Introducing new chickens to the flock can be stressful for your hens and their keeper. These tips will help make the transition easier and with less turmoil in the hen house.
Adding new chickens into your backyard flock is not as simple as placing them in the coop. There really is a “pecking order” among chickens, which is an established animal hierarchy within the flock. Every hen knows her place in the flock. When new chickens are introduced, problems will arise until the pecking order is re-established.
Some hens will be accepting newcomers, while others will intimidate them to protect their position. This can be very stressful for new chickens, especially when several gang up on her.
There are certain things that you can do to make things go a bit more smoothly when adding to your flock.
Tips for Adding New Chickens to the Flock
When we started keeping backyard chickens, the plan was to add a few hens to the flock every 2-3 years to replace older layers and keep egg production up.
We discovered the easiest way to add new chickens is with the protection of their mother. From the day a broody hen hatches and raises her chicks, they are under her guard. When it came time for the family to join the flock, she was there to keep them safe. Within a week, it was done. The flock was one with very little squabbling.
If you raise baby chicks, it will take a little more effort for them to join the flock without anyone getting hurt. It took a few experiments, but over the years we have found a way that is much less stressful for all of us.
I hope these tips will help you, and your hens, make the transition quicker and with the least amount of turmoil in the hen house.
Build a Separate Coop and Pen
If you plan on adding to your flock regularly, it will be helpful to build a separate mini-coop and pen or chicken tractor located about 20-feet away from the main one. This will make it much easier to quarantine new hens. The mini-coop will also come in handy for brooding and raising chicks, and as a sick bay when needed.
Add New Chickens in Groups of at Least Three
A group of at least three chickens that were raised together will combine with the established flock more easily than single hens from different sources. If the pullets are raised as a group, they have already established a pecking order among them. They are a flock, or family and will often face the older hens together as a unit.
Introducing a small group of chickens to the flock reduces the stress on the new hens and makes for a smoother transition. They already know each other and will hang out together until they are accepted into the established flock.
Combine Hens that are the Same Size
Chickens can be bullies, and the bigger hens often pick on the little ones. Try to add chickens that are the same size so they can stand their ground. We raise our chicks in the mini-coop until they are adults before adding them to the main flock.
Try to Reduce Stress
Introducing new chickens and shaking up the dynamic of the flock is very nerve-wracking. Stress is the enemy. When chickens get stressed, it affects their behavior, egg laying, and immunity. Try not to add to the flock when the chickens are molting, during a heat wave, or if there has been a recent predator attack. Wait until the stress level calms down.
Allow for Plenty of Time
Slowly introduce the two flocks. With the quarantine period, and time for introductions, it can take months before the new pecking order is re-established and the newcomers are accepted. Rushing and forcing things will only add extra stress to your flock, which may make them sick or reduce egg production.
Steps to Introduce New Chickens to an Established Flock
Since every chicken has their own little personality and each flock has its dynamic, be sure to observe your chickens throughout the process and intervene if necessary to prevent bloodshed and brutal bullying.
Step 1: Quarantine the New Hens
If you have raised your hens from chicks, you can skip this step because you know they are healthy under your care.
However, if you are adding pullets or older hens from somewhere else, it is a good idea to quarantine the new girls for 3-4 weeks to be sure they don’t introduce pests and illness to your main flock.
Even if the newcomers look healthy at first, keep the two groups completely separate for 3-4 weeks so you can observe for signs of illness and parasites. A small coop and pen located about 20 feet away from the main coop is ideal for isolating new chickens.
When you tend to the flock, be sure to care for your main flock first, and then the new hens to avoid accidentally transferring pests and disease. If you free-range your established flock, fence them so they stay at least 20 feet away from the quarantine area.
Step 2: Let the Chickens See Each Other
After the quarantine period is over, and you are sure the new girls are healthy, begin to let the chickens observe each other while still protected.
Free-range your flock and let them walk around the newcomers’ pen to observe the hens through the wire. This will allow the old and new hens to be close, but not too close.
