Right now at Iron Oak Farm we have chickens at all different age levels. I have an existing adult flock in our coop; teenagers who are too old for the brooder; and week old chicks still in the house. Balancing all these birds and providing for their different developmental needs can be tricky. Especially if you don’t have a huge farm with lots of different pens or areas to keep a few isolated members.
The first year is usually a cinch. You get your tiny little flock, everyone grows up together and everyone goes out into the coop together. Done! No pecking order problems, no introduction phases, everyone gets along.
But what about the next year? How do you integrate new spring chicks into an existing flock?
Another issue that I face (and maybe you’re experiencing this as well) is that I have different birds/breeds coming available at different times. We picked up some Leghorns, Welsummers and Bantams early in the season, they are now (what I would refer to as) teenagers. They’re feathered out, but still very tiny compared to our adult hens.
I also have some tiny week-old Buff Orphingtons and Black Jersey Giants in the brooder. I’m waiting for a call on some Partridge Cochins and I even have plans to fire up the incubator later in the season with some Oliver Eggers.
Here’s some insight as to what we’re doing with our revolving flock, and a few suggestions to make this transition easy!
Why not just place the feathered-out chicks into the pen with your adults? They’re all chickens after all?
You would think that they would all just get along, and sometimes, they do. But…sometimes they don’t. Pecking order can be a brutal process. Depending on the type of chickens you raise, how much space is in your coop and other magical factors that only chickens understand. Even after following all these careful separation steps, I’ve still had the rare occurrence of a chick getting injured by a territorial adult. It’s usually a head wound. They’ll grab the head feathers a little to roughly and it causes a sore. Sometimes, if it’s not caught in time, other members of the flock will be drawn to this spot and continue to peck the poor chick. So best to be overly cautious and try to avoid this.
The Dorm Room
There’s a few ways to go about separating birds and introducing different groups at different ages. But more than likely you’re going to need a second holding pen, we call this the dorm room. It’s like the teenage party wing, where the chicks are still learning how to be adult chickens. They’re out of the nest, but not quite into the adult world. I’m lucky in that we have a few different pens around the farm where I can set up a teenage wing, or an outdoor brooder if the situation calls for it.
Ideally, this area would be part of your existing coop with some sort of see-through, smell-through partition like chicken wire, garden fencing or a large dog crate. This works best because the adult chickens get used to seeing the chicks. They can interact with them somewhat, but the chicks are still safe.
When to Move?
I start our chicks indoors in these wonderful large-animal water troughs. They work great and will be my go-to brooder for many years to come. (For more on indoor brooding tips check out my posts Raising Chicks and 5 Ways to Better the Brooding Experience.)
Once the chicks are feathered out and getting too old/messy for the indoor brooder, we move them to the teenage wing, which is a sectioned area in front of our turkey pen connected to our coop. I keep them here until they are about 2/3 the size of our adults. It doesn’t take long.
They key is that you want them introduced, especially if you have cockerels that will be living with roosters, before the males start crowing. This will prevent cock-fighting. Pecking order is different than cock-fighting, and if done right, the young cockerels learn where they belong in the flock, and you shouldn’t have a problem with raising more than one rooster. (For more about raising multiple roosters read my post Keeping Roosters Together.)
How to Introduce
Sometimes it works well to introduce chickens at night. They sleep together, smell each other, and everyone wakes up none-the-wiser. This works “in theory”. However, I’ve learned the hard way that if you’re going to try this, be willing to get up early the next morning to check on everyone.
The day you decide to introduce, be willing to spend a good amount of time watching your chicks interact with your adult flock. There will be some pecking and chasing and that’s ok. Let this occur to an extent. Sometimes the chicks will be chased to a corner with their heads down, where they will stay for a long time. Some of the hens will give them a good peck on the head if they attempt to eat before other hens, which is why it’s smart to have more than one food dish. This is all normal behavior, and although it might be a little sad to watch, it’s part of your new flock’s dynamic. They’re communicating with each other and it should be a short process.
When to Step In
Don’t remove a chick unless the pecking/chasing is relentless or dangerous. Each time the chick is removed, it will have to begin the pecking order over again, so if it’s not in danger of being wounded, best to let it get done and over with. If you do feel that the pecking is getting out of hand, I’ve found it works better to remove the aggressor rather than the chick. By removing the adult and placing them in a separate area for a while, this sometimes confuses the territorial behavior and when the chicken returns to the flock, it has to re-adjust to it’s surroundings and tends to leave the chicks alone.
Hopefully these tips will help this spring to those of you who are adding to your flock. Do you have any tips on how to introduce new members to an existing flock? I’d love to hear them! Share your comments below or on the Community Chicken’s Facebook Page.