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Integrating chickens

Integration of new chickens to an established flock is no joke. When introducing new birds regardless of their age or size you will probably see a lot of the pecking, chasing around, some screaming and running, some chickens puffed up like a big ball, some starring and growling at each other and fighting; sometimes to the point that it brings blood if no preparations have been made ahead of time. Chickens have been known to peck each other to death. If the less dominant runs away after that peck, most of the time all is good in the flock. If the new birds challenge the pecking order then a fight will occur, and things can turn out very badly. That's why preparation is needed for bringing in the new guys.

The experience of integration of new chickens can be very irritating or fun, it all boils down to preparation. It can cause disorder and chaos to the whole feel of the farm or backyard. You'll either hear serene sounds of a peaceful flock or a flock screaming in terror. And instead of having a peaceful pleasant visit with the chickens, you can find yourself grimacing, chasing, and aggravated. Trust me, preparation will keep the peace in your flock and peace in your soul.

We move a lot of chicks at our farm. We integrate chicks that are one week old with some that are two and three-week old's; two months old and up goes with other pullets and cockerels and some 3 months and up, and hens and cocks get integrated into breeder flocks. During these times we have to keep notes on where we put all new guys and gals, or we can have some serious problems.

Problems of Integration

One problem with integration is the constant pecking on the new gals and guys. The pecking can peck the feathers off and reveal naked spots on their bodies. When flesh is revealed it's like a target for chickens, blood can be drawn very quickly from these naked places which can lead to cannibalism. Once they see blood all the other chickens alone with the dominant one will begin pecking. This is how cannibalism begins and once they pick up the habit it's difficult to change the habit.

Starvation is another symptom that can come with the integration. Whichever chicken is at the bottom of the pecking order is not allowed to eat without permission. They will always have to wait until the more dominants have finished eating, and sometimes there are not enough stations so the poor chicken at the bottom of the pecking order barely gets to eat or drink. They can be starved to the point of death.

Adult chickens will pick on little chickens. Chickens have different personalities some will be fine with the little ones, some even adopt them, but then you have chickens who find satisfaction in being boss and loves to bully over something smaller. If you're intent on mixing young smaller ones with the big guys, making preparations ahead of time will make the transition easier and peaceful for you and the flock.

Chicken Hierarchy

Chickens have their own hierarchy and the way it's established is not always pleasant. Everyone has to know their place, and once they know their place they have to stay in their place. It actually works well if the owner of a flock knows the problems it presents and addresses them.

I have a Plymouth Buff Rock Bantam hen who thinks she's the biggest, meanest girl on the block this side of South Carolina. Trust me, no matter where she roams on our property she rules or be ready to have the back of your head chewed off by this little peep squeak bantam who just knows she's large. It's not about size, it's about attitude. Chickens read body language, they have staring contests, and if all else fails they'll jump up with both feet to let everyone know who's the boss. They sometimes growl to give a warning. Some will back off and give them their space, but you always have those that will challenge their claim. Whenever new guys come into their space they will not be welcomed. They will most likely be at the bottom of the pecking order unless they're a bit sassy.

Usually, chickens can recognize who is the dominant ones in the flock. It's the more mature ones that possess dominance due to their attitude more than size. My little 4-year-old bantam, Princess, rules the group that she lives with and they are much bigger than she is. When Princess comes to the bowl they move out of her way and if they don't, she reminds them with a good stiff peck on the back of the head. Once the pecking order is established and the birds are all mature, you won't see this happen too often.

A rooster as the head of the flock can bring an element of peace unless he's an aggressive rooster. Usually, aggressive roosters are not only mean with people but also mean to his girls. I really don't care much for those kinds of roosters. Here at our farm, they are usually replaced with one that's gentle with his girls. We have a saying here in our breeding programs; "aggressive breeder breeds aggression."

A good rooster will break up fights among the girls. When a new hen is brought among the ranks, he will protect her up to a point, but she still needs our protection when he's off in his own world.

