We didn’t plan on adding new chickens to our backyard flock. In fact, we were quite content with the three hens we had, a number that was chosen based on the ideal chicken-to-ornamental-plants-we’d-like-to-keep ratio. Three hens are a nice round number. Three chickens will eat your hostas and poop on your deck, but not ravage your garden like a plague of pestilence or turn your yard into poop-aggedon. We had never even considered growing our flock. Yes, chicken math, yes, I would’ve loved a couple of dozen, but the reality is my current backyard situation only holds enough for three. And three only. So, how on earth did we end up with five????
Let me explain:
Our girl Rosie has been sick all season (you can read all about her internal laying troubles here). We were going to have her put down, and knew we’d want to replace her, mostly because we like having three chickens, which gives us enough eggs to eat and still some leftover to share. The problem with losing Rosie, is that we were losing the queen of the backyard. She runs the show, even when she’s balled up and looking pitiful. I wasn’t sure what would happen if the queen was dead. Would it be total chicken anarchy?! We had talked new chickens. Sort of. I was like, you know, we’ll have to get two more once Rosie kicks the bucket because I think I read somewhere that it has to be in pairs. And my husband was like, no, absolutely no more chickens (as he’s searching for chickens on Kijiji but pretending he’s not).
Things move quickly at our place. Once something has been loosely discussed over beers on the back deck, they are often very quickly implemented, whether or not it’s the best laid course. It’s how we roll.
Now of all the things I didn’t know about integrating new chickens with existing chickens, I did know that it for sure wasn’t as easy as just tossing them together in the coop, wiping your hands, and then walking away. Done. If only. Chickens are highly territorial. They have their pecking order, which they take pretty seriously. They might be okay sharing their food with a chipmunk, but another chicken they don’t know? Forget about it. I knew it was going to be work, but I was pretty optimistic. My hens are really friendly. Like sit on your lap while you are hanging out friendly. They don’t squabble amongst themselves, and they’re pretty good at sharing. For chickens, anyway.
So, a whole two days after our half-conversation about getting chickens before we put Rosie down to avoid the double stress on our existing healthy hens of losing the boss and gaining two annoying siblings, we went and picked up our new pullets (well, what we hoped were pullets as they were only 6 weeks old and were sexed using ancient chicken divining techniques. Thanks yet again, Google!). It might’ve been a hastily decided plan, but in the end, we were ready to integrate those chickens! I had done my homework, had checked and rechecked that everything was actually ready before the girls arrived, and I had created a calendar to make sure that I didn’t rush the process. I will say out of the whole adventure, that although integrating chickens isn’t as easy as just starting off with a fresh group of chicken friends, it wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined.
Tips for Integrating New Chickens with Existing Hens
(a.k.a Here’s what worked for us)
When introducing new chickens always add in pairs or more. A lone chicken will always be the odd man out and shunned. If they’re a pair however, they have each other for company and support until the pecking order is reestablished. Also, the hazing, which inevitably happens, is spread out and not just hailed onto one poor bird.
Keep The Hens Separate
We got our pullets from a local farm. We went to the farm. It was clean. They were reputable. Their birds were healthy looking and content. However, these are not necessarily guarantees that your new hens won’t have a disease or lice or something else that you don’t want your girls catching. We kept the new girls in the run and the old girls in the coop, and blocked the entrance between the two. In an ideal world, you should keep them far enough apart that they’re not even breathing the same air, but unless you own a farm or acreage, it just might not be plausible. The run was a fair compromise. They had their own water, food, roost and space to roam. Our run is covered, so they also had shelter from the rain. Now, you will probably read many conflicting opinions on just how long to keep your hens separated, and to be honest, I’m not sure that there’s a definitive answer. To determine how long to keep your new birds isolated, you have to take into consideration variables like:
First and foremost is the possibility that the birds you bring in are carrying a contagion. Giving your birds some time apart allows you, as the chicken owner, to observe your new birds within the confines of their own space. The chances of bringing in hens with Mareks or some other disease is low, but it is always better to err on the side of caution.
