Our Managing Chickens Series has thus far covered how we handle housing, feeding, and watering our chickens at Willow Creek Farm. You can view those posts here:
Now we are going to move on to how we integrate our chickens. By integrate we mean how we introduce new chickens into existing flocks that they either haven’t lived with in a long time but used to live with, or that they have never lived with before.
Integrating chickens is a very complicated topic. So many factors come in to play that it can be hard to explain how to balance all the factors involved without addressing a specific situation. And even when you follow all the recommended procedures you can still have issues because you are dealing with living things that have their own opinions and you cannot control their behavior. I struggled a bit to write this because it is hard to put integration into general terms. Each situation is so different and so many things affect the outcome. So I am hopeful that in my sharing how we integrate our birds here, and the basic rules and procedures we follow, I will be able to help give you all some tips that might help you in your future chicken integrations.
One of the most important things is to know your chickens. Sit out and watch them interact. Know who is very dominant, who is very submissive, and what normal chicken behavior and interaction looks like. I love watching our chickens, it is almost therapeutic for me. So I can often be found spending any extra time I have sitting out watching my chickens. I know who is who and how they normally act and interact.
We have dealt with many integrations with our chicken breeding program. It seems like every few months or so we are doing the “chicken shuffle” and changing around who is living where for various reasons. Sometimes the chickens are going back in with chickens they have met before, sometimes they are strangers to each other. Often there are age differences. For the most part, we have had great success moving our chickens around and bringing in new birds.
Sharing a Wire Wall
The easiest integrations are always the ones where the chickens have been living near each other with just a wire wall between them for a while. Many of our housing pens share wire with other pens, and if we have the chance to we put chickens we plan to integrate together into a housing situation where they can share a wire wall, even just for an afternoon, and find that everything goes much smoother. We have even used our wired livestock panels to build a little pen in the barnyard to put new birds in for a few hours before we integrate them. It really helps.
Chickens in wired livestock panel “pen” in barnyard to get to know the flock through the wire before integration.
Sometimes people don’t have the space to do a shared wire wall situation, but even just putting the newcomers in a metal dog crate inside of the chicken pen for a few hours can improve the introductions.
Introducing at Night
One thing we have NOT found to help at all is the method of introducing chickens by putting them together in the middle of the night while they are all sleepy. I know some people love this method but we have tried it, and they either start fighting right away even though it is night, or they start up first thing in the morning. And this causes the fighting to happen inside the coop – which is definitely NOT where we want it. We want them to be out where they have plenty of space so the submissive chicken can move away quickly and no one gets hurt.
The Amount of Space Available
The more space the better. Always. Trying to introduce new chickens into tight quarters is not a good idea. We always use the biggest area possible to introduce them. They need space to move, and posture, and especially space for the ones trying to submit to get away from the dominant one.
In addition to being sure that the introduction area is big, we are very careful not to let our chicken housing get overcrowded. Bringing birds into an already overcrowded situation is just making the problem worse, and the integration is not likely to go well if the established birds already don’t have enough space to live. To see what our guidelines for chicken housing spacing are here at Willow Creek Farm, read our Managing Chickens: Housing post by clicking here.
The three main factors we see that are being juggled when integrating chickens are:
- The age of the chickens involved
- Who owned the territory first
- The amount of chickens being introduced into the group versus the amount of the established chickens
We aim for a good balance in these categories for it to work out well. But it is not totally cut and dry because all three categories affect the status of the bird. So we look at who is coming into the group and evaluate them by the three categories, and then look at who is already in the group and evaluate them in the same way so we can make the best choices for introductions.
The Age of the Chickens Involved
Older = More Dominant (to a point). Once you are dealing with full-grown adults, age doesn’t matter it is more of who has a dominant personality and who is more submissive. But if you are dealing with any birds under about 25-30 weeks or so, they will generally be more submissive than any adult. And the younger you get the more submissive they are to the birds older than them.
Who Owned the Territory First
The chickens who have been living in the current space you are introducing into are going to be territorial and more aggressive than the new birds who don’t know where they are.
The Amount of Newbies Vs. the Amount of Established
Because the established birds will be more aggressive about their territory you need to be careful about the amount of newbies vs the amount of established. The larger the flock, the less of an issue, as long as the amount of newbies isn’t below 4.
