Introducing new chickens to an already established flock can be stressful for both the birds and you. The new flock will need to establish a new pecking order, which can be really tough for everyone involved.
Whether you’re expecting a batch of new chicks or bringing home a few mature hens, it’s good to be prepared ahead of time and know the steps to introduce these new birds to your flock.
Through much experimentation over the years, we’ve developed a great strategy for new flock integration. This strategy allows the birds to get used to each other gradually, so there’s less stress. We’ve used this method to introduce both new chicks and young birds to our older hens and it has been proven to be the best way to integrate.
Introducing New Chickens to the Flock
Before you begin these steps, and in fact before you even bring home new baby chicks or mature birds, you need to make sure you have enough space in your existing coop for the number of chickens that will live there.
Chickens on average need at least 3 square feet of coop space, but more is better.
If you have a small coop for your current flock you’ll need to add some space before bringing home new chickens.
You can do this by adding on a large chicken run, building a separate pen, making a chicken tractor, or tearing down the old coop and building a new one.
Either way, you need to make sure that your chickens will have plenty of space , because these steps will only lead to flock harmony if your chickens aren’t stressed in a too-small coop.
Step One: Quarantine
All new members of the flock must be quarantined before being added to an established backyard flock.
Quarantine is done to ensure that the new flock members aren’t bringing in diseases or pests to your flock. They’ll need to be examined daily to look for signs of mites and lice, as well as common poultry diseases.
Quarantine should last for at least 30 days.
I know this seems like a really long time, but many chickens don’t show signs of carrying illness for several weeks, and many pests like lice could take a week or more to hatch and show up on your chickens.
It’s well worth it to keep your new hens away from your older chickens during this time so your beloved older birds don’t get sick.
To quarantine new chickens, keep them in an isolated area where they aren’t sharing space with the existing flock. A dog crate or large animal cage inside the house or garage will work well, or if you have a separate coop, all the better!
Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly in between handling new birds and the rest of the flock. You don’t want to inadvertently pass on diseases or pests.
After the quarantine period is up and you’re absolutely sure your new flock members are perfectly healthy, you can begin introducing new chickens to the rest of the flock.
Step Two: Cage Inside of the Coop
The next step is to place the new birds in a large animal cage inside the coop. If you don’t have a cage, fence off a corner of the coop for the new birds, making sure they’re protected on all sides, as well as the top. Remember chickens can jump and fly!
Placing the cage in a corner is a good idea, so only two walls of the cage are exposed to the rest of the flock.
The existing flock members will come to investigate the new additions, but won’t be able to get too close. This will allow everyone to adjust to each other gradually without any risk of fighting or serious injuries.
There will be some pecking through the cage wires, and this is normal, natural, and completely fine. The old hens are showing the new girls that they’re at the bottom of the pecking order.
Keep the new flock members inside the cage for the first 7-14 days.
The pecking and general interest in the new girls should fade day by day. Eventually your old chickens I will mostly ignore the new birds in the cage.
If it seems everyone is getting along well after seven days, move onto step three. If there is still a lot of pecking going on through the cage, keep them in there for a few more days. It’s better to take these steps more slowly than to rush through them.
Step Three: Free-Range Time
When step two is complete and the birds are all comfortable with each others presence, it’s time to let them free range together.
This step allows all the birds to mingle in a place where they have plenty of space to get away from each other if they need, and lots of distractions to keep them from picking on each other too much.
We generally don’t let new chickens out to free range until they’ve been in the coop for at least two weeks. This gives them time to acclimate to their new home and recognize the hen house as a safe place. When we do let the new hens out to free range, they know to go right back to the coop if they feel threatened.
We like to let the old birds and the new birds out to free-range together for around an hour per day. This will give them time to interact with each other, and space to get some privacy if they need it. If you don’t free range your flock, let the new chickens out of their cage and into the run for an hour a day.
It’s important to supervise this time together so you can intervene if needed.
If the new birds don’t rush out of the cage the first time you open it, give them time. They may be frightened of the newfound space, but they will come out when they’re ready.
When the birds aren’t free-ranging together, keep the new flock members in the cage, including at night.
Continue letting the flock free-range together for a week or so, increasing the time they spend together outside. Timing is different for everyone, so when all seems well, move onto step four.
This step can be a little tough for everyone. It’s very likely that there will be some chicken fights now that the birds all have access to each other. It’s okay if a little fighting happens, this is how chickens establish dominance, it’s natural, normal, and necessary. If it goes too far, separate the fighting chickens or distract them.
Step Four: Cage Door Open
After a week of free-ranging together, open the door to the cage and leave it open. The new flock members can come and go from the cage as they please. It will still be a safe place for them to go when they need, and they’ll likely still sleep there at night. The entire flock can now mingle together whenever they please. Continue letting them out to free range together.
If you are introducing baby chicks to a flock of older birds, it’s a good idea to make the door to the cage smaller so only the chicks can get through. You can do this by attaching some cardboard to the wire.
This allows the chicks to have their own little clubhouse that the big girls can’t get into, which keeps them safe. Don’t be alarmed if your new chickens still get pecked at once in awhile. This is totally natural and necessary as the flock adjusts.
Remember that chickens aren’t the same as people, and their social order works in a different way. This method is meant to make this transition easier for everyone, but there will still be some adjustment before the birds are all comfortable with each other.
Tips for Introducing New Chickens into the Flock
- Add a second roost in the coop if necessary. The new birds may get pecked when they start trying to roost. Give some extra room so everyone can roost comfortably.
- Provide places for new flock members to get some privacy. Placing roosting bars high up in the run can allow a safe place. Another option is to leave covered spaces inside the coop for birds to retreat to if they’re getting picked on.
- Keep an eye on the new birds and look for signs that they’re getting pecked too much. Missing feathers, wounds, or bleeding are a bad sign and those birds will need a little extra time and TLC to get established.
- If you’re introducing chicks to a flock of adult birds, wait until they’re at least six weeks old, but eight weeks or older is better. The chicks can get killed by the bigger birds if they aren’t big enough to defend themselves.