Introducing new chickens to an existing flock can be a daunting prospect.
But if it is done right, with time and patience, it can go smoothly.
You have probably heard horror stories about how new chicks are badly pecked and hurt by established flocks.
All of those stories can be true if you do not pay attention to your flock dynamics.
There are a few rules to follow to make sure you introduce your chickens to each other correctly.
Below we will explain everything you need to know…
Contents and Quick Navigation
What To Know Before Introducing New Chickens
Pecking Order And Flock Dynamics
In the wild the flock dynamic is vitally important for survival.
This dynamic helps to maintain the order and well-being of the flock.
We may not see this much with our backyard chickens but it still exists.
In the wild a flock is a self-contained unit and outsiders are not allowed to join in. Wild flocks are quite small in size (perhaps ten or so hens) with an alpha rooster and a couple of subordinates.
The first and most important reason for flocking is to preserve resources. In the wild, food and water can be scarce and widely spaced. The flock will protect their sources from other birds to make sure there is enough food for them during the lean times.
Although chickens may not think about disease and illness, by refusing entry to the clan they are keeping their distance from potential illness. If any flock members are perceived as sick they will be driven from the flock as they become a liability to all members. This may seem harsh but it is a matter of survival of the fittest.
Young roosters are driven from the flock too and in some cases the head rooster may kill male offspring to protect his ladies. This is to protect his position as the leader of the flock. If he is weak or ailing he may be challenged by a youngster and lose the flock to the challenger.
These are the laws of the wild and we cannot change them but we can modify them in subtle ways to make introducing new chickens to your flock easier (more on this later).
This wild flock dynamic makes the flock drive away any newcomers that they do not recognize as one of their own.
It is common to see behaviors like pecking, rushing, bullying and intimidation.
The pecking can get vicious, especially if the hens’ gang together (they are quite capable of killing another bird).
Roosters will fight with another rooster and the fight may last until one is dead.
In a wild situation most chickens will stay together in small groups and not attempt to join another group at all.
However in a backyard flock we do not give them much choice in the matter so we need to be careful in how we go about the introductions.
How Long Will It Take?
Chickens have a pecking order and with the introduction of new chickens the pecking order is upset.
Each chicken in your current flock knows her place in the order of things. Once new members are introduced the order changes.
The new chickens will be at the bottom of this hierarchy and as such will endure other hens telling them so in no uncertain manner. Any real or perceived transgression will be greeted with a sharp peck to put the new hen in her place.
It can take up to six weeks before the pecking order is re-established.
Generally speaking docile hens take less time to accept new flock members but this does not always hold true.
How To Introduce New Chickens To An Existing Flock
There are a few different ways to introduce new chickens to your flock.
Many folks have their own way of doing things that works for them. Sometimes one thing will work and then it won’t, it is trial and error.
So you have to be flexible and sometimes get creative.
Before you introduce them you will need to quarantine your new chickens.
We will discuss this first and then discuss what to do once you have finished quarantining them.
On a personal note I will never introduce new chickens to the older flock until they are at least 2/3 the size of the adult hens.
Quarantine is something that many folks think is unnecessary and a waste of time.
The truth is that it is crucial for the safety of your established flock.
All chickens or animals (including humans) come with their own set of germs. Most of the time this is not a problem, but what if your new chickens come with infectious bronchitis and you put them with your flock? In short order you will have an entire flock with infectious bronchitis.
It does not matter where you got your chickens from, you should always quarantine the newcomers for at least 30 days. The quarantine coop should be well away from your current coop as infections can be spread by dust, dander, sneezing, coughing and on your clothing.
Any birds that have a disease or are ailing during this period should not be added to your flock until you fix the problem.
The only exception to this rule is chicks that are hatched from your own flock.
It can be a nuisance and seem pointless to quarantine but it is better to be safe than have your flock die or become diseased because you were in a hurry!
Once your new chickens have been quarantined you can follow the steps below to introduce them to your existing flock.
Method 1: Look, No Touch
This is an easy approach but it takes time.
Place your new chickens in a temporary coop where they can be seen but not attacked by the older hens. You can use a separate run or divide an existing run if it is big enough.
The idea behind this is that the two groups become accustomed to seeing each other over time and the integration will gradually unfold until you can open up the pens and have them mingle.
Your older flock will doubtless stalk around the edges wanting to get in and investigate the intruders but they will eventually get bored and walk away. When they have reached the boredom stage you can try opening up the new area to introduce them.
When you reach this point make sure there are places for the new girls to hide out or fly up to if they need to evade the older chickens. There is always one older hen that is determined to show everyone who the boss is.
This part of the process should be watched over by you.
Try to avoid putting the new chickens in the coop during the laying period (usually morning) as it may upset the laying routine.
