Bringing new chickens into your backyard flock is not as easy as dumping them into the coop. This is because of the hierarchy or pecking order where every hen knows its role and rank. Knowing how to introduce new chickens to your flock will allow them to acclimate to new members and keep your new hens safe.
How to Introduce New Chickens to Your Flock and Avoid Stress
Introducing new chickens to your flock can be a stressful time for the new birds, the established flock and for you. Chickens have a strict pecking order literally established by pecking. It may appear cruel to you, but it is their natural way.
There’s a truth in the old phrase, “hen pecked,” and isn’t just about some men!
Knowing how to introduce new chickens to your flock can help alleviate some if not all of this stress and make for a smooth transition while you increase your flock.
Understanding The Pecking Order
Chickens have a real pecking order in your backyard flock, every chicken from the main rooster to the youngest or smallest hen will know if they are top of the pecking order or the lowest bird on the proverbial totem pole.
Even if your flock does not have a rooster, there will be a head hen that is the main bird in charge.
The pecking order decides who has first rights to the food and water bowl. The top bird in a coop of chickens has the right to eat first and go wherever it desires in the flock.
Let’s say hen number three on the pecking ladder has found a source of food. It’s not uncommon for bird number two to walk up and take over.
The top bird demands respect from all other birds in the flock. From the biggest to the smallest bird in the flock, they will all usually submit to the head honcho’s wishes by giving them the right to an area or resource.
It’s easy to see who the top bird is and who is at the bottom of the social hierarchy by simply watching your flock as they walk around the chicken run or coop.
The sea of birds will part and give way to the head honcho as it walks to the other side of the pen, while the lowest ranking chicken will be subordinate to every other chicken in the flock.
It’s interesting to watch as a higher ranking bird decides to step up to the feed when there is a lower ranking bird enjoying some feed. Usually, in my flocks, I have noticed a quick glance from the higher ranking bird is enough to make the lower ranking bird abandon his meal.
If they are really close in rank, sometimes the higher ranking bird takes a little side step towards the lower ranking one. It may even lay a quick peck on the head of the lower bird to cause it to remember its place in the pecking order.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the pecking order is always being enforced and acted out in the backyard flock on your homestead.
The pecking order starts while the birds are very young. If you hatched them out yourself in an incubator or purchased them from a hatchery you’ll see this behavior in the brooder.
As the young chickens mature into pullets they will engage in challenges to see if they can work their way up the pecking order.
The pecking order keeps the flock family intact with every bird knowing their place and role in the coop.
If new chickens are added to the flock or chickens are removed from the flock, the pecking order is disturbed, and there can be quite a bit of fighting to establish a new ranking. This behavior is what makes integrating new chickens into your flock difficult and stressful, both to you and your chickens.
Because it’s stressful for your flock to have their order upset, make certain everyone has plenty to do, eat, and drink.
You need to boost their immune systems as well by offering them ACV tonic in their water for a week or two (2 tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar to 1 gallon of water).
How to Introduce New Chickens to Prevent Fighting
If you have space, put the new birds in a separate yard beside the main yard. Even a temporary make-shift yard will do. This allows the birds to see one another and get used to each other.
Keep them separated for 2-3 weeks for ideal acclimation to reduce fighting.
When it’s been 2-3 weeks, add the new chickens to the flock by waiting until the main flock is sound asleep at the end of the day. Gently, slowly put the new chickens on the roost.
The goal is not to wake the other birds.
Once the new chickens have slept in the coop for 2-3 nights, they will know where they sleep, eat, and get water.
If you don’t have the space for this method, wait until the established flock has gone to roost and is sound asleep then put the new chickens on the roost with them.
There is something about waking up together that triggers the flock mentality in chickens.
Early the next morning, if at all possible, separate the established flock from the new birds.
If you can, free-range your established flock and put the new chickens in a temporary yard inside the main yard. This will allow the new birds to get used to the yard and to relax in their new home while your established flock comes and goes for water and egg-laying.
They will have some squabbles this way but they will work it out within a week or so as they re-establish the pecking order.
WHAT IF I CAN’T SEPARATE THE ESTABLISHED FLOCK FROM THE NEW CHICKENS?
When introducing new chickens to your flock, if you can’t separate your established flock from the new chickens, you will have more pecking and fighting.
After a week of roosting together, it will dramatically decrease and after 2 weeks they will most likely have re-established their pecking order and be at peace, most of the time.
