Often, there are times when you’ll need to add new chickens into your flock. Perhaps you’ve unfortunately lost one or two hens to a raccoon or a skunk. Or maybe some of your older hens are now too old to lay well, so you’ve decided to get younger ones to replace them with.
Potential Problems when Introducing New Chickens
When you get ready to add new chickens, there are two potential problems that you’ll want to avoid.
First, there is some chance that a new chicken from a different flock than yours could be carrying a disease or parasite that your chickens are susceptible to. If you’re getting your new chickens from a reliable, reputable supplier the chances of this will be small, but there are times when you may need to purchase chickens from other sources, so I’ll discuss how you can minimize the risk.
Second, chickens tend to be aggressive toward newcomers. Your established flock will have an established pecking order, and when you add new birds, it disrupts that pecking order and leads to aggression. I’ll explain more about pecking order and how best to introduce new chickens into your flock.
Diseases and Quarantine
If you get a new chicken from someone else’s flock, you may unfortunately find that the chicken has a disease or parasites. If a chicken has a disease that’s in an early stage, it may not be noticeable when you buy or acquire it.
If your existing flock does not yet have an immunity to the disease, then when you add the new chicken to your flock, all of your birds are at risk of contracting it. The same sort of thing can occur with parasites. I won’t get into the different types of poultry diseases now, but it’s important to be aware that this could be harmful, even devastating to your flock.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” as the saying goes, and as mentioned earlier, getting your chickens from a reliable, reputable source is one of the first and best ways to keep from introducing disease or parasites into your flock.
In addition, a very effective way to prevent the spread of disease is to practice proper quarantine. If you buy a chicken that you think could have a disease or parasites, then isolate it for 30 days. Keep it in a separate pen. Use a separate feeder and waterer just for it. Disinfect your shoes and wash your hands when moving between the quarantine pen and your main flock pen and before handling feed.
After 30 days, if your new chicken is fine and healthy, then introduce it into your flock using the tips that I’ll give in a moment. If you notice any sign of disease, then don’t introduce the chicken until you are sure that it’s disease-free. Some things to look for during the quarantine are: mites, mucus discharges from the chicken’s eyes or nostrils, respiratory problems or lethargy. (The Chicken Health Handbook, by Gail Damerow is a good resource.)
The above approach reduces the risk a lot, but it still doesn’t cover all the bases. In some cases, the new chicken may be a carrier of a disease but may not exhibit any symptoms of the disease. If so, it has the capacity to transmit the disease to other chickens, while it, itself, appears perfectly well.
You definitely want to avoid introducing a chicken like this into your flock, but how do you detect that she’s a carrier?
The answer, it turns out, is fairly simple. Let’s go back to our starting point of quarantining the new chicken, but instead of fully isolating her, add one chicken from your existing flock into the quarantine pen with her. Now, keep both chickens in the quarantine pen for 30 days, taking all the same precautions mentioned previously.
Most likely, if the new chicken is harboring any disease, within 30 days her companion will also become infected by sharing the coop, waterers and feeders with her, and you’ll be able to spot the disease.
At the end of 30 days, if the new chicken and the companion from your existing flock both are doing fine with no signs of disease, then introduce both chickens into your main flock using the tips and approaches described below.
If instead, the companion chicken shows signs of disease, then you’ll want to avoid introducing them until you’re completely sure what is going on. If needed, you can consult a local veterinarian to diagnose signs of illness.
Quarantine is a means of being extra safe. In most cases, if you buy your chickens from a reputable source, you won’t need it. But if you have any question as to the health of your new chickens, then by all means, quarantine as I’ve described above.
The second problem that I believe you are much more likely to encounter when introducing new chickens is aggression caused by disrupting the pecking order. I’ll explain.
Chickens keep order in their relationships with one another through a well-established pecking order. Generally, if there’s a mature rooster in the coop, he’ll be the highest in rank. Next, there’ll usually be one of the more mature hens, and on down the line. Each chicken has a place in this linear pecking order, from first to last.
Some breeds are more docile than others, and they’ll tend to be toward the bottom of the pecking order. Breeds that are more aggressive will tend toward the top. This order begins to be established in your flock while the chickens are quite young, and once established, all the chickens know pretty well where they fit.
The pecking order supports a sort of social protocol within the coop. If a younger ranking hen approaches a feeder while a higher ranking hen is eating, the higher ranking hen is likely to give her an angry glare — sort of a quick glance that says, “Don’t come any closer.” If the lower ranking hen recognizes that glance, she’ll typically move away, letting the older hen eat in peace. In fact, she may just modify her route and make it look like she never even intended to eat from the feeder.
