When I first got chickens I bought four pullets from the same farm. Easy peasy. The next summer, my Buff Orpington went broody and hatched ten chicks. The boys went and I kept some of her daughters.
Over time I added one, or two and one time, even four, newcomers. What did I know about flock dynamics? I wanted more chickens and I only had one coop so I assumed they would all get along. I added the new members at night and, lo and behold, they all woke up the next morning as though they’d always been there. I’m not joking, that is how easy integrating new birds has been for me.
Of course, that doesn’t take into consideration biosecurity and quarantine, which I have discussed elsewhere. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that you have quarantined your birds prior to attempting integration.
I’ve kept chickens for a decade and I’ve only had one bad experience – and by some standards, it wasn’t bad at all. I introduced a single Ameraucana pullet into the flock. By that time, my coop and pen had expanded so I was able to house her in a 4’x9’ wired pen within my 1200 square feet pen. The flock was able to see, but not touch, her. This is the method that many folks recommend: the soft entry, in which they can work out their issues behind the safety of a divider.
After a few days, I opened her pen and my girls immediately went for her. This pullet was wearing an invisible ‘kick me’ sign that invited their aggression. She ran; she tucked her head in; she didn’t stand her ground. If you know chickens you know they can sniff out fear and submission, which doesn’t bode well for the newbie.
I knew her integration would take some work and might have been easier if I hadn’t brought in a single bird. I was concerned for her safety and thought that she would make a great hen for the right family. I contacted some folks who already had some of my hens: a family with four little girls who were home schooled and loved their birds. Sure enough, with lots of attention and carrying around this hen gained confidence and fit right in to her new home. The right bird for the right flock.
You might understand what goes on in your own flock, but you can’t always predict how they will react to a stranger. I gave a young cockerel to a couple with a flock of 30 hens. She employed the look, but don’t touch strategy by keeping him in a crate, then allowed them to mingle under supervision. The minute she turned her back, the hens ganged up on and beat the snot out of him. It took a few more attempts before things worked out.
Another time, I brought a cockerel to a hen-only flock. I let him out of the crate and he marched around the yard as though he owned the place. Within minutes, the girls were forming a conga line and were following him as though they’d been waiting for a leader.
Those are stories of relatively easy integrations, but things can end in bloodshed and serious injury. It’s important to understand that the pecking order is a fluid and integral mechanism of flock dynamics. Every time we bring in, or remove, a bird the pecking order shifts. It’s a stressful time for all members, new and old. Stress is hard on birds and can affect egg production and be a catalyst for underlying health issues to come to the fore.
Dealing With Different Size/Age Groups
For four years I had a bantam rooster with a predominantly standard sized flock of hens. Occasionally I would add a bantam, or mid-sided, hen to the mix and never experienced any issues between them based on size. In my experience, bantams tend to be quite confident and don’t recognize their small stature as a deficit. That said, always be mindful when introducing birds of different sizes.
Integrating birds of different ages is always a challenge. I have a number of broody hens that hatch loads of chicks. Depending on the status of the hen I integrate them into the flock when they are between 1-3 weeks old, always with their mother to protect them. I’ve never had an issue with my flock going after chicks: the scuffles are always between the hen and others in the flock. If she is high in the pecking order there may be no issues at all. I have lots of space and plenty of places for those chicks to get out of harm’s way. In my experience though, the older birds are good with the chicks and my rooster loves them.
If you are integrating birds of different ages they need to be relatively the same size and introduced gradually, and under supervision. I once bought four young bantam pullets from the same place, although they had not all been housed together. There wasn’t a big difference in age, so I put them all together. One of the older ones pecked another and caused significant damage. This has been the only pecking injury in my flock and it happened between two newcomers.
The stress of moving sometimes brings out the worst in birds. I had no place to separate the four for a longer, gradual integration. I ended up moving the bully along to the family I mentioned above who took in my picked on Ameraucana. Again, once this pullet was in a new flock she settled down no problem.
The two issues with integrating young birds are bullying and exposure to pathogens. Your older birds have already been exposed to a number of germs and are probably carrying a healthy worm load. Not enough to do them any damage, but not so for chicks.
- If you know you have a particularly bossy bird, remove them during the integration. Without a leader the original flock members are less likely to bully the newcomer and when the bully comes back the pecking order has changed a bit.
- If you’ve got a chill flock and are adding birds of about the same size then try putting them on the roost bars after dark. Stay there and see if things are going well. Pecking injuries often happen at night. Make sure you are there first thing in the morning to ensure no damage gets done before the coop door opens.
- Try the look, but don’t, touch method. Put the newcomers in a wired crate or separate pen and allow them to check each other out. You’ll be able to judge how things are going if they are fighting or just curious. One of my Ameraucana hens, who is normally very gentle, sprained her leg when she was jumping at the fenced pen of a new bird. If things are going well by the time you let them all together they should be fine. If not, back to the drawing board.
When Things Don’t Work Out
Last year, I took in eight birds from Joan who was advised to give up her flock due to health issues. There were four hens and four pullets and all of them made a seamless transition into my flock.
Several weeks ago, I gave Rena & Darren two of the white Ameraucana hens from that group. To ease the integration I also gave them a small coop that had a wired area underneath so they could try a gradual introduction.
They have a small flock of five production layers who would never be considered shy. The two groups started off side-by-side, able to see each other, but still protected. The next stage was to let them mingle in a fenced pen – neutral territory – but sleep in their respective coops at night. The hybrids were bossy with the newbies.
I suggested removing the biggest bully and putting her into the little coop. The problem is they all seemed to get in on the action and it was hard to identify who was the biggest offender. They tried that and still no improvement. And then a curious thing happened: one of the Ameraucanas, who previously had protected her sister, now turned against her.
So after several weeks, the victim was left friendless and at the bottom of the pecking order. It would be one thing to just be ignored, but the hens were doing a lot of feather picking and Rena and Darren were concerned about her safety. They had grown to love her, but asked if I would take her back. I did, of course, but witnessed that once here she had to re-integrate into her old flock as a low-ranking member. No bullying, but there wasn’t a welcome home party either. She spent the first couple of days hiding out or sticking close to her sister.
Suggestions For A Successful Integration
- If you are new to chickens, try getting your maximum number all at once so you are not constantly shifting the flock dynamic.
- Recognize that changes in the pecking order are stressful and often have repercussions for your birds’ health.
- If one of your existing birds has been segregated, due to illness or raising chicks, they may be treated as a new member when re-entering the flock.
- Understand breed temperaments. Don’t try to mix docile birds with particularly aggressive ones.
- When integrating new birds, try bringing in more than one so they have a buddy.
- Make sure you have enough coop, roost bar space and nest box space. Crowded conditions lead to stress and bullying.
- Have multiple feeding and water stations so they are not competing for resources.
- Ensure there are places to hide/get away from other members (e.g. structure, shrubs, etc).
- Intervene at the first sign of injury. Don’t let a bird endure bullying, which can quickly escalate to real harm.
- Separate birds with any visible wounds (i.e. blood). Do not reintegrate them until their injuries have totally healed.
- Accept that some birds will never be accepted into your flock, but might do better elsewhere. Chickens are social animals and deserve the best life possible, which might require re-homing them.