Excited about new chicks, but nervous about introducing them to your existing flock? Elizabeth Mack walks you through bird dynamics to keep everyone safe.
Bringing new chicks home can be a stressful time, but it’s especially nerve-wracking when you have an existing flock. The old girls are set in their ways, know their place, and have a routine. Throw in a new mix of chicks, and everything is thrown into disarray. Fights can break out, and blood is often shed. While you can’t avoid some pecking and fighting when integrating new chicks, understanding flock dynamics and taking it slow will help you avoid at least some of the chicken battles.
I have a friend who throws all of his new young hens in with the older girls and lets them fight it out until the feathers settle, which can take weeks. While this is one way to integrate new additions, it can also be a bloody one. I prefer to slowly acclimate new additions to avoid as much bloodshed as possible — and to lessen my own stress!
Assuming you don’t have a broody hen to mother — and protect — the baby chicks, keep new chicks in their own brooder space for the first few weeks. Once temperatures are warm enough to spend some time outside, I’ll take my chicks to meander next to the old girls’ enclosed run. It’s their first opportunity to meet the older hens, but through the safety of the enclosed fencing. It’s also fun to watch them walk on grass for the first time!
The older hens will be naturally curious and maybe a bit threatened by these new girls. They might strut back and forth and squawk loudly. This is their way of showing dominance over the young chicks. Allow them the opportunity to spend time around each other, but safely separated, which will permit the older hens to see the new chicks and lessen the threat of newcomers.
At about 4 to 6 weeks old, chicks will begin to get their feathers and can maintain their body temperature. If the weather allows, I’ll put them outside in a “playpen.” This pen is simply a temporary run where they’ll spend the day, situated right beside the larger run. This slow acclimation process serves to let the new and established flock get to know each other. Each morning, I place the chicks in the outside temporary run and let them spend the day next to their future home.
At first, the older hens might “defend” their territory by standing guard over the strange newcomers. But once they get used to seeing the newbies, hopefully daily for a couple of weeks, they’ll go on about their business. I let my new chicks play outside in the temporary pen for about two weeks, long enough to get both the new flock and the older flock used to each other. The pen is temporary, so it’s not predator-proof. In the evening, I take them inside the garage to their brooder pen.
Is this a lot of work? Yes. But after some failed attempts at integration, the extra work is worth it.
Much debate exists on how old chicks should be before integrating with an existing flock. Should you integrate when chicks are smaller so they won’t appear as much of a threat, or wait until they’re bigger and on more of an equal footing to the older hens?
New chicks have to be big enough to defend themselves from the older hens. Otherwise, they could be pecked to death by on overly aggressive hen. I’ve integrated too early, and regretted it. Now, I wait until the new girls are about the same size as the older hens. By that time, they’ll have spent some time in their temporary run, and the established flock will be used to them being around.
Once they’re big enough, I put the new girls into the run with the flock for some daytime bonding. This is a chaperoned event, when I hang around to make sure there’s no aggressive fighting. Before I put them in the pen together unsupervised, I make sure the younger hens have shelter and hiding places to get away from a pecking hen if needed. I also put out additional waterers and feeding stations so battles over mealtime will lessen.
New chicks will learn quickly about the established pecking order. The older hens will see to it. Trying to cut the line for food or water will be met with a swift peck. Assuming there’s no rooster in charge, the flock will always have a dominant hen. Chickens instinctually live in a hierarchal community. All members of an established flock know their place — when to eat, where to dust bathe, when it’s their turn to go to roost, where to roost — and every element of flock dynamics are established by this pecking order.
When new chicks are introduced into an established flock, the hierarchal order is thrown into disarray. Chickens don’t like change, and are sensitive to stressors. Older hens might stop laying from the stress of newcomers. When they’re stressed, they can also become aggressive by pecking, pulling feathers, fluffing their feathers, and even mounting other hens. Once the aggressiveness turns bloody, it can quickly turn deadly, as the flock will be attracted to the sight of blood, and can peck the injured chicken to death. When integrating, it’s a good idea to keep a wound kit on hand with styptic powder to stop bleeding.
While all of this sounds barbaric to humans, it’s a flock’s way of creating social order, a “government” that’s worked since the beginning of chicken time. The chickens lower on the pecking order rely on the security of this dynamic. The dominant hen is the flock protector, warning lower-rung hens of predator threats. The top hen also scouts for treats, such as earthworms or grubs. My dominant hen squawked and flapped her wings so wildly one morning that I knew something was wrong. I ran out to find a coyote casing the pen.
In a perfect world, once you’ve co-mingled 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 younger chicks on the roost at night. This is actually a good way to avoid squabbles, and a method I’ve used to slowly integrate the flocks.
By waiting until the older hens have gone to roost and are relaxed and sleepy, you diminish the threat of a bloody fight. Sit the new hens on the roost with the other hens. In the morning, they’ll all wake up and leave the coop to feed and forage, taking little notice of who’s sitting beside them. Make sure you have plenty of roosting area; each hen needs about 10 inches, and larger birds need more space. Crowding them in too tightly will create needless pecking and squabbles.
Quarantine all Newcomers
Quarantine all new chicks before introducing them to the flock. During this time, they’ll live in the brooder, where you can monitor for any health issues. Even vaccinated chicks should be quarantined until they’re at least 4 weeks old.
Growing hens will have different nutritional needs from the older laying hens, so feeding time can be challenging. The layers need their calcium for strong shells, and the chicks need protein for strong bones. The best method is to offer grower feed to all, and supplement the older hens’ diet with oyster shell. Grower feed doesn’t have as much calcium, so it won’t cause problems for younger chicks. The added calcium in the oyster shell will help laying hens supplement their diet for strong eggshells. This is a good compromise for a mixed-aged flock.
Safety in Numbers
If you want to add to your flock, always try to get the same number or more of new chicks than what you already have. Adding one or two new chicks to a large flock is a recipe for disaster. The older flock will be dominant anyway, and one new chick will never be able to defend itself against a gang.
Birds of a Feather
If you have a flock of Rhode Island Reds and you want to add a fluffy little silkie bantam, you’re asking for trouble. The established flock may not even recognize the silkies as chickens and attack. If you want a variety of breeds, it’s much easier when all are started as chicks. They grow up together and recognize each other. Trying to integrate a feathery silkie bantam into an existing flock of a different breed can lead to disastrous results.
Understanding flock dynamics will help you avoid much of the inevitable confrontations of old and new hens, but not all. While you can never totally eliminate the battles that are a natural part of the integration process, taking it slow and giving all the hens time to adjust will help lessen the stress for everyone.
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mack keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-plus-acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and numerous other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with chicken keeping. Visit her website Chickens in the Garden.