If she doesn’t give the higher ranking hen enough respect, then she’ll likely receive a sharp, quick peck on the head. That usually gets the message across fairly quickly and effectively, and after one or more rounds of that, the lower ranking hen learns to leave well enough alone and respect the other hen’s rank.
In a mature flock, as long as you don’t add any newcomers, the pecking order stays fairly stable, and few chickens will challenge it. (Roosters are another story.)
Sometimes though, if your flock has chickens of various ages, then as your younger chickens get older they’ll begin to challenge the pecking order. They’ll fight back or even initiate a fight with higher ranking hens. When that happens, you’ll see some squabbles for a while until things get worked out and they find their new place in the pecking order.
When you add new chickens directly into your flock, all the chickens in the flock may tend to attack the new chickens in order to establish rank over them. Nobody wants to end up at the bottom of the pecking order, so they all try to exhibit superiority over the newcomers. Depending on what breeds you have, how much space they have and other factors, the pecking can become quite brutal, and your chickens can get injured.
Introducing New Chickens Safely
So how do we introduce new chickens safely?
There are several recommendations and tips. We’ll start with the approach that’s the most effective.
Use a Temporary Partition to Separate Them
One of the best approaches is to raise your new chickens side by side with your existing chickens but temporarily use a mesh partition to separate them, so that they can’t harm each other. Depending on how your chickens are housed, you can make a wall out of chicken wire mesh, or use some other means to separate them. The idea is to let them see, smell and hear each other, but keep them separate from each other.
They still may try to fight even with a mesh wall between them, but overall, this is pretty effective. Quickly your chickens will get the understanding that these new neighbors can’t harm them and can’t be harmed by them, and even the attempts to fight through the fence will subside (as the saying goes, “good fences make good neighbors”).
When the attempted fighting subsides, that’s the time to remove the partition and let them all be together. It’s best to do this at night. Usually you’ll experience very little trouble with aggression when you remove the partition.
I have a larger flock, so I keep my chickens within an electric mesh poultry fence. What I like to do, if I need to introduce new birds, is put a small chicken coop (really what I would call a chicken tractor) inside the larger pen. I’ll then keep the new birds inside the chicken tractor for a few weeks. After that, one day I can prop the chicken tractor open and begin letting the birds mingle. Usually, I won’t have much trouble with them being aggressive from that point on.
Add New Chickens at Night
The above approach is what I’d recommend whenever possible, but there may be times when you don’t have a way to add a separate partition for your new chickens. Or maybe you just need to be able to get them introduced more quickly. If so, it’s best to introduce your new chickens at night.
Wait until after dark and put your new chickens up on the roost right next to your old chickens. They may fuss a little, but if it’s dark in the coop, they’re not likely to fight much, and they’ll get used to how each other smells and such during the night. When all the chickens wake up the next morning, rather than being aggressive, the response will (hopefully) be more along the lines of: “Oh, Hi. I guess you’ve always been here and I just never really noticed,” and they’ll get along better.
This approach definitely helps, but it’s not as foolproof as the separate partition.
Another tip when adding new chickens is to add some extra feeders and waterers. Sometimes your existing chickens can prevent newcomers from eating or drinking, so having more feeders and waterers reduces this problem.
Once you do let all your chickens into the same space together, keep a watchful eye on them for awhile. If you notice them being too aggressive, you may need to separate them again.
In particular, you may notice one or two chickens being the main aggressors. If that’s the case, remove the aggressors from the main flock and isolate them for a few days up to a week or two. That will give your new chickens time to adjust and be accepted by the rest of the flock. Then later, when you reintroduce the old aggressors into your flock, they’ll be taken a few notches down on the pecking order, and they probably won’t cause your newcomers much trouble.
One precaution that I want to mention is roosters. It’s not a good idea to introduce new roosters into a mixed flock that already has one or more roosters in it. In some cases you may be successful with this, but in other cases, the roosters of the established flock may seriously injure or even kill the new rooster.
Second, please be careful with mixing chickens of different ages. Young chickens aren’t able to defend themselves very well against older ones. If you have to do this, the partition method described above is the best approach, then be particularly watchful after you remove the partition to make sure that the young chickens aren’t getting hurt.
Also, add some obstacles that the young chickens can hide behind or hide inside. A coop or chicken tractor that has a door that can be narrowly shut, just wide enough to let the younger chickens in but too narrow for the older chickens to enter will help. Put feed and water inside.
It’s always exciting to get new chickens. The recommendations above will hopefully it as painless and pleasant as possible next time you add chickens to your flock.