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I have been keeping, breeding, and showing chickens for well over 20 years, and over that time I have come to love and admire these fantastic birds.
Not only do chickens bring life and color to our backyards, but they also provide us with an almost endless supply of fresh eggs. There will however come a time when your existing hens slow down or stop laying altogether.
At this point, you might be considering adding more hens to your existing flock. The problem is, that chickens are vicious birds that do not take kindly to newcomers.
In this article, I share my experiences on the best way to introduce a new hen or group of hens to an existing flock.
Introducing a new hen to an existing flock can be challenging thanks to the hierarchical social system of a flock of chickens. Chickens decide who sits where in their flock by pecking at one another to determine dominance. The hens that peck the hardest tend to be the most dominant and sit at the top of the pecking order. The weakest birds sit at the other end of the pecking order.
Can you add a new chicken to an existing flock?
Yes, it is possible to add a new chicken to an existing flock, but it has to be done in the right way. If you just chuck a new hen into an existing flock, there is a good chance that one hen will be pecked constantly by its new coop mates.
Over millions of years of evolution, chickens have developed a strict social system that means every chicken knows its place.
Researchers believe this social system evolved so chickens did not fight over available food, which would have wasted energy and risked attracting the attention of predators.
Essentially, chickens decide who sits where in their social hierarchy based on pecking (as in pecking order). The most aggressive chickens, those that are prepared to peck the hardest, generally sit at the top of the social ladder, whilst those who are weaker and less inclined to peck sit at the bottom of the social ladder.
When we add a new chicken to an existing flock, the whole flock has to decide where that chicken sits on the social ladder, and this is generally decided by pecking.
This means there is a good chance the new chicken will be pecked continually by almost the entire flock until the new hen’s position on the social ladder is decided.
A new chicken added to an existing flock, especially a larger flock of perhaps 6 birds or more, may end up being so severely pecked in the first few days, that it can actually be killed. This is why it is so important to follow the correct procedures when adding new chickens to an existing flock.
What to do before adding new chickens to an existing flock?
First things first, before adding any new chickens to an existing flock, it is essential that the new birds are properly quarantined away from your current chickens, just to be sure the new birds are not carrying any pests or diseases that may affect your hens.
Quarantining new chickens is a step that is frequently overlooked. Let’s be honest, quarantining is a hassle and many people do not see it as necessary.
Let me assure you from personal experience, that quarantining new chickens can mean the difference between your existing birds staying healthy, or the entire flock being killed off because the new hens were carrying a disease you were not aware of.
How to quarantine new hens?
The new hens should be placed in quarantine away from the existing flock. Clearing, if they are placed in quarantine right next to your current birds, there is a good chance any pests or diseases could be easily transferred between flocks.
I usually place the new hens in a large puppy crate in one of my barns, but a garage or outhouse will work just as well.
New chickens should be kept in quarantine for at least 1 week, but 2 weeks is better if you can.
Be careful not to cross feeders or waterers between flocks, and ideally wash your hands between handle flocks to if possible.
When the new hens are in quarantine, carefully check them daily. You want to be looking for any of the following signs that something might be wrong;
If you are at all concerned about the health of the new chickens, do not mix the two flocks until you have consulted a veterinary surgeon who deals with poultry.
I also add apple cider vinegar to the drinking water of any chickens I have in quarantine as the cider vinegar creates a slightly acidic environment in the chicken’s digestive system, which usually kills off internal worms and parasites.
Do not add the new hens to your existing flock until you are 100% sure the new hens do not have any underlying health issues.
How Do You introduce new chickens to an existing flock?
If you are newer to chicken keeping, and you are adding a new hen to any existing flock for the first time, the first thing you need to do is brace yourself because the whole process can be pretty harrowing thanks to the chicken’s vicious nature.
If simply throw the new bird in and leave her to get on with it, she will probably be pecked brutally. It is not pleasant to watch.
My best advice is to follow one or more of the suggestions below to make the transition as smooth as possible, for you and the chickens.
Place the hens in side-by-side runs for a few days so they can get used to each other
If at all possible, after quarantining the new hens for a week or two, place the new hens in a run right next to the existing enclosure.
By having the two sets of birds living side by side, but separated by a fence, they have a chance to get used to each other before physically being introduced.
Hopefully, this will reduce any aggression shown to the new hen or hens when they are added to the main enclosure.
I have used this technique to great success in the past, and on the rare occasions I find myself having to add a single hen to an existing group, I use the side-by-side method.