HOW WE INTRODUCE NEW HENS TO OUR FLOCK
I am blessed to have plenty of space. My husband built a unique setup. We have four side yards that connect to the “big yard” by a gate. On the other side of these side yards is the grow-out yard. It is also connected to the main yard by a gate.
Each side yard serves its own purpose. The yards on each end are breeding coops. The two in the middle are the rooster yards. These serve as a home for the roosters I keep just for breeding purposes. I keep the roosters separate to help prevent attacks.
These yards all share a common fence so the chickens in the big yard can see the chicks or new hens and get used to them.
They still do a little bossin’ around, but it has never caused damage to any of the birds.
How to Reintroduce a Separated Chicken to the Flock
If you take one of your chickens out for setting a nest or due to sickness, the pecking order will change. It will change again when you bring the bird back in.
To avoid too much fighting, keep them where the main flock can see them for a week or so. They know the bird already so it doesn’t take as long.
To put the bird back in the flock, wait until they are roosted and asleep and put the separated chicken on the roost.
There shouldn’t be too much pecking. I just stay out of their squabbles and let them work it out.
How to Introduce Chicks to the Flock
Since our chicks are kept next to the big flock for so long, there’s hardly any fuss. To introduce them to the coop and flock, we put them on the roost at night when all the birds have gone to sleep.
If you have allowed one of your hens to hatch her chicks, you won’t have as much trouble because she will protect them. She will also teach them where to roost.
If you order your chicks, you’ll need to keep them separate from the flock but where they can see one another.
It’s best to wait until they are 12 weeks old before putting them in with the main flock. By this age, they’re large enough and established so they are able to handle themselves.
When they’re old enough, put them on the roost gently, slowly with the same goal of not waking the other birds.
A sleeping chicken is kinda like a zombie. They’ll let you do pretty much anything to them you want.
I love my headlamp because it has a red light setting on it which doesn’t disturb them like white light does. I use it when adding birds or doing a headcount before I shut the coop for the night.
As young hens grow into maturity, the pecking order will change so expect some squabbling. Once they have slept in the coop for 2 – 3 nights, they’ll get along better.
Adjust Your Feed When Adding Chicks or Pullets to the Flock
Remember to adjust your feed to accommodate a mixed-age flock.
Until the chicks are 20 weeks old, everyone gets a grower with free choice of crushed eggshells for calcium and small grit. Once they’re 20 weeks old, everyone goes back to their usual feed.
We free-range our birds so they only get a little feed at night to get them to come into the yard so we can shut the big gate.
PROBLEMS MAY ARISE WHEN INTRODUCING NEW CHICKENS TO THE FLOCK
The only problem I’ve had in introducing new chickens to the flock is convincing them to use their new roost.
They’re used to being in the grow-out coop and they want to go back there. Sometimes they want to sleep in the bottom row of nests in the coop.
Wherever you kept your new chickens while introducing them, this is where they will want to go to roost until they’re completely settled.
If you just put them straight into the flock, you will probably still have a problem getting them to go into the coop to roost because it’s new to them.
There are a few ways to deal with this.
- You can chase them around until you catch them and put them on the roost. This takes more than one person, a sense of humor, and the ability to be fast. I am not as fast as I used to be.
- You can chase them around and herd them up the ramp into the coop. Again, you will need more than one person, a sense of humor, and speed.
- Let them go to sleep and then pick them up gently, slowly and put them on the roost again.
- After three or four nights, they should all be going to bed on the roost. It’s a little work, but they need to be sleeping together as a flock for bonding and safety.
Top Tips to Introduce New Chickens to Your Flock
- Good Fencing Makes Friendly Chickens – Arrange a way so only a see through chicken wire fence separates your new chickens from your older hens. They may try to fight but will find that the wire fence between them keeps them from doing any damage. After a couple of weeks, they will start to behave in a civilized pecking order.
- Introduce them at Night – It’s a good idea to wait until the older chickens are asleep to introduce your new chickens. Remember the zombie reference?
- Bring on the food and ACV spiked water – Even the lowest ranking chicken in your flock may try and keep new chickens from getting close to the waterer or feeder. You might have to add a new feeder and waterer to make sure that your new chickens don’t have to fight for a drink. Also make sure to remember that a week or two with some Apple Cider Vinegar mixed in the morning water bowl may help the transition by giving both new and old birds a little immunity boost.
- Make Sure They Can Retreat – Having a large enough area or a coop that is raised off the ground, will give new birds a way to escape until the bossy chicken losses interest (oh look a butterfly!). This will allow lower ranking or new chicks to up its sneakability (not a real word but I like it!) skill.
