As late summer is coming to an end, and spring chicks are now full-grown birds, it’s time to introduce them to an established flock.
I like many backyard chicken keepers, acquired new chicks earlier this spring, and am now in the process of introducing them to my established flock. While this process is rather easy, it takes time and must be approached with care.
It is in a chicken’s nature to resist any new members to the flock, if done too hastily, it could spell disaster or death for the new kids in the flock. In this post, I will explain why chickens are resistant to new members and how to introduce them so that this process is done successfully.
Why do chickens resist new members?
To understand why chickens are so resistant to new members, we need to get into the head of a chicken using a bit of chicken psychology.
Chickens are highly socially organized creatures. Their entire lives revolve around a hierarchy. Within this hierarchy, each member knows their place and what this assignment means in terms of flock activity.
Typically, the flock hierarchy begins with the alpha rooster, under him will be any subjugated roosters in the flock, these boys will then assume the beta rooster positions. Following the roosters will start the order of the hens. The head hen or alpha hen will occupy the top position in the order. The Alpha hen is a bit bossy regarding the other hens in the flock. She is the individual who will often roost next to the roosters at night and is commonly the “favorite” of the alpha rooster in terms of mating. This may be due to her size, receptiveness to mating, or her fertility as judged by the roosters.
Occupying the hierarchical positions under the alpha hen will be the other hens in the flock. Order and status are determined by the “pecking order”. Members in a flock peck each other on the back indicating status. The pecker is above the pecked in flock hierarchy. This competition for position flows from the alpha rooster down to the member that is at the bottom of the pecking order.
Once established, the order is strictly maintained. Any breach of the position will be met with a firm reminder of this order and each place within it. Once in a while, a member may challenge and higher hierarchy order individual for their position. This is usually met with a skirmish which will decide if the challenger successfully raised their position or is put in their place. This behavior is not just found among the roosters in the flock, hens will also fight for position and status in the flock.
Once the flock agrees on the order, all activities within the flock revolve around this order. Everything from who roosts where, to the order in which they exit the coop in the morning, and the order in which they return at night are all determined by the pecking order. The alpha hens will often eat from the feeder first in the morning. After she gets their fill, the other hens will then get their share. The roosters most commonly eat last despite their hierarchical position in the flock. It is by evolutionary design, that the roosters know that the hens need the nutrition for flock procreation. A good rooster will always let the hens eat first, he will then eat any remaining morsels.
As organized and structured that the flock hierarchy may be, it is fluid, and always in flux. Many activities can affect the pecking order in a flock. Events such as an illness or death of a member. If a member is injured and can no longer defend their position, they will oftentimes find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. Once they recover, they can sometimes regain their previous position, although this is not guaranteed. In the case of the death of an individual, the hierarchy reorganization can be quite sophisticated.
For example, when we lost our rooster, Roy, the flock found themselves suddenly without their top member, the Alpha member. It took the girls a while to decide who was going to occupy the position at the top of the pecking order. After the decision was made, the rest of the girls had to reestablish their position in the flock. It took several weeks for the girls to finally agree on the new pecking order. Once it was established, peace reigned once more in the coop.
It is for this reason that chickens are so resistant to any new additions to the flock. When a keeper introduces new members to the flock, they interfere with this sophisticated hierarchical social construct within the flock. Knowing this, a keeper needs to take care of how and when to introduce new individuals to an established flock.
There are several things that a keeper can do to make this transition as least stressful on the flock as possible. I will dedicate the rest of this post to the process I have used for over a decade of chicken keeping.
Brood new chicks in the flock environment or close to their enclosure.
If using a broody hen to hatch and rise a clutch of chicks for you, she will take care of the introduction of her new chicks to the flock. In the absence of a broody hen, it falls on the keeper to make this social transition. The easiest way to do this is to brood the chicks in the pen if possible, or near the established flock’s habit.
When I get a new clutch of chicks, I will keep them inside for the first two weeks. This allows me to monitor them so for health issues, physical issues, or other behavioral issues. Once I am confident that they survived their trip and have acclimated to the brooder environment, I move them outside to the girl’s pen.
Inside The Kuntry Klucker, I have a wood pot shelf that I will set the brooder on. The girls are unable to gain any access to the chicks but are aware of their presence and activity. This does several things; this allows the established flock to get to know the new kids in the flock early on. Over time they will become accustomed to their presence in their environment, they will begin to ignore them and just associate them with the daily hum of flock activity.
Once the chicks are large enough to run in the pen, I will take them out of the brooder, and give them access to the larger pen environment. During the phases, I will cut off the girl’s access to the pen from the coop and will open the external access door on the side. The established flock will then exit and enter through this secondary external access door. Meanwhile, the chicks will be confined to the indoor pen. This allows the established flock to see and interact with the chicks while forbidding any contact.
As the chicks grow, the established flock will be allowed visual access only. Over time, the established flock will once again ignore the presence of the chicks, as they become a daily presence in their lives.
Once the chicks are roughly the same size as the established flock, around 18-20 weeks, I will then, allow the established flock access once again to the indoor pen area where the chicks have spent the last several months. By this time, the chicks have reached egg-laying age and are put on the same layer of feed that the established flock normally consumes.
By this time, the established flock is so used to the chicks being present in their lives and environment. Thus, the transition is much easier on both flocks.
This method works best if you are introducing a group of new individuals to your established block. I try to introduce groups of at least 5 or more. This year I am introducing 12 new individuals to my flocks. The larger the new flock the better.
The Pecking Order Begins:
Once the two flocks are allowed to contact each other, the new pecking order begins. The established flock will begin pecking the new flock members on the back, indicating they are at the bottom of the pecking order. It is for this reason that the new kids in the flock need to be roughly the same size as the established birds. This allows them to handle the pecking order initiation process much better.
The pecking order at first may seem brutal. The established flock is putting in its two cents on the new hierarchical assignments. As long as it is just pecking on the back, I do not intervene. If the pecking order takes on more of a harsher bullying quality, I will then monitor the pecking order assignments for several days till the flock seems to agree on positions.
The initiation process usually recedes in a few days. At most, my flock wrestles with the pecking order decisions for a week. It usually does not take long because the new members generally reside at the bottom of the pecking order. Very rarely do new members challenge established members for a higher position in the flock hierarchy. Even new roosters will often take a subjugated position at the bottom of the pecking order vs challenging the alpha rooster for his position.
Once the flock agrees in the place of the new members, flock harmony reigns once more. For several months there may be a bit of pecking as reminders of position. But for the most part, the hard part is over.
As time goes on, the flock will act more like a single flock rather than two individual flocks. By the 4–6-month mark, the two flocks will work as one. The new members will most likely reside at the bottom of the pecking order for the first year of their lives. After that point, they may try to challenge another member for a higher position, but even this is not usually an issue.
At this point, if you have a rooster in the new flock, they may begin to fight. I have had this go both ways. I have had a new rooster after several months challenge one of the established roosters for their position. I have also had new roosters just sit happily at the bottom of the order. This all depends on the temperament of the new rooster. He may assume the beta position well or he may not. It is during this time that you need a plan for your extra roosters. I typically put my roosters in bachelor pens where they bunk with other roosters. I will link the post here where I detail how bachelor pens work.
Even when roosters compete for the position, the skirmish does not last too long. I have 13 roosters; all are well-behaved and get along fairly well. Once they decide on the social order, they will happily tolerate one another.
I hope this has helped many fellow “spring chicken” backyard chicken enthusiasts merge new chicks into an established flock.
Chickens are very simple creatures; one just needs an understanding of their nature and habits. They ask little but give much in return.
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