There will be pecking and squabbles but there should not be bloodshed. It can be hard to sit back and watch but try not to interfere with the process. This is a natural thing and will be over in a few days. Every time you intervene or pull the newbies out this will prolong the process.
Ideally you should only remove them if blood is drawn. If the process becomes particularly brutal then pull out the chicken that is being attacked and put her somewhere safe and treat any wounds.
It is hard to watch but remember the introduction tends to go better if you do not interfere.
Method 2: Overnight Surprise
Some folks get the process over and done with as quickly as possible by putting the new chickens into the coop with the established flock during the nighttime.
This means putting the new hens either on the perches or just leaving them in the bedding overnight.
Lots of people have had success using this method. The theory is that the older hens suddenly wake up with the new hens in the coop and think they have been there all along. However chickens are smart and they will realize something is not quite right with their group dynamic and pecking order.
This type of introduction might work well enough with docile chickens but I certainly would not recommend it for more assertive breeds. Unless you are up and checking the coop before the hens wake up, I think you run a very real chance of your new girls getting hurt.
Common Problems And What To Do About Them
Most of the time the flock integration will go fairly smoothly but every now and again there is a problem.
Rushing Integration: You should never be in a hurry to rush the introduction. It is important to give both flocks enough time to adjust to seeing each other. This is going to be a big change to the current pecking order so you can certainly expect a few outbreaks of inappropriate behavior. Many times folks think that the introduction should be quick and easy but it will be a messy affair if you try to rush it.
Weak Chicks: Sometimes you will get a weak chick in the batch. They will be the last one to eat or drink and may seem to be on the perimeter of the group. You may see the chick getting picked on too – this is not a good sign. Chickens do not tolerate weak or sickly chickens as they are a danger to the flock so integration can be extremely harsh on such a chicken. If you have such a chick it may be best to choose a friend from its own flock and move them to a separate coop for a while (or perhaps permanently).
Aggressive Chicks: An overly aggressive chick (usually a cockerel) might try and make everyone’s life miserable during integration by bullying the hens. This behavior can do a couple of things. Firstly it can put the hens off lay and get them stressed. Secondly if the head rooster does not take kindly to this behavior the youngster may find himself fighting the older rooster and getting seriously injured.
Biosecurity: If you bring in chickens from an outside source you must quarantine them. Although the birds you purchased may look healthy, some diseases take time to incubate. You do not want to find you have contaminated your flock with something like infectious bronchitis or Marek’s disease. Make sure you quarantine and do not skimp on security.
Special Circumstances For Flock Integration
Broody Hens: If you have a broody hen that has raised chicks you will not have to worry about integration. The chicks will have noted the flock dynamic and will act accordingly. Any move against the chicks is usually blocked by Mama Hen. Sometimes an overly aggressive or dominant rooster will attack the chicks but this is the exception not the rule.
Introducing A Single Chicken: The integration of a single chick or pullet is tough and not recommended. The single chicken will receive all the bullying from every single bird in the flock. One method I tried worked fairly well but took a long time. You will need to have the new pullet in an established area – this is her turf. Take a fairly docile and mid-order hen from the existing flock and put her with the newbie for a week or so until they seem to get along. Then introduce both of them to the flock.
Adding Roosters: Adding a new rooster to an existing flock is a very bad idea. The current rooster is likely to see him as a threat and fight him. Roosters do not play nicely when they fight and the fight could well lead to serious injury to one or both roosters. If you need to replace your current rooster for whatever reason it is kinder to remove him to another run and keep him separate as he will still try to get his flock back.
Bantams: Adding bantams to an existing flock of large chickens is not recommended. Although the bantams are usually very adept at flying or running away from trouble, a well-aimed peck from a standard sized beak can inflict some serious damage. Bantams should have a coop of their own that they can feel safe and secure in. Once they have settled in they can free range with the big girls but they should have their own coop still.
Aggressive Breeds: Certain breeds (such as Malays) are just naturally aggressive. They should be very carefully evaluated before introducing new members to the flock. Some are so aggressive that they cannot live with other flock members in harmony. In such circumstances it is best to leave the chicken on their own as an introduction may result in severe wounding or death.
We have given you all the different methods for introducing new chickens to your existing flock.
All of them tried and tested by chicken keepers everywhere.
Some methods will work and others will not, so you really do have to be flexible in your thinking.
If your flock is mainly docile breeds then the integration should go relatively smoothly and be done in a week or so. However if you have more assertive breeds (Rhode Island Reds spring to mind) there will be ups and downs during the introduction process.
When integrating the chickens try to provide a lot of distractions.
Hay bales, boxes, scattered seed and leaf piles will all help to distract a hen for a while.
The vast majority of folks have a good integration, rarely are there serious problems as long as you pay attention to the rules. If you have time to sit and watch the integration process with your flock you will likely learn a lot about your flock dynamic.
Let us know how it went in the comments section below…