Any homesteader will tell you that introducing new chicks to your flock is a stressful experience, especially if you are doing it for the first time. Chickens live in a flock according to a pecking order: the rooster (if there is one) or hen with the most dominant personality presides at the top of the order and the most docile hen sits at the bottom of the ranks. Because of their social organization, chickens don’t often give warm welcomes to newcomers; rather, their instinct is to position the new bird or birds into their society through pecking and even bullying.
Introducing chicks to the flock causes concern among homesteaders because of the size and strength difference between chicks and full-grown hens. Although introducing new chicks to the flock will almost inevitably cause some conflict, follow these steps for the smoothest transition.
- Wait until your chicks are old enough to live in the coop. Chicks must be at least six weeks old before they can live outside and with older chickens. If your chicks aren’t large or strong enough, they can be seriously injured or killed by the rest of your flock. If you’re not sure if your chicks are ready, it’s always better to wait another week or so before making the transition to the coop.
- Separate birds within the coop. The best way to introduce new birds to the coop is to allow them to share a space, but to physically separate the new birds from the older ones. Use a large dog crate, chicken wire, or wire mesh to divide the coop between your chicks and your chickens.
- Allow short periods of interaction. Don’t transition your chicks to the rest of the flock all at once. Instead, allow both parties to acclimate gradually. Start by introducing your chickens in a shared but separated environment (see step 2 above) for a short time and increasing their interaction time over a period of a week or so.
- Allow chickens to free-range together. If your chickens free range, allow your new birds to free-range with the older ones. Roaming provides lots of distractions for chickens, so they are less likely to be bothered by newcomers.
- Make the full transition at night. Move your new chicks into the coop at night when all birds involved in the transition are less groggy and less likely to get upset. You can also remove your older chickens from the flock for a day or so—if you have another place to keep them—and move your chicks in first. That way, when the older birds reenter the flock, they might think the newer birds were there all along.
- Provide distraction. As with free ranging your birds together, providing distraction in the coop lessens the likelihood of pecking and fights. Hanging a cabbage from your coop or adding dead leaves or branches to the coop floor will give your birds something to do instead of fight.
Introducing new chickens is undoubtedly a stressful experience for all chicken raisers. Remember that there will most likely be some conflict involved as your chickens establish their new pecking order. Make the transition gradually, however, and you’re more likely to have a happy flock!