Return the main flock to their pen and let the new chickens have a turn free ranging so they become accustomed to the yard and see it as theirs as well.
Watch how your birds interact through the wire. Some may be curious and begin communicating, while some may become aggressive and flap their wings, others will completely ignore the newcomers preferring to scratch and peck far away from them. This will give you a good idea how your hens will behave when the time comes to introduce them face-to-face.
Let both flocks spend a few days with a fence separating them, so they will have time to get used to each other.
Step 3: Free-Range the Two Groups Together
After a few days, try letting both flocks free-range at the same time while keeping a watchful eye on them. Let the new hens out first to free-range for about 10 minutes, and then let your main flock out to join them.
The new chickens usually stick together, scratching and pecking as a group close to the flock. The older hens may run over to investigate the newcomers, or ignore them completely. Expect a bit of chest bumping, wing flapping, and even jumping on each other as the older hens demonstrate their dominance.
Step 4: Step in if There’s Trouble
We don’t fully understand the hierarchy of the world of chickens, but we do know that if a hen does something to offend the other hens, they will mercilessly attack her until they feel she has been sufficiently punished.
If the attacks are brutal or bloody, remove the bird and return her to the separate pen. This will keep the attacked hen connected to the flock but out of harm’s way. Treat her wounds if needed, and let her flock mates keep her company until you are ready to try again.
After about a week, try again to re-introduce the new hens to the flock during free-range time. Stay close to see if they are accepted.
Step 5: Introduce the New Chickens to the Main Coop and Pen
While the older hens are out free ranging, let the new chickens explore the main housing so they become familiar with it. It isn’t unusual for this to happen naturally because chickens are curious by nature. Often times they will simply wander in looking for food.
If not, try to encourage them to enter the pen with a few sunflower seeds. Close the door and let them investigate the coop, pen, nest boxes, feeders, and waterers.
Step 6: Combine the Flocks
Once both flocks are free ranging calmly, and the new birds have explored the main coop, it is time to consider combining the two groups permanently.
Chickens settle down and roost when the sun sets. This calm and quiet period is a good time to combine the flock.
If the two flocks have been free ranging together in harmony, it may be as easy as enticing everyone into the main coop and pen using a tasty treat such as sunflowers. Once everyone is inside, close the door and watch what happens.
The old hens are familiar with the hen house and run. They are the dominant residents, and each has her favorite spot. They will eat, drink, jump on the roost, and settle down for the night first. The newcomers usually follow and try to find a spot. There will be a bit of squabbling, but the new hens will usually roost on the lowest spot for the night together away from the rest of the flock.
Sometimes the older hens won’t let the newbies up on the roost. Let the new hens sleep where they are comfortable, which may be in the nesting boxes, or on the floor. After a few nights, they usually move up to spots on the roost.
Get up early the following morning and open the coop just before the sun rises so the hens are not confined to the coop. Giving everyone plenty of space will help with the transition.
Step 7: Distract Them
Expect a certain amount of bullying and a bit of fighting in the beginning. It is difficult to watch, but this is how the flock adjusts the pecking order.
Just as something shiny will distract a baby’s attention and stop her from crying, distracting the old hens will take their attention off of the new ones.
Place something in the chicken run that will grab their attention and keep them occupied. Some fresh straw for them to scratch in, a pile of greens, or a hang head of lettuce for them to peck at will keep them busy all day. The goal is to keep everyone active, so they won’t focus on the new arrivals.
Observe the flock over the next few days to be sure everyone is moving around, eating, drinking, and scratching. Consider adding extra feeders and waterers so everyone has access. Let the whole flock free range together and make sure everyone can get into the coop at sundown.
After about a week or two, things should calm down as the new hens are accepted, and the pecking order is re-established. Soon they will be scratching and pecking the ground and dirt bathing together.
Keeping backyard chickens is a fun adventure. In addition to providing eggs, chickens are so amusing with their individual personalities and antics. We often find ourselves wanting to increase the size of our original flock. Sometimes, that is easier said than done. I hope these tips will help you smooth the process when you decide to add new chickens to your established flock.