Preparation for Integration

A section of their own wired off for safety

The best ideal is to allow the young ones to grow up beside the bigger and older established ones inside their own protective cage close enough to touch, but not hurt.Once the young chicks reach 12 weeks of age it would be normal for both the youth and the older ones to mingle because they've already had plenty of time to establish the chicken social system. Chicken society is generally not kind. There will always be skirmishes upon an integration of flocks. If chicks are integrated when they are approximately the same size as the established flock there will be less trouble.

Places to escape

If it is necessary to integrate the young ones, then give them places to hide and plenty of eating and drinking stations. Monitor things very closely and make sure to keep an eye out on their eating habits. Keep in mind that chickens are territorial. Sometimes chickens will protect their territory from new chickens, which means the established flock says the food is mine, the water is mine, it all mine, mine, mine and you don't belong here.

Let young chicks grow up along side the older ones

Housing the new ones beside the older established ones for a while really helps. They'll get used to the others and accept them as members of the flock. Regardless, it still a good idea to give plenty of eating and drinking stations until everyone is very familiar with each other or you could end up with some skinny scrappy chickens, if not starved.

Give them plenty of room/space

Give them enough room to run away if they need to run. If they get trapped in a corner or your coop and runs are too small for them to get away, it can end with something pretty horrible. Our sweet adorable hens have the potential to be brutal bullies.

Monitor to make sure hens are not murderous

Some hens are just sticky sweet and wouldn't hurt anyone, but it's better just to prepare the flock for new birds rather than to chance to have the story end with bad news. Weak chickens, young chickens, chicks from broody hens all need oversight and protection until they are slowly integrated with the flock. Young chicks can be killed very quickly by older hens. Make sure the established flock is not murderous if you allow momma hen and chicks remain in the clan.

Don't integrate small chicks

Our Cochins love when one of the other hens have chicks. Not saying all Cochins are that way, but our group of Cochins adopt and try to steal the other momma's babies. That sometimes causes fights between our hens. But they eventually end up working it out and the babies get all kinds of mommies. On the other hand, I have seen some hens kill a chick that wondered a little too far from its mother and run with its limp body all excited like it had a yummy snack she was keeping for herself. Prevention is better than being a witness to this kind of story. We're so much more protective of our broody hens' chicks since witnessing that horrible story.

Integrate more than one new bird

Young birds will generally form their own little clan and stay away from the older birds if they have space. They need the room where they can stay away from the dominant birds. Sometimes they'll stay in the coop while the older ones are in the run or vice versa. If the older girls are on the floor, they

may hang out on the roost. They may choose to hide behind something or find a corner out of the way. The key is to have things arranged to prevent them from being backed into a corner where they can't escape. A tunnel of some sort, a bale of hay to hide behind or jump over, a log they can run behind, anything that will give them a little sense of security.

Situate Plenty of Feed and Water Stations

They will need different feeding and water stations so if the older ones run them out of their food they can go to the next station. The dominant birds can cause your new guys to go hungry to the point of starvation. This is really sad because it's not always apparent until it's too late. I've had this experience myself and when I found out and tried to feed it by hand it was too far gone to save.

Give them plenty of extra roost space

Something I find beneficial is to provide plenty of roost space, preferably separate from the adults. Mine can be real bullies and brutes on the roosts as they are settling in for the night. It's practically always hens or non-dominant roosters by the way. I've never had a dominant rooster harm or threaten a chick at any time. They are living animals, and anything can happen. I'm sure somebody somewhere has seen a dominant rooster be a problem, but I have not. I've put in a separate roost about a foot lower and away from the main roosts to give the chicks the option of a safer place to sleep.

Chicks at 12 weeks of age are the idea age to integrate

It's really not a good idea to have chicks as young as 3

weeks old integrate with an older flock. Younger chicks need different feed, different heat, and they can easily be squashed by older hens smothering the young chicks. Their survival rate is reduced considerably when that young. I find that around 12 weeks old works well, and they have their feathers to keep themselves warm. Chicks will not fare well at all if they're just simply added to a flock of strangers, odds are most definitely against them.

