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Introducing New Birds To The Flock

Notice the picture to the left--it shows Jack, our Head Roo-- immediately surrounding him are a few of his older, established hens. Further out, but still orbiting him, are young hens and young roos. The birds at the top of the pecking order will be closer to him, youngsters and newcomers out on the fringes. They have arrayed themselves this way when this picture was taken because they expected me to be passing out food--and the higher up you are on the ladder (the pecking order), the more and best goodies you get. But also notice that in this picture, Jack is NOT the sun in the center of their chicken solar system at this moment--I AM, because, while Jack is the Head Roo in his flock, I am Head Roo when I am present. Once I go back inside, Jack is their sun. Hens adore their roo boy and the roo luuuuvs his ladies, it's really quite tender and sickly sweet. This transition of who is in charge at the moment should be natural and seamless in your flock. I do my part to reinforce Jack's Head Roo status and give him respect by handing him tidbits, which he in turn gives to his girls. The hens see me deferring to him while I also pass out goodies among the rest of the flock--every so often I hand a bit to Jack, who will stand quietly next to me and wait for me to tithe him. This picture is a perfect example of how central the Head Roo and Head Hen are to the flock--everyone is aware of what they are doing and where they are at all times. Because woe betide the young roo who is busy wooing a hen, and doesn't see the Head Roo bearing down on him like a freight train!

Whenever I need to bring in a new adult chicken to the existing flock, I follow the same procedure that I do with blending a new batch of youngsters in. I always hold several of what I call "Meet & Greets".  I've found that this is a great way to introduce newcomers to a flock. It cuts down on the violence you get otherwise when you just toss 'em all together. There is still the establishment of the pecking order, but that's a given anyway. I directly supervise the introduction, and anyone who gets out of line gets 'pecked' by ME, since I am the Head Hen/Roo. When you first bring a new chicken home, they will be off balance, a little scared, shy and confused. Now is the time to use this to your advantage and tame the little stinker down! It's also a wise idea to trim your new chicken's wings (not outdoors in case it gets away, do it inside) so that it is less likely to fly over the fence or up into a tree. Remember, it's going to be scared and fresh grist for the 'Pecking Order' mill. If it is chased and trying to get away, the last thing you need is a chicken that doesn't know you or where it lives yet--we had a new hen escape over a fence and it took three days to recapture her, involving climbing on roofs, jumping fences and literally wrestling her out of the jaws of the neighbors' dog! Learn from my experience. :)

Once the wings are clipped, allow the new bird to roam around a bit in your kitchen (where the inevitable poop won't be too difficult to clean up) or bathroom while you croon softly to it and feed it little bits of cheese, lunchmeat, diced grapes, raw corn, etc. The bathroom is great because there isn't much room for the bird to get away from you, so they are forced to deal with you and tolerate you being nearby. Sit down on the floor so you aren't towering over it--birds don't like things over their heads, it's threatening-- and give it a good 20 minutes to get to know you, the sound of your voice and realize (through the amazing positive reinforcement of food) what a terrific person you are. Try to get it to eat out of your hand or at least eat next to you. Reach out to stroke it or pick it up, if you can't do that just make it tolerate your hand being near it. If you can pick it up and pet it, do so from head to tail, with your whole hand, talking softly and cooing to it all the while. Keep your voice gentle, soothing and quiet. While you do so, watch your birds' eyes--you may see the pupil expanding and contracting rapidly. This signals excitement, in a good way, for birds. It means that they really like what you are doing to them. If you see this, it's a good sign. You need to build a little trust with your new friend, whose last experience with a human probably involved being chased around the run, grabbed and stuffed into a cardboard box so you could bring it home. Pick up the new bird, pet it briefly and set it down again slowly, praising it all the while. People who train parrots and cockatiels use this technique, they refer to the process as 'always end on a high note"--that is, stop while the bird is still enjoying it and before it begins to get uncomfortable and struggle. If you release a struggling bird, you are in effect teaching it that if it struggles, you'll let it go. Instead, teach it that as soon as it's calm and quiet, you will release it. When you do set it down and release it, do so slowly, while running your hands down it's body. Allow it to walk out of your hands. Chances are, it will take a few steps and then look back at you in confusion. Continue to coo at it and praise it for the good little chicken it is. Chickens (and all birds) LOVE to be talked to in a loving tone.

There are two schools of thought on how to procede next. Some people advocate waiting until dark and then slipping the new bird in amongst the flock as they are asleep and roosting, so that when they awaken they can be more accepting of the new bird. This may be your only option if your birds are in a small coop and/or run and the newcomer doesn't have much room to get away from any bullies.

I've personally had better luck with the following: With adult birds, after you have thoroughly petted and fed your new friend, pick it up and take it into the yard during the day. Hold it tucked under your arm and call your flock. When they come running over, they will look with amazement and disgust at you for thinking you needed another bird. Your Head Hen make make jealous noises, stare at the new bird and/or stand sideways to it in a threat posture, maybe even fluffing up. The new bird may note this and, not wanting to get it's butt kicked; struggle to get away, so watch out and keep your grip on it. Continue to hold and pet the new bird as you talk to the flock and walk around the yard a bit, showing the new bird around. Walk in and out of the coop. View the nest boxes. Point out the food and water dishes. Give 'em the two dollar tour.

