The problem with introducing new hens

Earlier this year we decided it was time to add a couple of new chooks to our backyard flock. As one of the older hens had become sick, we thought it might be a good idea to get some new birds just in case the sick one didn’t pull through.

I did a bit of research on the pros and cons of introducing new chickens and decided that we’d have a go. We looked for compatible breeds and ended up with a Rhode Island Red X and an Australorp X.

The new hens Dusta and Pipsqueak enjoying a rare moment of peace

The most important part of introducing new birds is to be prepared, make sure you have enough room for them and that you have the opportunity to separate them or move them elsewhere in the event things get ugly. As chickens live in a hierarchical social system, they have a potent instinct for pecking order which kicks in as soon as new birds are introduced. They’ll squabble and peck to quickly establish who is the top dog and who is the bottom chook and the rest will fit somewhere in between. Without a cockerel in the mix, the top hen will often stop laying and will become the watch dog and this is exactly what happened with ours.

Sorting out their differences may take a while and during this time newer, younger or smaller birds can be very vulnerable. In the wild they would simply sort themselves out, at times fighting to the death but as we have the ability to intervene we need to be able to recognise if and when they are in genuine danger of being seriously injured.

It’s easy for us humans to get confused, reading too much into what we see. We panic because we are emotional creatures and feel every peck on the head, even if it’s someone else’s head! But essentially if blood is drawn then it’s a sign things are serious and this is when we may need to separate the pecked from the peckers and wait until they can defend themselves before trying again.

Initially our older hens were quite put out with the arrival of the aliens and the stalking started almost immediately. Feeding time was also head pecking time so we divided the greens and scraps and provided two separate scratch mix containers so they had the option to feed away from each other. For a few weeks they had separate sleeping areas but we eventually moved them into the same pen at night. We put lots of branches around the coop and a small wooden ladder where the young hens could hide or fly to if needed. Taking flight to higher ground became their survival technique for quite a few weeks and over time the older hens ‘allowed’ the others to mix with them, even if strictly on their terms. And once the two younger ones were laying they were finally accepted as sisters of the clan.

The familiar stand-off

So overall, things went well with the occasional peck on the head or beak, all completely natural reactions but nothing to get too worried about. Or so I thought….

Anybody who knows my husband will attest to his deep stubborn streak and a tendency for over-reaction!  As a very protective male he was on high alert every time he went into the ‘chook nook’ to feed the hens. On his return to the house I’d hear the repeated stories of how those two old cows Stickybeak and Noodle were attacking the poor little girls. Day by day I was subjected to the details of how those two were ‘out to get’ the young ones and after ignoring the drama for as long as humanly possibly I marched down to the chook nook to check out the situation for myself. What I observed as hens ‘sorting out the pecking order’ he saw as ‘unprovoked bullying’. He had become emotionally attached and so the ‘chook nook’ counselling sessions began.

Just when I thought the therapy was working I found Chris keeping the small door of the older chook’s roosting area open apparently because three of them were now ‘ganging up on Pipsqueak’! As Pipsqueak had become his favourite he found it very difficult to accept she had been relegated to the rank of  bottom chook. Being the understanding compassionate wife I am, I reassured him that she would be fine and then suggested he might like to move in with her to keep her company!

Pipsqueak the lonerised chook

So for the next few weeks, the one-on-one counselling sessions became my survival technique and over time Chris ‘allowed’ the older hens to occasionally pick on the younger hens, even if strictly on his terms. And when he was happy that the two younger hens were laying he finally relaxed as keeper of the sisters of the clan.

Four happy friends sharing some comfrey

Stay tuned for my next exciting post as Uncle Robot returns.

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