- Coop Size Matters – A small coop with mature birds gives the old hens of your current flock time and opportunity to cause serious injuries. With enough space in the hen house, the entire flock can go from seeing each other for the first time to having the best time together in the first week.
- Penalty Box Time – If you have a bird that is really aggressive to the new coop members, you may need to move her away from the rest of the flock for a couple of days. This only happens in extreme cases or when chicken keepers don’t have enough room or resources to keep the chickens happy and healthy, from my experience. A little penalty box time in a smaller adjacent area will give her victims time to gain confidence and climb the pecking order.
- Bringing in Two Is Easier Than One – Depending on the breed of chicken being introduced and the breed you already have, it may be a real challenge to introduce just one bird. Especially if you have ten or more chickens in an established flock. The new hen will have to be challenged by every flock member to see where she fits in. Imagine Rocky 1,2,3,4,5, all rolled into one movie! It might get bloody. However, by having at least two new additions, you may find it to be the best way to keep the old chickens too busy to pick on a single bird.
- Roosters Are Not Hens – If you have a rooster and try to introduce a new rooster, you will join the ranks of infamous people who put two strange roosters together to see which one is left alive at the end of the inevitable fight. Roosters who are raised together and are never separated can exist in harmony. I have done this many times. But if you bring a new rooster into a flock that already has a rooster, they will almost always fight to the death.
- Move Both – You can help change the dynamics of the flock pecking order by moving both into a new separate coop the same night. I have never done this personally but if the old flock is unsettled in the new surroundings just like the new flock members, they will naturally bond faster into one new pecking order. I like to quarantine new birds before mixing so I don’t recommend this approach but I can see how it would work for some people.
Important Reminders on How to Introduce New Chickens to Your Flock
See, it isn’t hard to learn how to introduce new chickens to your flock safely. It’s just a little time-consuming.
- Remember, it’s stressful for your flock to have their order upset. Make certain everyone has plenty to do, eat, and drink. You need to boost their immune systems as well by offering them ACV Tonic (2 tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar to 1 gallon of water).
- Keep the existing flock and the new birds separate but where they can see one another for 2 – 3 three weeks, if at all possible.
- When adding new chickens to the flock, wait until the main flock is sound asleep and gently, slowly put the new chickens on the roost. The goal is not to wake the other birds. Once they’ve slept in the coop for 2-3 nights, they will know where they sleep, eat, and get water.
- Allow them to work out their pecking order without interfering. It’s very rare that a hen will be injured so badly that she needs to be removed from the flock.
Be Aware of the Risk of Disease
You always want to consider the risk of introducing diseases to your flock.
There are several common chicken diseases that can be easily transferred when you introduce new chickens to your flock that come from another farm. With a little planning and following a few tips, you can minimize the risk to almost zero.
Quarantine Before You Combine
When introducing new chickens to your flock that are from another farm, it’s always best to quarantine them for 1 month. This means keeping them from sleeping, eating, drinking, and pooping in the same area.
You want to make sure that you have given your new chickens a pen or area that has not been used by your flock in at least thirty days.
You want to give your new chickens watering pans and feeders that have been disinfected or have not been used by your chickens in a while.
Also, be careful when going between the two separate flocks. You can carry viruses or diseases on your shoes or hands.
To avoid any possible risk of cross-contamination, change shoes or wash them between yards and wash your hands.
While your new chickens are quarantined, you will be watching them for any signs of illness.
An unhealthy chicken may be carrying parasites, mites, or even respiratory diseases that could affect the health of your established flock.
You will be watching for mucus in their eyes or nostrils, checking that their poop is normal, seeing they are eating and drinking normally, and making sure that they are active and not lethargic.
The Double Quarantine Method
The new flock of birds may have built up an immunity to a particular disease and still be a carrier of that disease. In this case, they will not display any symptoms.
If you are concerned about this, I only know of one way to minimize the risk. It’s called a double quarantine.
When the initial 30 day quarantine is over, take one healthy chicken from your established flock and add it to the yard with new birds.
You will have to keep both groups of birds separated for another 3-4 weeks. Observe the hen you added from your established flock to see if she develops any symptoms of a disease.
This is the safest way I know of to minimize all the risks. I know some chicken keepers who add one chicken from their flock at the beginning of the first quarantine period. This cuts the quarantine time in half.
I personally don’t like to lose any of my chickens if I can help it but losing one is better than losing the whole flock to disease.
You have to decide which method works for you to keep your flock happy and healthy.
As always, I’m here to help.