about 10 inches, and larger birds need more space. Cramming them too tightly will create unnecessary pecking and bickering.
Quarantine all new arrivals
Quarantine all new chicks before introducing them to the flock. During this time, they will live in the brooder, where you can monitor any health issues. Even vaccinated chicks should be quarantined until they are at least 4 weeks old.
Growing hens will have different nutritional needs than older laying hens, so feeding time can be difficult. Layers need their calcium for strong shells and chicks need protein for strong bones. The best method is to offer growth feed to everyone and to supplement the diet of older hens with oyster shells. Grower feeds do not contain as much calcium, so they will not cause problems for young chicks. The added calcium in oyster shell will help laying hens supplement their diet for strong eggshells. It is a good compromise for a mixed herd.
Safety in numbers
If you want to add to your flock, always try to get the same number or more new chicks than you already have. Adding a new chick or two to a large flock is a recipe for disaster. The older flock will be dominant anyway, and a new chick will never be able to hold its own against a gang.
Birds of a feather
If you have a herd of Rhode Island Reds and want to add a fluffy little Silk Bantam, you’re asking for trouble. The established flock may not even recognize silkies as chickens and attack. If you want a variety of breeds, it’s much easier when they all start out as chicks. They grow together and recognize each other. Trying to integrate a silk-feathered bantam into an existing herd of a different breed can lead to disastrous results.
Understanding flock dynamics will help you avoid many of the inevitable confrontations between old and new hens, but not all. While you can never totally eliminate the fighting that is a natural part of the onboarding process, doing it slowly and giving all the hens time to adjust will help reduce stress for everyone.
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mac keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2+ acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and many other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction – and ensuing love affair – with raising chickens. Visit his Chickens in the Garden website.