Introducing Birds Into An Existing Flock

Everyone loves the thought of that ‘magic answer’ - something many seek when it comes to introducing new birds into an existing flock!

Cockerels can help introductions

In our shop, I work extremely hard to ensure that no one leaves, having purchased birds, without being asked if they have an existing flock, and whether they intend to introduce the new ones to them. If the answer is yes, they are asked if they have done this before, how it went, and just a quick run through to ensure they did it the best way possible. If the answer is no, then myself or my staff will talk them through the procedure that we recommend they follow. This is never set in stone, and will depend on many factors - for successful introduction, there is much you must know...

We’ll look here at the main methods, to roughly cover all ‘introduction scenarios’ – territory, age, size, breed and numbers of birds.

Many a time I’ve heard someone say, “introducing birds? that’s easy!, I just chuck them all in together and let them get on with it – they soon sort themselves out”. This method is not one that I could ever advocate. If this method were to work, it would be down to pure luck. It is irresponsible, and totally unfair on the welfare of the new birds being introduced.

It seems the vast majority of information sources on this subject will always suggest that introducing new birds at night, once completely dark, will be sufficient. The theory is that the birds have some time shut in the house together to get used to each other’s smell and presence. I do tell everyone, by my own experience over many years, this ‘is no magic answer!’ It will certainly give you a head start, but my advice is always to only do this on an evening when you are there the next day to give fairly constant supervision once they are let out into the outdoor enclosure. Letting them out and going off to work is really not a good plan! If this is the route that you decide to go down, or the logistics of the other options leave you no choice, then quite honestly a good several days’ close supervision will be required to ensure the safety of the new birds.

Whether we are talking about first introduction of a new flock, all in together at the same time, or introducing new birds, a natural process that they have to go through is establishing who’s in charge (top-dog), and who’s not (under-dog). You’ve probably heard the saying: ‘establishing the pecking order’ – well, guess where that originates! This is the case whether we are talking about just two birds or twenty two! How many times has someone walked into my shop at Mantel Farm saying “I’m down to just one chicken, (it’s often fairly mature/old,) and I’ve come to buy it a friend”, well, the truth is, initially you will be buying it an enemy, not a friend! The ‘friend’ bit will hopefully come in time, but it will take some work on your part.

Existing birds are extremely territorial to their space, in addition, often senior to the generally younger newer birds coming in. Often, stand up fighting will be witnessed, as sometimes one of the newcomers will be of strong character and will not submit to the existing bird. This fighting mimics fighting amongst cockerels, kicking with feet, with head and comb pecking.

Pecking can quickly become a problem

To me, ‘the pecking order’ really does say it all, it is common to see the more dominate birds pecking the weaker ones to the back of the head / neck to say ‘I’m in charge’. This can progress to pecking other areas of the body, though this is usually a sign of things starting to go wrong. I usually consider the pecking as two categories: i) ‘annoyance pecking’ – as in, ‘I’m annoyed you are in my pen, but as long as you submit to me we could be friends’, then, ii) ‘malicious pecking’ – as in, ‘I’m far from happy about this situation, and I’m possibly just not going to accept you’. The latter does need to be spotted as sometimes this can lead to serious injury to the newcomer, often, once injured, is then ganged up on by several if not all of the existing birds. In fact, if blood is drawn, the injured bird must be removed from the pen, and not reintroduced until ideally the injury is no longer visible (healed & re-feathered). This is critical, and if the injured bird remains in the pen, what follows is often horrific, as most, if not all poultry is attracted to blood, and will continue to peck at the injury until the poor bird dies (and quite frankly, the pecking will often not stop then). I think it’s worth mentioning here, that the above fact applies during all aspects of poultry keeping, in itself, an important subject, often more than a little unpleasant, one that’ll I’ll try to cover in the not too distant future in more detail.

We all obviously hope for the ideal world where just the expected ‘annoyance pecking occurs, the pecking order is established, everyone’s friends, and we all live happily ever after! If you manage it right, that can be achieved, but is definitely not a foregone conclusion.

Mixing hens stage 2 (pen left open)

I always would recommend having a contingency plan, prepared and ready to go (having already tried it out prior to getting the new birds – no one likes a last minute panic!). This would normally consist of a way to divide up the outdoor pen, so they can still see each other, but cannot make contact. A reasonably fine wire mesh or sheet of clear Perspex will do the trick. This leads us on nicely to what would always be my preferred method for every case of introducing new to existing...

The route and method we would like everyone to take would be to introduce slowly via either a divided pen, a smaller pen within a large pen, or a pen next to a pen. This enables groups of birds (could even be more than two groups,) to see each other and get used to each other’s presence without the possibility of any harm being inflicted. It is true of course, that at some point in time they will have to be allowed into the same space together, if that is the ultimate intention, and still, ‘the pecking order’ will have to be established. The longer they are kept apart like this, the easier the final introduction is, so try not to be in a rush! I normally advise a minimum of two weeks ‘seeing each other’, though again, longer is always better. When you do try them in together, all of the above ‘supervision’ advice still applies. If you have to part them up again, I would try again every week to two weeks until successful. By the way, don’t panic about needing a divided or additional coup if you are dividing just one outdoor pen. The birds will always roost up together after dark, they seem to call some sort of ‘truce’! Although it is worth pointing out that they must remain in total darkness until you are there in the morning to let them out and part them up again, so temporarily block up any windows or such like that will let in light!

All of the above advice will work best where both sets of birds are of similar size, similar age and of similar number – new to existing. However, this would be an ideal world!

Please consider the following checklist, outlining a few extra simple steps you can take to improve the odds:

  • Introductions where there is an existing cockerel, or introducing a cockerel at the same time can help. Greatly reduces the pecking order amongst hens, if of sufficient breed and standing, he will be the one in charge.
  • Jumble up the outside space, i.e.: move feeders and drinkers to new locations, even if only temporarily, add tree branches, sections of bushes, old cardboard boxes on their sides, anything to confuse the existing birds and give cover to the new.
  • Consider adding additional feeders and drinkers to prevent existing birds ‘guarding’ them as existing birds often stop the new ones feeding.
  • Make the outside space as big as possible, introductions are a great deal easier the bigger the space.
  • Avoid introducing a lone bird to an existing flock, introduce two or three where possible. If unavoidable, follow the advice carefully and give as much time as you can.
  • At the moment of first ‘same pen’ introduction provide plenty of treat food to distract birds from each other, for instance, scatter mixed corn (more than usual), maybe hang up a cabbage (always hang, and just above head height, this slows them down – gives them more to do).

Sprinkle corn as a distraction

  • Avoid introducing birds of vastly different sizes, although anything is possible, it will give you far more work on the supervision side! (Also take note, a larger breed cockerel may still try to mount a bantam hen, its instinct!).
  • Do not try to introduce birds of vastly different ages. My advice would have to be that trying to introduce any bird of 16 weeks old or much younger to an existing mature flock would be asking for nothing but trouble. (Unless possibly they have been hatched on site and / or been reared up for much of their time in full view of the adult birds, even then tread very carefully!)
  • During the Autumn and Winter months the daylight hours are shorter, the ‘truce’ times are longer!
  • Finally, consider strongly the source of your additional birds (health and vaccinations etc), if there is any doubt, best advice would be to quarantine any new birds for at least a couple of weeks to ensure they remain healthy before introducing possible problems to your existing flock.
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