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For those of us with backyard chicken flocks, adding new birds into the mix can be tricky. There’s a lot more to it than simply opening the coop door, dropping the new hens in among the established flock and hoping for the best. Over the years, as I have added to my own backyard flock of egg-laying hens, I’ve developed a system that I am happy to say has resulted in an easy transition every time I have gotten new birds.
The first thing to know is the existing flock has already established its pecking order. This is the hierarchy among the group. When new chickens are added in, it disrupts this pecking order and this can cause some real problems — especially for the new additions — until a new pecking order and peace is restored.
Some hens welcome newcomers, while others are more standoffish and still others are downright bullies pecking at the new birds until they understand their place at the bottom of the pecking order. This can not only stress out the new birds, it can cause some serious injuries and in extreme cases, death.
Take it slow
When I get a new clutch of day-old chicks from a farm supply store or another farmer, I brood them far away from the mature flock. The chicks spend their first weeks under a special heat lamp in an area that is secured against predators.
When they are old enough to move out of the brooder and into the coop, I have two strategies that have worked well over the years.
For introducing young hens, I build a seperate “room” in the coop for the newcomers. This can be as simple as building a small, fenced-in enclosure in the coop or outside run or even using an old playpen placed inside the coop. Either way, the idea is to allow the birds to get to know each other without physical contact.
After a week or two of this, you can remove the enclosure and let them get to know each other better. Keep a close eye on them to make sure no one is pecking the new birds. If that is happening, replace the enclosure, put the new birds back in and give them another week to settle in.
For older hens that have joined my existing flock, I like to use a completely separate coop to start them off. Getting a group of mature hens means they have established their own pecking order among themselves. If I were to simply toss them in with my established flock, it could cause a poultry battle royale as they all fight to sort out their places in this new, combined hierarchy.
This seperate coop does not need to be fancy as it is going to be temporary housing for the new hens. A four-sided shed with access to a fenced-in run is perfect. I start by placing the new chickens in this temporary coop but not letting them range outside the run. Meanwhile, the existing flock is allowed to wander freely outside their own fenced area. This way they can observe and “meet” the new hens through the fencing.
After a month or so, I start letting the new hens out to range with the existing flock. The two flocks tend to keep to themselves at first, but over time they begin to mingle quite peacefully.
What is really interesting is the two flocks also return to their own lodgings at sundown at first. But after several weeks, they start to mix it up with new and established flock members roosting happily and peacefully together between the two coops.
Once that happens, I know it’s time to close down the temporary coop and move everyone into the existing coop.
If you find yourself needing to physically move chickens from one coop to the other, plan on doing so at night. Wait until they are roosting in the dark and gently pick them up one at a time and carry them into their new digs. I’ve found that one night spent in a new location is all it takes to convince a chicken that is its new home.
However, if you observe one of your birds acting confused and not sure about where to go or how to get back into their coop at the end of the day, I have found placing a light inside the coop does a great job at guiding them back.
By using the above strategies, I can honestly say I have had 100 percent success in introducing new chickens into my flock. Keep in mind, however, this does not mean it’s always peaceful. Chickens are creatures of instinct and defined bird behavior. This means you have to expect a bit of bullying behaviour as they sort out the pecking order.
But, if you follow these steps, that bullying can be more vocal than physical. But just in case, do make sure you have your chicken first aid kit ready to go just in case things get out of hand and you end up with an injured bird.