Introducing new chickens to a flock is not as easy as just sticking the new birds in with the existing flock. You could do that, but you risk bringing in diseases that may sicken your existing flock. You could also cause mass chaos and major fighting (and possibly even death from fighting!) among the chickens as they are faced with new birds they have never seen before. The chickens will have to figure out a new pecking order that includes the new birds so helping them make this transition slowly will ultimately be better for your flock.
We have an established flock of eleven hens and one rooster that came to live on our homestead right before Christmas. Since we have a couple acres of property on our homestead, we have plenty of room for them to free range. We also have plenty of room to grow our flock! There are many benefits to raising chickens beyond just farm fresh eggs. They also do a great job tilling up the soil, helping to create compost for our garden with their poop and coop bedding, and eat bugs out of the soil like those nasty cutworms we had such a problem with last year.
We recently connected with a family who was moving and needed to re-home their flock of four adult chickens. They lived about two hours away but were coming to our area so said they would bring the chickens if we would give them a new home. I jumped at the chance to give these chickens a new home! (If you missed the post, here’s how they transported the chickens for two hours in the car!)
We were prepared for the arrival of our new chickens. We set up a separate temporary coop and run for the new chickens to hang out and get adapted to our homestead before being introduced to our established flock of chickens. I hadn’t yet started any seedlings in the greenhouse so we turned that into a temporary coop with a fenced in run made out of a couple hog panels.
When introducing new chickens to an existing flock, there are several things to consider.
- Chicken health. Before taking in new chickens, ask the owners about any health issues such as mites, worms or coughing which could be a sign of a respiratory issue. If you can, check the chickens out before you take them. Observe them for coughing. Look around for some poop to see if it looks “normal” (I love this article from The Chicken Chick on assessing chicken poop health)
- Quarantine. Even if the former owners say the chickens are healthy and you don’t notice any obvious health issues, it is still a good idea to quarantine the new chickens from your established flock. I’ve read recommendations to quarantine the new chickens anywhere from one week to 30 days. The new chickens should have a separate coop and run to use and should not share any space or breathing air with your established flock. Having a separate area also allows the new chickens to acclimate to you and your homestead. Moving can be stressful on chickens, especially when there is going to be a new flock of birds to meet, so help them have as smooth of a transition as possible by giving them a separate space to start.
- Slow Introduction. Once the time frame for the quarantine is over and the new chickens are ready to be introduced to the established flock, you can start having them share some run space with a wire fence divider. This will allow all the chickens to see each other and get familiar with each other but also keeps them separate enough to prevent any severe fighting (I’ve read about chickens ganging up on another and pecking it to death so this isn’t something to take lightly). Our established flock is still hanging out in our 7000 square foot garden that has a fence around it. We have some metal hog panels that are temporarily blocking off the section of the garden where the strawberry patch is. We put the new chickens in the strawberry patch since we figured they’d only be there a short time and wouldn’t do too much damage. Despite having a hog panel and chicken wire dividing them, the top two hens from each flock had a face off through the fencing! There was a lot of squawking, chest bumping and head pecking. Quite the fascinating scene to watch!
- Finding a new pecking order. If you’ve spent any time around chickens, you will know that they have a pecking order like many other animal species. There are the more dominant chickens and the ones on the bottom of the pecking order (literally) who get picked on and pecked at the most. There will be a pecking order regardless if all your chickens are the exact same size. We can really see the pecking order in our flock when we throw out food scraps. When the chickens lowest on the pecking order run up to get some food, the more dominant chickens will peck at them to scare them off and show their dominance. We manage this by spreading food scraps out over a large area to let them all get some treats. I noticed that when we put food scraps in a tray or bowl, the birds seemed to fight more to get some. Now we throw the scraps out over a wide area so the chickens can spread out and find them without any squabbles. We also have several feeders in different areas to ensure all the chickens get a chance to eat and drink despite their place in the pecking order.
- Watch for fighting and blood. Yes, the chickens will fight as they figure out their new pecking order. This is normal and natural. But if blood is drawn during the squabbles, it will attract the chickens even more. This can be dangerous and even deadly for the bird who has some bleeding. If you see a chicken is bleeding, try to remove them from the flock and quarantine them until the bleeding stops. We also keep BluKote on hand to use to treat a wound and has the dual purpose of covering up the red so it won’t attract the chickens to peck at the wound. The two top hens that were having a face off through the fence ended up drawing some blood from each other’s combs despite the fence divider between them! Once they were integrated without the fence divider, there were a few squabbles but no more aggressive fighting like there was through the fence.
- Provide Distractions. As the chickens are getting to know each other and figuring out their new pecking order, try to keep them busy and distracted. This will prevent them from focusing too much on the “new kids on the block” and help to minimize the fighting as the pecking order shifts. We hung up a head of lettuce by a string on the side of the fence at the chickens’ head level. We got one of these to hang from the fence and hang up treats for them to peck at like a dried sunflower head from last year’s garden, a wild bird seed cake, etc. We also opened up a fresh bale of straw for them to pick through for seeds and spread around.
- Introduce new chickens into the coop at night. At night chickens are sleepy, more docile and less apt to fight newcomers. Our new Easter Egger chicken didn’t seem to care about her new surroundings and loaded up into the new coop and up onto a roosting bar on her own from day one. The other three, the Wyandotte and two Brahmas, did not want to load up into the coop the first night, or even the second night. We had to chase them around, catch them and put them into the coop. By the third night they were settled in enough and went into the coop on their own.
- Don’t leave them together in small, confined spaces. Until the new pecking order is defined, there will still be some fighting among the chickens. Giving them a lot of space to roam and spread out is key to minimizing the fights and pecking. I knew that the new and old chickens were all locked safely up in the coop at night but needed to let them out before daylight to prevent a big chicken fight in the coop. The first three days we had the new chickens intermingling with the established flock, I woke up before dawn and went out to open up the coop. Most days we open up the coop around sunrise or shortly after. I wasn’t taking any chances on a big chicken fight in the coop those first few days so opened it up before there was any daylight.
We’ve now had our four new chickens integrated with our existing flock for about three weeks. There is still an occasional squabble, but there hasn’t been any blood drawn since that one time when the top two hens faced off through the fence. We have chicks in a brooder in the garage right now that will need to be introduced to the flock of adult chickens in another month or two so we’ll be doing this same process all over again soon!
Do you have any tips to share on how to successfully introduce new chickens into a flock?