The easiest way to explain this seems to be to just give several examples of how we attempt to make it balance out and work well. I will also tell about the two times it did not work out for us and why. Later I will talk specifically about roosters, and describe what a good fight looks like and what a bad fight looks like.
One important note is that with our breeding program there are often birds both leaving and joining the established flock. This is actually very helpful and we time our chicken shuffles so that it all happens at once. A bird might be leaving because it is a cockerel ready for butcher, or a hen or pullet I am selling, or it is being moved to a different pen for some reason. So we purposefully time it so all that happens the same day. We butcher the cockerels, and have people pick up the hens/pullets for sale, and move other birds to other pens all the same day that we move other birds in with the flock either from an outside source or from another pen on the farm. The leaving of birds stirs up the pecking order enough that it seems the flock takes it easier on the newbies because they are in a bit of disarray themselves.
For the first example let’s talk about introducing younger birds to older birds. If the younger birds are the established ones in the territory, it is usually fine to introduce just a few adults in with no problems. But if the older birds are the established flock, the more younger birds you introduce the better. Our friends bought 39 chicks from us. Several weeks later they decided they wanted a rooster from our stock that wasn’t full sibling with any of their chicks so they could potentially breed them. The chicks were 7 weeks old and the rooster I had for them was 16 weeks old. They introduced him into the flock with no problem because while the babies had the numbers and the territory, the rooster out-sized and out-aged them enough that it all balanced out. That is one of the only situations where I would say bringing in only one bird to a big flock would be acceptable. With a mainly adult flock on our property of anywhere from 10-20 adults, if we want to put some of the 9-week-old chicks in with the group, we need to be sure there are at least 4 (preferably more) of the younger ones and watch carefully for several days to be sure they are not being bullied away from the feed and water, or just bullied in general. Most of the time they are very quick to submit and as long as they do the adults ignore them. But we would never just put one or two young ones in with the adult flock.
We ALWAYS watch the flock closely after integration. In fact we only do integrations when we can sit out and watch for the first couple hours. We are usually working on something around the area, not just sitting and watching, but we are within view and keep an eye on them very closely for a few hours. We also take extra care to watch the interactions for several days. Even if it seems to be going well at first we still keep a close eye on how everyone is doing for about the first week. We watch for any scabs on combs and wattles, birds that are “hiding” in corners or isolating themselves from the flock, and we watch to be sure we see everyone getting a chance to eat and drink.
When dealing with all adult birds we again look at the balance of the numbers and who owns the territory. We never move just one or two newbies in unless they very recently came out of that same flock. For example, two weeks ago we took one of our Dark Brahma hens and moved her down to the lower coop with several of the teenage pullets because we were contemplating selling them all. I wanted to keep an eye on them for a while and see how well the Brahma was laying before I decided. Then one of my Dark Brahmas in the upper coop died, so I decided to keep the one I was thinking of selling. Because we know our birds well we knew that this particular hen was laid-back and got along with everyone. So we took her and moved her back up with the flock. There was no problem at all, it was like she never left. But besides a situation like that, we would never try to move one or two new adult birds in with a big existing flock. If the existing flock was only 1-3 birds, then two newbies would be fine. It is all about balancing the numbers, ages, and territoriality of the situation. When dealing with adults the more newbies the better because the existing flock has the territory. But don’t overdo it in that direction either. Balance it.
Our Two Bad Integrations
We have experienced two situations where our integration didn’t work. The first involved two 18-week-old pullets and four 10-week-old pullets. The birds had never shared a wire wall so they were complete strangers and they were all moving to a new pen where they never lived before so there was no territoriality. We felt that the ratio of more young ones to less older ones and the fact that the older ones didn’t have territory would make it work out all right. It didn’t. The older two, one in particular, bullied the younger four to the point of almost killing them. Even though they completely submitted and tried to get away from her she wouldn’t let up. I sat out and watched and waited for her to get over it for several hours and she didn’t, so we split them up before anyone was injured. What went wrong? I think the space was too small so even when they tried to get away they couldn’t go far. I think that the bully was a particularly dominant bird and I just didn’t know her well because I hadn’t spent much time with her. I think that the fact that they didn’t share a wire wall even for a few hours was not good.
The second experience that didn’t work involved a rooster and a cockerel.
