Biosecurity: Integrating New Birds into your Flock

There are two instances where you would be adding new birds to your existing flock. The first is adding young new pullets that you received as day-old chicks and have been brooding in a separate facility until they are the appropriate size and age to join your adults. The second is adding full grown adult birds from another farm or property to your current, healthy flock.

Let’s start with the pullet introduction process.

In this situation, you are not worried about the adult birds that are currently making up your flock. It is the young new pullets you are worried about.

You may be asking, Why? If all my adult birds look fine and seem healthy and happy, why should I worry about the pullets?

It is because the adult birds may be carrying certain diseases or parasites. The adults have built up immunity to the diseases in your area and have developed ways to handle the parasites and stay healthy. They may not be affected adversely in any way whatsoever by these things, but your young new birds, who have not had a chance to fully develop their immune systems, are very susceptible.

So you have to give your new pullets a chance to develop their immunities, but without exposing them to a huge overload of stresses.

On our farm, I am sure we have quite a few diseases knocking about even though all my birds are healthy and happy. We have had chickens, along with waterfowl, turkeys, and game birds for over 16 years. We are also in a wooded area with lots of wild game birds, a hunting club across the street with lots of not-so-healthy-looking escapee pheasants and partridge, and lots of other wild birds. We have to be very careful to expose any new pullets very gently and gradually.

The first step is to not put your young birds out until the weather is cooperating and they are big and feathered enough. This is important. Birds that get chilled or damp or are just too young will be stressed and thus more susceptible to diseases and parasites. Only put them out on sunny, warm days. I start putting my chicks out when they are only two weeks old. But only on days when it is warm enough and only for an hour or so at a time. I also put them in a spot where there is nice clean grass that my adult hens don’t usually spend time on. This way the chicks get a tiny bit of exposure – to the land, to the elements, to the older birds, and to the diseases/parasites, the older birds may be carrying. And note – watch the sun exposure too, it can too hot for even very young chicks.

I usually use an exercise pen made for dogs, or a puppy playpen, for holding the chicks. Whatever pen you use, needs to have very small openings in the wire, or the chicks will slip out. I usually wrap towels around the base of mine to make sure no one squeezes out. The towels will also keep anything from reaching in, like one of my cats. The pen should also have a cover or top to protect the chicks from predators. Even blue jays can be a threat to young chicks.

As the chicks get older, they can be outside for longer and longer amounts of time. I start to move the pen closer to the adult hens, letting everyone get to know one another without any possible injuries or stress. This helps lessen the overall stress once you fully integrate the young pullets with the main flock. And it allows the pullets to have a gentle exposure to the diseases/parasites and gradually keep building their immune systems.

For the first couple months, I bring my chicks back into my house, where I have their brooder set up, if the weather is bad and at nighttime. Once they are fully feathered and have had a decent amount of protected exposure, I set up a pen inside the barn or coop. I put everything the young birds need inside that pen, including food, water, and roosts. I usually plan to keep them like that for about 2-3 weeks. At this point, the pullets are still protected from nasty weather by being in the shelter of the coop, they are being trained to stay in the coop at nighttime, they are getting an intimate interaction with all of the adult birds, and they are being protected from any over-zealous attention of the adults. They are also fully exposed to the diseases/parasites of the adult flock. But because they have built up that gradual immunity, and because they are not experiencing any big stresses, they all do very well, building strong and effective immunities. I have never had any issues.

Adding new adult birds to your current, healthy flock is another thing altogether.

Always quarantine the new birds for 30-60 days. Watch for any signs of illness and parasites during that time.

Quarantine means keeping the new birds completely separate from your flock. Don’t wear the same clothing and never the same shoes when caring for the quarantined birds. Many bird diseases can be airborne carried in the dust and lifted by flapping wings. Fecal matter is also a huge vector for transmission of germs and parasites. Wash your hands and don’t share any waterers or feeding equipment. It is hard to be aware of how separate you need to keep them. I once stopped myself just in time from carrying my regular shovel from the main coop into the quarantine space…

After the full quarantine time has gone by and everyone seems healthy, doing an integration process similar to how I described introducing the pullets is best. It takes extra time and effort, but it is worth it. I start by setting up the new birds in the puppy playpen in the yard near the original flock. The two groups get to start meeting one another and working out their issues with the wire providing some protection. The new birds start to be exposed to any diseases/parasites the old birds have and vice versa.

I eventually set up the new birds in the coop just as I did with the pullets. Again, this helps them establish a relationship, learn where their new home is, and get fully exposed to any germs, etc. An important part of getting immunity established is to keep stress at a minimum. By doing it gradually like this, you eliminate as many stresses as possible. I have had success with this method of introducing new adult birds to my flock.

But there is a caveat here.

Please take note, that it is usually recommended by most avian experts and ag extensions officials that you simply never introduce new adult birds to a healthy flock. It is always a risk.

The issue is that the new bird may be a carrier of a disease – in other words, the bird developed immunity to a certain disease and is healthy, but still carries germs or parasites in mucus or fecal matter that could infect the birds of your flock that have not had the opportunity to develop immunity.

This can be a hard rule for poultry enthusiasts. Between just being addicted to poultry and having friends and neighbors beg me to take in their wayward fowl, I have added adult birds to my flock. But I eventually learned to regret it. I took in two hens for someone who got in trouble with her town for having birds. The birds looked healthy, and she had been taking good care of them. I quarantined them for the full 30 days. They still seemed perfectly fine. Then I was careful to slowly introduce them as I described. But about a week and a half, after I introduced them, several of my original birds got sick. Then more got sick the following week. Three died, and the others all suffered through it. Since then, I have always refrained from taking in any new birds.

Keep your eye out for the next blog post in our Biosecurity Series!