Look at these two big roosters above. Does the phrase, “pecking order” come to mind? You should know that “pecking order” is not just a figure of speech. It is actually a very powerful behavior that can keep your flock well-organized and productive. It can also be very brutal at times, even resulting in death if you’re not careful. This is an article that should help you introduce your new chicks or pullets to your existing flock, without too much stress or bloodshed.
Introducing Chicks to Flock
If you’re raising baby chicks, you can think about introducing them to the rest of your flock at about six weeks of age. You should shoot for full “integration” by 8-12 weeks.
Setting The Stage For Introducing New Chicks to the Flock
First, you want to make you’re providing enough space for all these additional chickens. As I mentioned in the article, “Best Small Chicken Coops, ” in another part of this website, a good rule of thumb is that each chicken will require 3 to 4 square feet of space in the coop. In addition, you want to make sure that you are providing enough roosting bar for these additional newcomers: eight inches of bar per hen.
For the run, they will need about seven or eight square feet per chicken. And make sure that there are more than enough feeders and waterers to go around, so they’re not fighting over these basic necessities.
Finally, there is strength in numbers when it comes to bullying, so always add at least three new chicks at a time, nothing less. Ideally, you will also add chickens of similar breed and size. In addition, some breeds are known to be particularly territorial, eg, Rhode Island Reds, so, if possible, make these breeds part of “the newcomers”, not “the old guard.” If you haven’t done so already, check out breed personalities by looking at a website like Hobby Farms.
The “How” of Introducing Chicks to a Flock.
It’s a good idea to let your hens see and smell your chicks (but not contact them) for about a week before introducing them. If you only have a few chicks, you can put them in a pet carrier or an area brooder and place it right smack in the middle of the run for several hours each day. If you are free-ranging your hens, place the pet carrier/area brooder out in the field where they are foraging.
In this next section, I am going to be focusing on three well-accepted methods to introduce your new chicks to your flock. Not that you must select just one of these methods. You may find that doing all three methods will work for you, in fact.
Method #1 (Under Cover of Darkness)
Also known as the “sneaky method”, in this first method, you introduce your chicks into the coop at night after your hens have “gone to bed” (sitting on their perches, dreaming about mealworms and table scraps…) When they awaken in the morning, they may or may not be surprised to see that their coop has gained a few occupants during the night. Hopefully, they won’t be sure and will treat the newcomers with maybe a little deference before subjecting them to some pecking order “hazing”.
Method #2 (In the Light of Day)
Also known as the “full frontal assault”, in this method, your chicks are introduced to the run for a few hours daily, over a week’s time, while keeping your flock locked up in the coop (watching!) After a while, you let your flock out to mingle with the new chicks. This does a couple things: it allows the chicks to get the lay of the land, without fearing for their lives, and, in addition, they can find out where the feeders and waterers are positioned, before they have to jockey for position against “the old timers.”
By the way, its always a good idea to provide an escape route for your chicks using this method. I like using a box with a hole in it large enough for the chicks to run into, but too small to let in your hens. (Remember Tom, from the cartoon, “Tom and Jerry”, getting his head stuck in the mouse hole when he was trying to get at Jerry? Same principle here).
Method #3 (Wait a Minute, Do I know You?)
Using this method, you let your chicks do a little free-ranging out in the yard, and then, after a while, like an hour or so, you let the rest of your flock out to joint them. Do this for longer and longer periods over a week’s time.
Whichever method or combination of methods that you choose, the key word is “gradual.” Increase the amount of time your chicks are exposed to your flock over a week or so. Watch them very closely.
So When Do You Put Your Foot Down???
You know that one or more of your flock is going to be aggressive or at least territorial against your chicks. If you have kids, you kind of know what to do already. Basically, unless you see blood or other serious injury, you let them go at it. Thats how the pecking order gets established in your flock. Now, since you can’t send them all to their rooms, the recommendation is that you remove the aggressor chicken for a time, eg, a day, then let her back in the flock again. Alot of times, that’s all that it will take to “reset” her and calm her down. Sometimes, it doesn’t, in which case you will have to do this over and over again until she gets the point! Just like kids!
