Integrating new flock members into existing flock
Chickens are social beings with a strong social hierarchy. This means that within each flock, there are a few ‘alpha’ or leader’ birds, and a group of birds that act more as ‘followers.’ Many flocks also include roosters, which have a separate hierarchy from the hens and also act as guardians. Sometimes roosters act as leaders but usually a hen, or a set of hens, act as leaders or decision-makers in a flock. This social structure is very important in daily flock well-being and routines. If birds are taken from the flock or added to the flock, it can cause a lot of disruption, as the birds then need to start re-organizing the social structure.
When you add a new bird or group of birds to your existing flock, it is important to do it gradually and with the least amount of drama as possible. You want to temper the disruption and avoid fighting, depression, and possible injury or health-issues.
One way to lessen the drama is to gradually introduce new birds by not allowing the new ones full physical access the original flock. I do this by putting the new birds in a large dog crate or ‘puppy play pen’ or ‘exercise pen’ within the main enclosure or coop where my original flock resides. You can also section a part of your run for the new birds. You want to make sure the little pen is not escapable (it should have a top on it), is not in full sun and has adequate feed and water available in it. This allows for the new birds and the old birds to start to get acquainted with one another, without being able to physically be in contact with one another. This will reduce fighting from happening. It also teaches the new birds where the coop is and where to go at night without confining the whole flock as the new ones learn the routine. I usually keep new birds confined in this way for about a week or two, depending on how the interaction is going. This method usually works with groups of hens, and can work pretty well even when introducing roosters if the roosters are relatively unaggressive in personality.
Once you feel they have been pretty well introduced and are pretty used to one another, you can let the new birds out to intermingle. I usually do this in the evening. Once everyone is settled for the night, I simply open the little cage and leave it open for the night. When everyone wakes up the next morning, they start milling about and find themselves integrated! I make sure I get up early and keep a watch on them the first day, but usually it all goes very smoothly.
One thing to keep in mind when adding new adult birds to your flock is the possibility of introducing disease or parasites. Only take in new birds if they look and feel healthy and vibrant. Check them for mites and lice. Feel their weight; a light bird indicates the possibility of worms. A quarantine period is advisable.
Healthy-looking chicks usually present no disease issues, but they can pickup diseases and parasites from the adult birds. I introduce my chicks to my adult flock in a very similar manner.
I start bringing my chicks outside as early as possible on warm sunny days. They need to be watched diligently to make sure they don’t get too cold or too hot. And be sure to include food and water, of course. Even though they can’t fly out, the enclosure needs a top on it to protect them from predators. I don’t have a bottom on the chick exercise pen; I like them to experience grass and soil. I do put the pen in a clean spot, and I make sure the chicks can’t fit through the grates on the pen.
Adult chickens will come over to the chick pen and check them out. The rooster will also come over and may even start to position himself in the yard so he can keep watch or guard the chicks as well as the rest of the flock. I love watching the interaction, and it usually seems like the adult flock gets excited to have new young ones.
As the chicks get feathered and old enough to no longer need the heat lamp and able to be outside at night time, I put them in a dog crate in the coop itself at night. This teaches them to go inside at dusk. By this time, the young birds and adults know one another and the young birds have been exposed gradually to any bacteria or parasites and their immune systems have had a chance to keep up. I do this about a week or two, and finally I let everyone intermingle.