New Kid in the Flock
Aficionados of poultry husbandry inevitably face the challenge of introducing new members into their flocks. Perhaps the new birds are destined to become replacements for older stock, or one wishes to experiment with a new breed or mix “new blood” into his breeding lines, or there is any other wise and necessary reason to expand the flock (despite the wrongheadedness of one’s spouse’s view on the matter).
Typically when new birds are introduced, the established birds immediately start beating up on them. How serious is the resulting threat to the health and safety of all concerned? Is there a way to avoid such barnyard conflict? Are there strategies for helping the flock get settled after introducing new members?
First Step: Relax!
The flock owner introducing new birds should remember that poultry are intensely social creatures, and an individual’s place in the social hierarchy is a critical part of her identity and role in the flock. What we are seeing in the “hazing” of the newcomers by the established flock is the shaking up of an established social order, and its reordering as the newbies find their places in the social structure. The behavior is entirely practical and necessary, and usually will not be cause for undue concern.
It will help the flock owner to think of the hazing of new members not so much as combat as conversation. We might imagine Matilda saying to Henrietta, a newcomer, “Nice to meet you. Please keep in mind I’m Number Three in this flock.” And Henrietta might reply, “Delighted, I’m sure. But I’ve concluded I should be Number Three because. . .” The ensuing scuffle serves as further discussion of the matter, during which they come to an agreement about the desired place in the hierarchy. Next day, they’re scratching for worms side by side and gossiping contentedly.
Despite the apparent aggressiveness of the “conversation,” it is not likely to be injurious if some care is taken with the introduction. Frequent monitoring is essential, so plan ahead for the introduction. Do it, say, on the first day of a two-day weekend rather than in the middle of a harried week. As long as hazing does not get truly vicious, you should let the “debate” among the birds take its natural course without interference. Intervene only if it seems absolutely necessary to prevent injury.
Chickens under stress are more likely to do each other (or at any rate the weakest members of the flock) injury. Introduction of new members is, yes, a bit stressful, but not nearly so much so as other potential sources of stress. A period of extreme weather change, for example, would not be a good time to introduce new birds. Make sure feed is plentiful and there is easy access to water. At least for the first couple of days, provide multiple containers of each, to reduce the possibility of competition for these resources.
Remember that the ratio between the “newbies” and the established birds has a lot to do with the intensity of the hazing. The more new individuals coming in, the more “diluted” will be the response from the established flock—the fewer, the more the roughhousing will focus on those few individuals. If introducing only a couple of new birds to a sizable flock, be especially vigilant for excessive harassment. Learn to recognize the point at which the natural competition for place in the hierarchy (two birds “square off” with each other) turns into an equally natural “culling” of weakness from the flock (multiple flock members mercilessly “zero in on” a single individual). Be ready to intervene to protect a bird destined to become lowest in the pecking order—if she avoids getting defined early in the hazing as the “weak sister” who must be eliminated.
I have heard it recommended that the best way to introduce new birds is to place them on the perches at night when everybody is asleep, the theory being that the established flock will wake up assuming that the new birds have always been there. Nice try, but such a strategy ignores the fundamental nature of the birds’ identities in the social order. Even if they don’t “remember” whether a given bird was there before this morning, they certainly will not know on awakening the answer to the all-important question: Where do these other individuals fit into the hierarchy (in relation to me)? That question has to be resolved, no matter the circumstances in which the new members enter a hen’s awareness.
My preferred strategy when introducing new birds is to maximize both the space available for the introduction and the time available to monitor during the most critical initial phase. Close confinement is itself stressful on the flock. Thus I like to introduce the new birds onto the pasture, first thing in the morning, when my established flock goes out as well. Managed in this way, the birds are not crowded as they have their “discussions,” and a new member who is being heavily pressured by other hens has plenty of room to retreat.
Do note, however, that in my management situation, the flock is confined by electric net fencing. Since the net is only 42 inches high, I clip wings on the new birds to ensure they do not go over the net in a panic retreat from a too-bossy rival.
Note as well that, if you rely on complete free-ranging during the day, initially you should not release the newcomers with the flock in this way. They have not yet come to think of the new setting as home; and if they scurry off in retreat, will have no natural tendency to return to your place in favor of any other. For poultry, to find a place in a flock is to find home. Until your new birds “fix” on the established flock, they are completely lost in the world. Keep them penned in the coop for a few days, then release them to range with the established flock.
If your flock is confined—or as a fallback anytime things aren’t going well and you have to intervene—I suggest a strategy of “isolation-in-view”: Isolate the new birds for a couple of days in the same space with the established flock, but with a wire partition between them. The two groups can see each other and interact, but cannot “get physical” with each other. Once you release the newbies to the general flock, there will still be some hazing, to be sure, but it will not be as intense as it would have been initially. (I believe there is some communication on the subject of place in the flock hierarchy that goes on even through the wire partition.)
Folks often ask me whether it is okay to put a mother hen with her chicks back into the main flock, fearing that the other adult birds will harm the vulnerable chicks. There are indeed a couple of cautions for this situation: Do remember that growing chicks must never be fed a commercial laying mash—make sure to feed a “compromise” mix that everybody can eat. To afford the chicks the extra boost in protein they need for rapid growth, I use a “creep feeder” shelter.
As for threats to the physical safety of the chicks, however, fear not: Other flock members are keenly aware that Mama will kick butt for anyone so foolish as to mess with her babies!
Another common situation involves introducing into the established flock young birds just out of an artificial brooder. Won’t they be terribly disadvantaged in a confrontation with older, tougher birds? In my experience, while the established birds give the youngsters a bit of pro forma bossing, they do not seriously rough them up. Why should they? It’s a foregone conclusion that the whole group of young’uns are the low birds in the pecking order. The only questions to be worked out, really, are the respective rankings among the young newcomers, who strut self-importantly and spar. Maybe the older ones place bets, but they don’t waste energy getting seriously involved.
Introducing new hens may bring some nervous moments, but rarely occasions real problems. Introducing new cocks is a different matter. Even established cocks in the flock may have dominance/submission issues that can end in injury or even death. (See “Working with the Cock(s) in the Flock”.) The most hair-trigger part of the year for cocks is the transition from late winter into early spring, when the testosterone is rising and “the boys” strive to establish dominant breeding access to the hens. This is not the best time to bring in a new cock, unless you plan simply to keep him isolated.
The breed of the cocks—those introduced and those already in residence—has a large effect on the potential for violence. Generally, the more “gamey” the genetic background of the cock, the more likely he is to “play for keeps” when challenging other cocks—among these breeds (e.g., Old English and Modern Games, Kraienkoppes, Malays, Shamos) the possibility of bloodied combs is the least of our worries; whereas cocks bred more as dual-purpose, utilitarian farm fowl tend to work out dominance/submission issues without too much mayhem. I have found my Cuckoo Marans cocks unusually “mellow,” for example—they find their respective roles after a bit of not-quite-serious sparring, and never cause each other significant injury.
It is a good idea to utilize the isolate-in-view strategy routinely when introducing a new cock to the flock. Indeed, you might put into place two separate wire barriers—or make the barrier of quarter-inch hardware cloth—to prevent cocks from fighting through the wire. After the boys have had some time to get used to each other’s presence, release the newcomer and monitor closely. I’d advise keeping that isolation corner in place for a while, just in case.