Introduce the new birds to the coop at night
Another technique I have used many times in the past is to add the new hen to the coop once the existing flock has gone in for the night.
The idea is simple. Once your girls have all gone into the coop, add the new hen and close the coop door. As it will almost certainly be pitch black inside the coop, the hens will hardly notice the newcomer.
Hopefully, in the morning when everyone comes out, the new hen will not get quite as much attention as if you had added her during the day.
Rearrange the whole enclosure before adding the new chicken
Another trick that can work well is to add the new hen first thing in the morning before letting the existing flock out of their coop.
Before you open the coop door, rearrange the whole enclosure, moving every item they have in there, and ideally adding more.
If you have straw bales or piles of pallets, rearrange them all. Move the feeders and waterers. If possible, rotate the coop so the front door faces a different direction than when the hens went to bed.
All being well when the existing flock is let out of the coop, everything will appear new and the pecking order will be reset, allowing the new hen to seamlessly fit in somewhere in the flock.
What to Do if things go wrong?
Adding a new hen to an existing flock is stressful for everyone involved, and even if you employ all of the suggestions above, the new bird may still get picked on and pecked by the existing chickens.
If this happens, try not to intervene straight away. Chickens have evolved to withstand a certain amount of pecking, and unfortunately, it is an essential way for each chicken to find its place on the social ladder.
If you step in immediately and remove her, things are going to be twice as hard when you try and put her back in.
You have to accept that for the first 24 hours, the newcomer is going to be pecked whilst everyone works out where they now sit.
If the pecking persists to the point of bullying, and the new chicken is being injured as a result, then you may need to think about intervening.
How to prevent excessive pecking?
There are some techniques you can use to reduce the amount of pecking a newcomer receives.
Each of the suggestions below is based on my experience, and you may need to try one or more of them before you relieve the amount of pecking the new hen receives.
Add more feeders and waterers
Chickens have a definite mean streak, and along with pecking, the dominant hens can actively deny the newcomer access to food and water.
The more dominant bird will stand over the feeder or waterer and peck the newcomer hard every time she comes near the feeder.
The best way I have found to solve this issue is to add another 1 or 2 feeders and waterers. There is no way a single bird can dominate more than one feeder, providing you space them out, and the hens usually are not able to coordinate with each other to prevent the newcomer from accessing at least one of the feeders or waterers.
Add a distraction
Another trick I have used on more than one occasion is to add distraction to the enclosure.
These distractions can come in the form of treats hanging from the roof of the enclosure, or in a similar way, dangling old CDs from the roof on pieces of string.
Adding mirrors around the enclosure also works well as a distraction. The hens will think their own reflection is another chicken. Some of their attention will be taken up pecking at themselves in the mirror.
Scattering mixed corn or adding large pieces of fruit like melon can also create enough of a distraction that the new chicken gets some rest bite.
Remove the bully bird
If you find a single bird is doing the majority of the pecking, then she can always be removed from the flock and placed in a time out for a few days (assuming you have somewhere safe for her to live).
Removing the bully bird will give the new hen a break from being pecked, and will also reset the pecking order, meaning everyone will now be busy trying to decide who sits where.
After a couple of days, add the bully bird back into the flock, and keep a close eye, just to make sure she doesn’t resume her bullying.
What to do If the new chicken is badly pecked?
If you find the new hen or any hen in your flock for that matter, gets so badly pecked that they end up with an open wound, order yourself a bottle of Poultry Open Wound spray (see an example on Amazon.com here).
Spraying an open wound on a chicken, which usually occurs on the chicken’s back, will prevent infection from setting in, and discourage the other hens from pecking at the wound.
In my experience, hens are definitely drawn to pecking at a red, open sore whereas they are less inclined to peck when that wound is prayed purple.
Whenever you add a new chicken to an existing flock, there will almost certainly be a lot of pecking. Chickens decide where each bird sits within their strict social system by pecking at one another.
All of the existing chickens will peck at the new hen until she and they work out her place on the flock’s social ladder.
This pecking is usually more distressing for the chicken keeper than the actual chickens, providing it does not go from pecking to bullying. If it does, you may need to step in and take action to keep the new hen from getting injured.
If you found this article helpful, why not check out another one I wrote recently titled ’15 Most Common Chicken Keeping Mistakes’
- Broiler chickens: A tolerant social system? researchgate.net
- Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken National Library of Medicine
- The Social Order in Flocks of Chickens jstor.org
- Chickens University of Chickens
- Measuring Social Behavior in Poultry Science Direct