No matter how sweet, fun-loving, and friendly Lucy and Ethel are with you and with each other, as soon as you add new chickens to their perfect little flock, they will probably transform in front of your very eyes to bullies! The shock of this transformation in conjunction with your concern for the wellbeing of the new little girls may very well put you over the edge. If you’re not familiar with this behavior, we wrote last week about The PeckingOrder so you can understand what on Mother Nature’s good green earth is going on. The most important things to do are: 1) supervise, and 2) have a back-up plan. However, the more you interfere with the pecking order, the longer it will take to finish. Understandably, everyone is looking for ways to make this transition easier! Let’s put to rest a couple of myths about integrating chickens.
Myth #1: If you put your chickens in at night, they will wake up and just accept each other. Here’s the problem with this myth: the need for the pecking order does not go away just because they wake up snuggling. What’s really happening? Chickens wake up as early as 3:30 or 4:00am. You don’t arise until 6:00am or later, meaning your chickens have had hours to duke it out while you’re snoozing away; so the worst is already behind them by the time you greet them with your morning cup of Joe. The benefit of this is that the worst part of the pecking order is watching it. In all likelihood, they’re all going to be fine whether you referee or not. But if you’re not careful with the number and size of the new chickens in comparison to your flock, there’s a small possibility someone might be hurt or worse.
Myth #2: If you take one chicken out and put another in its place, they will never know, right? Wrong! Chickens are much smarter than some humans give them credit for. In a homogenous flock of chickens that all look alike, they can tell the difference between each other even when you cannot. Although you might luck out with a mild pecking order transition, this is no indication that they didn’t notice the sneaky swap, or that this creates a mild transition every time.
So, what can you do that will effectively minimize the bullying and possible harm to the chickens?
Trick #1: Create safety in numbers. The more chickens you add at a time, the more the pecking must be dispersed amongst the newcomers. Adding two new chickens to four established hens creates a two on one pecking ratio; whereas adding four chickens takes their advantage down to a one to one ratio. More chickens running around creates more confusion, and less of an ability to corner and bully one new baby girl.
Trick #2: Create safety with size. Adding chicks that are just ready to go into the coop will be more difficult than adding chickens that have some height and girth to them. If you put a few big girls into the flock, they can stand up for themselves better than a tiny chick who has just been weaned off of heat lamps.
Trick #3: Create a separate space where they can see each other, but not touch for at least the first day. Whether you string up some chicken wire across a portion of the coop or run, or put a large dog kennel in the coop for the new chickens, the barrier will protect the new chickens immensely. Established hens will still come over to peck, kick, and bully the new chickens, but will be able to physically hurt them. After most of their aggression has been taken out on the wire, and the new chickens get the point, integrating them should go fairly smoothly. If you’re adding very young chicks, or a small number of chickens to a larger flock, you may choose to keep them in chick protective services longer than a day.
Trick #4: Give them lots of treats to chase and munch on. Although this trick might not last for long, chickens would rather chase tasty treats than each other. Tossing out meal worms or sunflower seeds to the established chickens might just keep them pecking around for long enough to let the little girls relax a bit. It will also give the new girls an opportunity to let the established hens eat first, signaling their submission before the pecking ensues.