It’s a funny expression “Are you chicken?” meaning are you scared; so commonly heard in the playground as a taunt. In actual fact chickens are one of the scariest and feistiest birds I know. If you’ve ever introduced a chicken to an existing flock you will know how threatening and down right mean they can be. The game of “chicken” played by school children is also another interesting use of the word. Both come down to the Pecking Order that is prevalent in any flock. This is when each bird has to fight for their place within the flock and every time a new bird is introduced they have to go through the same procedure.
I had a little hen called Slippy; I was very fond of Slippy. She had a gawky face and peevish expression and a wonky, pale pink comb.
Slippy was at the bottom of the Pecking Order and it used to break my heart to see her receiving pecks and aggressive shoves around feeding time. She wouldn’t get many of the scraps I threw (despite my best endeavours) and would often be a loner wondering around pecking and scratching in solitude. However, a couple of my chickens moved onto the Big Perch in the Sky and I decided to get another four to make a round flock of eight. I gently manoeuvred the cardboard boxes containing the latest additions into the inner coop and released them into the safe confines to get used to their environment and settle down. Once suitably adjusted I opened up the door and off they went into, what I can only describe as, The Abyss…. Doris The Brave poked her beak out and promptly dived straight for the overhanging pine trees and hunkered down with Ethel-the-not-so-ready following hot on her heels and various furious, feathered fowl in hot pursuit. I turned around to see Rosemary cowering in a corner of the inner coop with an outraged (yes I can only describe it as rage) Slippy delivering a staccato of swift pecks to her head. I watched in amazement as Slippy whirled around like a hen possessed in pursuit of more fresh chicken targets; blood dripping from her gnarled beak (well not quite dripping blood but it was all getting a bit out of hand quite frankly). Slippy? My quiet, meek little lamb? This was my first lesson in the Pecking Order and it was no joke; my husband has been known to shake his head and murmur “If they were human size it’d be like something out of Jurassic Park.”
So, how to introduce new birds to your flock without causing stress and anxiety to you, I mean, to your chickens!
If possible have a separate coop for the new birds. They will seem less of a threat to the existing flock and when you finally introduce them it won’t be so dramatic. If you are handy with a drill, some pvc piping and some wire then you can build one of these fabulous chicken tractors designed by the inspirational Janet Luke for next to nothing. They are ingenious contraptions and, as well as providing extra housing for new birds, you can also put your chickens to work in the vege garden in a chicken tractor. They will do all the hard work by clearing and fertilizing a used vege bed leaving it ready for you to plant up again. Perfect!
Distraction is key – rather like dealing with a toddler! Hang a bunch of silver beet (chard leaves) from string in the coop for the flock to jump at or try a tasty Fat ball. It’ll keep them busy and give the newbies a break.
Make sure there are places for new birds to hide within and hunker down to feel safe. My chickens seek solace in these low hanging evergreen branches.
Dump a big load of weeds, soil and leaves for the flock to scratch through.
Make sure new birds are old enough to stick up for themselves
Put out a big array of feeders and water troughs to avoid wings bumping at the table. Don’t buy expensive ones; use ice cream containers, large plastic lids or even an old reflector post.
Any super aggressive bird should be removed. Let her free range and eat away from the flock until things settle down. When re-introduced to the flock she’ll be taken down a peg or two as she will be seen as a “newbie”. Don’t worry, she’ll be fine!
If you have the means, let the existing flock free range in the day. The new birds can spend time getting used to their new environment and when the existing flock return they’ll be too exhausted from their adventures with the bugs and worms to want to pick a fight.
NEVER introduce one single bird to a flock. There is wisdom in the old adage “safety in numbers” after all.
Make sure you offer extra protein for all birds during this stressful time; even a dish of pro-biotic yoghurt to prevent weight loss and feather loss will be well received.
Above all use your common sense and there’s no shame in sitting in your coop all day protecting your new hens (sorry, my husband just murmured something…crazy chicken woman what??!)