Quarantine when coming from a different farm

When bringing new birds from a different farm, be sure to quarantine them for at least a month. You don't want some unseen issues to affect your healthy flock and in this period of time, you can see what kind of health issues of the newest members, such as lice or mites, or any kind of illness that may have been unseen. Also, this will give the new chickens time to adapt and relax in case she/he had come from an environment that was high stress. Stress can cause a multitude of issues for chickens. Also, I need to mention that when you purchase eggs from any source NPIP Certified or not, you should incubate separate from your own eggs. Even though most diseases do not transfer through eggs the dreaded Mycoplasma gallisepticum, mg, disease will and there's a chance it can affect other eggs in the incubator. Once hatched keep the new chicks segregated until there's no doubt they brought something with them from their mother.

Let birds occupy the same space with protection for 2 weeks

The most important peace-making technique is to allow the birds to see one another and even be in the same space together, without having physical access to one another. This will allow them to work out the pecking order through subtler cues. If you have a run, you can achieve this by putting the new birds in the run with your old-timers but separating them with chicken wire, hardware cloth, or something like a dog cage. Making sure, of course, that they all have access to food and water. Do this for a week, or even two, before letting them in with the main flock.

Put out plenty of distractions

When you're ready to take down all the safety nets, so to speak, and combine the flock, have a few distractions to direct the attention away from the newcomers. This goes a long way to reduce fighting. If your girls have nothing better to do, they'll chase the poor newcomers and peck them without mercy. Distract them and you'll find they're much less fights.

Some ideas for distractions:

• Hanging up treats such as cabbage just out of reach so the chickens have to jump to get at it

• Add large branches to the run and even inside the coop if possible. This will give the new ones a place to escape and make it harder to be chased

• Adding grass clippings, table scraps to their run, and containers for dust baths giving them plenty to dig through

• Be sure there is plenty of space on roosts, at waterers, at feeders and so on to reduce competition.

• If there's a way to rearrange the coop when you introduce the new birds it can help make the coop seem a more neutral area because everyone will have to re-establish territories in the "new" space.

Free-range only after the new ones knows where they'll sleep at night

An even better distraction: letting them range freely! Your flock will be far too interested in the prospect of all the worms, pebbles, bugs and weeds they can get their beaks on to bother with one another. They won't go back in the coop until dusk, at which point they'll be settling in for a night's sleep and won't be so motivated to harass one another, but don't do this until after the new chickens have spent at least 2 days inside the coop, so they know its "home" and know where to return every night. Otherwise, you may have a runaway bird on your hands!

Monitor for bullying and especially eating and drinking

Monitor the newly integrated flock for a few days and if you notice one hen being excessively mean remove her for a couple of days to the place where you kept the new group while they were getting used to each other with her own food and water. This will knock her out of her place in the pecking order. Once she returns to the flock, she will be more concerned with regaining her place in the pecking order than terrorizing the newcomers. Be sure not to take her too far away or you will need to re-integrate the hen.

Remove the bully

An injured pullet should be treated immediately to prevent further pecking but

resist removing her completely from the run. Removing her will just put her back at the bottom of the pecking order when she returns. It is far more productive to remove the bully or bullies if possible. If you aren't sure who they are, then remove the injured chicken along with several others the same age, so when you re-add them all back after a few days, she won't be the lone 'newbie'.

Understanding the social system, hierarchy and territory makes it easier

Understanding a bit about the social system of the flock can take away much of the stress of adding new chickens to an established flock. Chickens have a hierarchy and a social system, and they are territorial. If you know all this then it’s a little easier to deal with seeing our sweet Buttercup and Princess be so cruel. Those new guys have to be accepted into the clan and given a place in the social system. Once all that’s established, it’s all good.

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