Chickens can be pretty nasty. It’s hard to believe when you look at your cute little fluffy-bummed friends, but they can, and will, peck a chick or smaller chicken to death. Keeping your new hens separated until they are close to the same physical size of your existing hens will help keep the playing field level.
Let the new hens have a chance to get used to the sights and sounds of your backyard within the safe confines of their penned-in area. They feel safe in there and protected from nosy chickens, dogs, and crazy children who just won’t stop trying to stick blades of grass through the hardware cloth for them to eat.
I ended up keeping my new girls separated from the old girls for 30 days, which seems like a long time, but in my defence, my new hens were only 6 weeks old, and they were so tiny in comparison, I wanted to give them some extra growing time. If I had introduced them after a week or so, they may have been seriously injured, or at the very least traumatized.
Introducing Hens At Night
After the 30 days, I added the new girls to the coop. I had about 75 panic attacks the day leading up to the night introduction. What if they peck the new hens’ eyes out and I come in the next morning to find two little chicken carcasses on the coop floor? I couldn’t get these CSI images of blood soaked floors and spray patterns on the walls out of my head. Of course, the thought never once crossed my mind that people have been introducing chickens into flocks for thousands of years, because that’s rational, and I’m rarely rational in situations like these.
Once it was dark, I enlisted my husband to hold the flashlight while I took the new girls off their outside roosts and plopped them onto the inside roosts. Easy peasy, right? Wrong. My one hen, Leia, is tiny and round, like an angry bird. She freaked out and started flapping around wildly in the dark, finding a perch eight feet off the ground on the edge of a rafter that I had no idea a chicken could get to/actually perch on. So, there I was, prying her off the rafter, and putting her back beside the other girls. I had to do it three times. Three times while my husband stood behind me laughing. (First job the next morning was chicken wiring the ceiling so no little smarty pants chickens could get up there. Second job was finding a new flashlight assistant.)
**A note about nighttime integrations: be prepared to be at the coop at dawn to check on things. Once they wake up, either everything will be totally copacetic, or it’ll be a wild cage match. Of course, I had the cage match. I know, surprising.**
Give The New Hens Time To Explore The Coop Uninterrupted
So after my morning ringside view of Hen Smackdown 2015, I began letting my old girls out each day to free range, while I allowed my new girls time to get to know the coop and run as their new home. I did this for a week. Then I held my breath, opened the coop doors, and let them all out.
Keep An Eye On Interactions
There is a pecking order, if I haven’t already stressed that enough. And it’s normal. And healthy. For chickens. As hard as it is, you have to let them figure it out. My thoughts are: as long as no one’s bleeding, it’s okay. So, just watch them when you can. Rosie, my sick and half-dead chicken was revitalized by the new young upstarts in her flock. Suddenly she was swooping around like a winged avenger, dispensing her own chickeny justice on these intruders. Out of nowhere she’d appear and rip a feather out, or bop her beak on unsuspecting chicken heads.
Separating The Bully
Only get involved if the bullying is becoming dangerous and chickens are getting injured or being prevented from eating/drinking/roosting. This might mean separating the bully from the group. So, in the same way you introduced the new hens by keeping them in the run, blocked off from the coop, you would do the same with the bully. Keep them in solitary for a few days, then reintroduce them to the flock. This might have to be repeated a few times.
Give It Time
Time is probably one of the most frustrating things. Time is one of those “in theory” things. In theory I know that it might take a couple of months to work out the kinks. But man, those months drag on and you feel like all you do is think about chickens, look after chickens, worry about chickens. But then one day, you look outside and all of your chickens are lying together in a row, basking in the sun, and you think seriously? I wasted all that time worrying about you guys??
And just like that, you’ll have a cohesive flock. Mostly. After four months, there are still squabbles, but everyone seems to know their place. And Rosie, ruling monarch of her backyard kingdom, has deemed the interlopers worthy enough to be her sleeping buddies, although they still better not touch her treat bowl. Hell hath no fury as a chicken interrupted.