So before I share that instance, let’s talk a little about males. In general we have found that moving a male in with all females, as long as they have shared a wire wall, usually works out fine. Even just one rooster with several hens. The younger the rooster is, the more trouble there is. A 16-22 week-old rooster put in with 10 adult hens will have a lot more trouble than an adult rooster would.
As far as putting males with males – it is a tricky business. We have found that one of the males must be under about 10 weeks old, and there must be other chickens in the flock in order for it to work. We wanted to move our adult rooster in with a 12-week-old cockerel we had to live as a bachelor group for a bit. We were surprised when the 12-week-old went after the roo (who outsized him by about 5 times) the second we put them together. At first the roo couldn’t figure out what was happening and why the heck this tiny thing was attacking him (he was a very gentle laid-back adult roo), but then he just took one foot and flung the cockerel across the pen like he was nothing. The fighting continued and the 12-week-old refused to submit to the roo, and there was no way the roo was going to give into this little speck of aggressive cockerel. We were afraid the only way it would end would be death of the cockerel so we separated them. Since then we are very careful to be sure that any males we want to live together are together before the youngest of them reaches 10 weeks of age, and that they are living with more than just each other. An exception is a group of cockerels that have been together since they were very young, such as a pen of meat cockerels. We will often split off groups of cockerels we know are headed for the stew pot and have them live together in the grow out pen until we butcher them at 16 weeks. But we have found that after about 16 weeks more serious fighting starts happening and they either need to be butchered, or put with a big group of girls.
It has worked fine for us by following those rules thus far and we often have 2-3 cockerels/roosters over the age of 16 weeks living with the flock of 15-25 hens happily, and often there are also a few young (under 12-week-old) cockerels in the flock with them too. It seems that as long as there are plenty of females to go around to the mature males, and the young males know their place (which is the very bottom place) all can live in harmony. Right now we have 4 roosters that are about 27 weeks old, one of which is an extremely submissive little silkie, living with our flock which is a mix of about 14 actively laying hens, 12 young pullets not laying yet and one 16-week-old rooster just barely coming of age. They are currently living in harmony, but as that 16-week-old starts wanting a place as a breeding roo we are going to need to cut it back to 3 roosters total, two of the big boys and the little submissive silkie, in order to keep the peace.
Good Fights vs. Bad Fights
It is important to know how to spot acceptable fighting behavior that will lead to harmony eventually, as opposed to unacceptable fighting behavior that will likely lead to death or serious injury.
A fight generally looks like this:
First, they stare at each other for a second, making intense eye contact, then they stick their neck feathers straight out to the side (around here we call this “put their umbrella up” because that is exactly what it looks like), then they bump chests, grab at each other’s heads or necks with their beaks, kick at each other with their feet, etc. They usually come apart and then back at each other a couple of times. The whole of a “good fight” that is establishing pecking order lasts anywhere from 2-15 seconds. Sometimes it ends at the stare-down, or even at the umbrellas going up. It ends by one giving up, indicated by ducking their head down and moving away from the other quickly. And the winner struts away and goes about their business. The fight can be very noisy, and sound very awful, but usually there is absolutely no blood shed and it is just a big noisy nothing. That explains a good fight.
A bad fight is when they keep going at each other for longer and longer, neither seeming to be willing to give up. If it lasts longer than about 30-45 seconds, or is clear that injury is imminent (like they are grabbing violently at combs or wattles or we see blood) we run at them making a bunch of noise and stick something between them (NOT a body part – a stick or jacket or something) to break them up. Then we back off. If they go right back at it then we assume this is not going to end well and we safely separate them.
Another example of a bad fight is when they do a normal good fight, and the one that submits runs off, but the one that won chases them and continues to attack them or peck at them over and over even though they are submitting. This is bullying and if it goes on and on the bullied will eventually die. It might take days, but the one doing the bullying will keep them from the food and water and stress them out so bad they die.
Integrating chickens can be a challenging thing to explain, and to perform as well. I have described how we handle it here, and what has worked for us and what hasn’t. And, like all things involving live animals, there are always exceptions to the rules. There are certain birds that will not get along no matter what you do.
Please feel free to ask questions in the comment box. That is always an option with my posts, but I am specifically saying it here because it can be a confusing topic. If you have a certain situation and want our opinion on it, put it in the comments and we will help as well as we can.
Watch for more posts coming up in our Managing Chickens Series.