If you do see blood, you will not only need to put your foot down, you’ll also have to do a little first aid work. As I mention in another post on this website, “How to Raise Baby Chicks,” the presence of blood anywhere on a chicken can start a pecking “frenzy”, potentially culminating in death. Always check out the injured chicken very closely, clean any wound thoroughly with soap and water, pat dry and apply some Blu Kote or similar agent to both disinfect and conceal the presence of blood.
What About Introducing “Just Bought” Pullets to Your Flock?
In contrast to chicks that you have raised yourself, pullets or adult chickens that you acquire should always be quarantined from the rest of your flock for 30 days. This is to make sure you are not introducing any diseases to your birds. Here are some of the more common diseases that you can expect to encounter. It is not a comprehensive list. And the description of each disease is mercifully brief! My purpose is simply to give you an appreciation of ” what could go wrong” if you don’t heed the 30-day quarantine guideline.
Just as the name implies, this viral disease is pretty obvious because often affected chickens will display black poxes on their non-feathered areas, as seen in this picture:
Some birds will only develop this cutaneous form of the disease. Egg-laying will be reduced, but the actual mortality rate is low to moderate. On the other hand, this disease can also result in the development of lesions in the GI and respiratory tracts, leading to difficulty eating and breathing. These chickens will have a high mortality rate.
This viral disease will cause coughing, sneezing, and pink eye for up to two weeks in affected chickens. Although the mortality rate is typically low, this disease will definitely reduce egg production. In some cases, where these is a secondary bacterial infection on top of the viral illness, the mortality rate can climb as high as 60%.
This is a viral disease that results in tumors that can grow in the organs, muscles, skin, and nerves. It can lead to “range paralysis” where the bird becomes lame from tumors in the nerves of their legs, and spinal cords (and possible wings as well). They can also develop tumors in their optic nerves, causing their pupils to look smaller and their iris’s to turn gray. Blindness often follows. Most of these birds will lose weight, and eventually die.
Ok, so those were pretty disturbing-looking eyes above! Let’s move on to some less horrible diseases. The main parasites we need to worry about with backyard chickens are mites, lice, and coccidiosis.
Mites and Lice-Although mites can be almost microscopic in size (see the electron microscope picture below) you can still sometimes see them along the shafts of feathers or on the underside of the chicken roosting bars. Scabs around the vent area of the chicken are also an indicator of mites. The vent area may be discolored from mite droppings as well. Why such a predilection for the vent area? Because it’s moist there, and the skin is more exposed.
Chickens with mites tend to scratch themselves silly, and their egg production will slow. One weird but specific tell-tale sign of this illness is the reluctance of your affected chickens to roost on their perches at night, according to Chris Lesley at Chickens and More.
Lice on the other hand are larger critters and are easily seen. They are found on feather shafts or near the vent. Their eggs, known as nits, are seen as tiny clusters of eggs stuck to the base of the feather shafts. Often you will see lice scurrying for cover as you pull back the feathers to inspect the shafts. (Yuck!!!).
Coccidiosis is a protozoan ( a single-celled organism) that is not visible to the naked eye. It is, unfortunately, the most common cause of death in chicks between 3 and 6 weeks.The main signs of this disease are lethargy, a disheveled appearance of the feathers, and bloody diarrhea. Affected chickens may also appear to be huddling together (because they have the chills), may be losing weight, and they are no longer laying eggs.
I hope I have given you some appreciation for the kinds of diseases that chickens can carry. With any luck, you will not see any signs of these diseases in the pullets or adult chickens that you will be introducing to your flock!
Please Let Us Know!
Have you tried these techniques above when introducing new chickens to your flock? If so, please tell us how well they worked for you. If there is a strategy you used successfully that was not discussed above, we’d love to hear about that too!