If you’ve ever raised chicks then later added them to an existing flock of mature chickens, then you know that it is often an unpleasant experience. The older chickens peck the newcomers hard. They chase them, and they try to keep the newcomers away from the food and water supply. Through all of this, the new chickens can become weakened and even seriously injured or in the most extreme cases, killed.
It is difficult to introduce new chickens into your flock, and if you can avoid it by setting up separate housing, we suggest that you do that. However, if you, like many of us, have limited space and limited housing, then combining flocks may be unavoidable. I will discuss tips for doing that in the best way possible, but first let’s look at several important related issues.
Chickens live by a certain type of social order, the pecking order. In a backyard flock, each chicken will have a rank, from the number one, top bird down to the lowest bird. If the flock has a rooster, he will nearly always be at the top of the pecking order.
A chicken’s rank in the pecking order determines what rights he has in comparison to the other birds in the flock, particularly in regard to food. The top bird in the pecking order has the right to eat first and go wherever it pleases whenever it pleases. The top chicken demands respect from lower ranking chickens. Every other chicken in the flock also has a place in the pecking order. This order continues down the line until it reaches the lowest ranking bird, who is subordinate to all other chickens in the flock.
If a higher ranking bird begins to eat from a feeder and a lower ranking chicken comes near the food, the higher ranking bird may “pull rank” by casting an angry glare at the lower ranking bird. Usually the lower ranking bird will then move away. If the angry glare isn’t effective, the higher ranking bird may then give a quick, sharp peck to the lower ranking bird’s head. With this kind of treatment, the lower ranking bird quickly learns her lesson.
The pecking order begins to be established while the birds are very young, and while it seems a bit rough, it does maintain a certain type of order within the flock. Occasional squabbles occur as younger chickens mature and grow stronger and begin to challenge other chickens to work their way up the pecking order.
If new chickens are added to the flock or chickens are removed from the flock, the pecking order is disturbed, and there can be quite a bit of fighting to establish a new ranking. This behavior is what makes integrating new chickens into your flock difficult and stressful, both to you and your chickens.
Introducing New Chickens
If you add new chickens to your flock, you can expect a lot of aggression for a week or longer as the chickens intimidate each other in an attempt to establish a new pecking order. Sometimes this aggression can be very intense, and your chickens can become seriously injured. In most cases, though, if you will follow the guidelines which we will give in this series of articles, the aggression will subside within a few weeks.
The Risk of Disease
One very important thing to consider when bringing new chickens into the flock is the risk of introducing diseases. There are ways to protect your flock against that risk, and I will discuss that topic in next week’s article.