When everyone is ready, go ahead and put the new bird down slowly and stand next to it. Some of your birds will show undue aggression--hackles and tails flared, growling, walking sideways towards the new bird, pecking aggresively at the ground, etc. This is heavy-duty disrespect and trash talk and not just simple curiosity-- warn them off with a firm, "Nooo--!" and take a step towards them if need be. You may need to chase off aggressors a bit. The new bird will either want to run away from aggressors or fight them.

Lily, the new white Sultan hen on the right, meeting the flock. Note how close we stand.

Uh oh, Boots the partidge cochin hen and Lily each grow an attitude and throw threat signs at each other, note Lily's flared tail and red face.

Uh oh, henfight! It wasn't serious, and we moved right in to break things up. But here you can see how even hens can raise their hackles!

YOU are the Head Roo, remember, and what you say, GOES. Be gentle in shooing away any bullies however, your little feather children love you and they are jealous because they value your attention, after all--and newcomers are a threat to their position in the pecking order AND your affections. Praise good behavior. Maintain a protective 'This is MY BABY' attitude, even though the new bird is an adult. Be prepared to stick around for at least 20 minutes. After a while, your flock will remember they have better things to do, lose interest and wander away. After that it's safe to go back inside the house, leaving the new bird to it's own devices--but do step outside every 30 minutes or so the rest of the afternoon to check on how things are going, and keep an ear out for any fighting. The next day, spend some time with your flock praising them and passing out goodies to help sooth hurt feelings and reinforce your position as parent, provider and god.  Chickens DO experience emotions the same as you and I, and jealousy is one of them.

Witha bunch of young chicks, the procedure is the same, except that you need to break up the Meet & Greets into a daily 20 minute session over a few days to a week. If you have a small pen or cage that you can set on the ground with the chicks inside, great. That gives your flock a chance to stare at them in dismay and at you in disgust and get used to the whole idea of newbies. Also, young chicks are innocent of what a threat posture from an adult bird looks like and will just stand there and let an adult peck them, or will stupidly walk right up to your Head Hen and stare her in the face (major disrespect!). So the pen gives the chicks protection. I use the same procedure even if the chicks have been raised by a mama hen, because mama can't be everywhere at once, and while she's chasing off one aggressor, two more can swoop in and harm the chicks. You still need to pull up a chair and hang out, praising your flock and petting them. They are going to be pretty peeved at you.

Fortunately, adult roosters being introduced to a flock of all hens don't usually need the safety pen or the full protection of a Meet & Greet. You need to allow the new roo to assert himself somewhat, it's important to his status within the flock. Just be nearby to end any real fighting. New roos can often suffer at the hands (and beak, claws and wings) of your Head Hen. Don't be surprised if she attacks or picks a fight with a new rooster, she's just letting him know who is Head Hen. Usually roos will just duck and accept this posturing with good graces--it should largely ceremonial in nature and not too violent; if it is, step in. My Head Hen Wild Child thumped my new rooster Jack three times the first day, after which they were inseperable for 9 years. :)

If you are trying to insert a second rooster into a flock that already has a roo, you are in for a struggle, and usually not a successful one. It all depends on the personality of both roos and how committed you are to enforcing your Head Roo status and breaking up any posturing that looks like it's getting too serious. I've had better luck raising two roos together from chicks (one will usually naturally end up Head Roo, without too much fighting) or introducing the second roo as a youngster, who learns his place just like any other youngster does. If you have two roos who get into serious battles all the time, which cause injury and draw blood, you need to rehome one of them--it's too upsetting to the flock to have the roos constantly battling. The occassional reminder from the Head Roo to the Beta Roo via chasing or a healthy peck to his backside is normal, don't worry about it.

As for teaching the new bird where to eat, drink and roost for the night, a good way to do this is to step into the coop a couple of times during the day with little treats and give it to them in there (be careful not to cause a stampede for goodies where the new one could get hurt), or place the food and water in the coop so that they have to enter it to eat, and will associate the coop with pleasant things. I just leave my coop door propped open during the day, with food and water kept inside and the chickens coming and going as they please. My chicks never had a problem with instinctively following the flock and going to the coop to roost, but then in my yard the coop is the best place to roost so they prefer it. Of course, there's no harm in showing them where to go, and I'd certainly be out there the first couple of evenings watching at dusk to see if they go into the coop on their own or are bullied if they try to--which sometimes happens, especially at first.  Expect some squabbles at first and the new bird to be roughly shoved off the roosts, where they may huddle on the ground for the night.  New birds will be the last to go to roost since they get pecked if they hop up there too soon. Don't worry too much, things will work out in time and all should be well.

copyright 2003-2013 by Velvet Sparrow