Become a caring consumer Merging and establishing a new flock

Bobbie's hens

Bobbie's hens

Hens form strong social groups and establish a pecking order within a few days of being introduced to each other. In the absence of a cockerel this will range from a top (dominant) hen down to lowest ranking hen. Once each hen knows its place in the flock, they should get on fine.

An established flock will not welcome other hens outside their group and can be surprisingly vicious to newcomers. Introducing new hens to an established flock will need patience and often takes a couple of weeks to settle. Methods of introduction vary according to your individual set up so there is no single answer to achieving a happy flock, but the tips below might be useful.

Establishing a flock of Ex Bats

When you collect your ex-bats, it is important to realise these birds do not know each other, therefore a new pecking order will need to be established.

Initially the hens will be intent on their new surroundings and at this stage they are normally polite to each other. However, within a few hours one or more birds may start to exert dominance by pecking or attacking the others, keeping them away from food and chasing them around the run. The dominant hen may also jump on backs and grab the combs of other birds; not ladylike behaviour, but an effective way to assert authority.

This behaviour is natural and often results in the less dominant birds immediately accepting their lower position within the flock; after a week or so the flock should settle.

Vying for Dominance

Occasionally two equally dominant birds may compete for the role of ‘top hen' and this can result in more sustained fighting where both birds spar and peck quite viciously. Allow the sparring to continue for a few minutes as often one bird will surrender, run away and accept her lower rank.

However, if the fighting continues use distraction tactics to separate them: whistling, hand clapping, physically picking them up and placing them well apart. Put Vaseline on their combs to help prevent aggressive beaks causing damage to vulnerable birds.

As long as the hens have enough space and feed/water these squabbles should stop after a couple of days or a few weeks at most.

Sometimes, especially where space is limited, one bird can appear to be a relentless bully. Lower ranking hens cannot get out of her way and the bully constantly exerts her authority by pecking and chasing over and over again.

Try to avoid this by giving the hens more space. Provided the environment is fenced and safe from predators, let the hens free range, this will provide distraction and stimulation allowing the pecking order to become settled more quickly.

Dominant birds may guard feed and water points to prevent low ranking birds from eating and drinking. Counter this by ensuring there are several feed stations and water points - the bully cannot guard them all at once.

If the bullying is so persistent that blood is drawn or the low ranking hen(s) is miserable, then remove the bully from the group for a day to allow the rest of the flock some peace. It is always tempting to remove the victim for some TLC, but she will only have to be re-introduced at some point so keep her within the flock (unless for short periods; see below). Penning the bully separately with food and water for a short while may reduce her confidence and lessen her dominance.

If the low ranking hen is particularly vulnerable (feather bare or with a nervous disposition) and you don't have space to separate the bully, take her out 3-4 times each day to allow her to eat and drink on her own for about 15 minutes so she can build both strength and confidence. She will quickly learn you are her ally and enjoy the contact. Use Vaseline on her comb and replenish regularly. Progress the merge by encouraging her to feed with the other birds, but stay close to give her reassurance you are there to help if she needs it (you'll be amazed how quickly they gain confidence in your presence).

In any coop, extra environmental enrichment helps establish peace: pieces of cabbage, cobs of sweetcorn or even shiny CDs hung at hen head height give them a distraction and something to peck at.

It is worth noting that independent trials have shown the use of Ex-Bat Crumb and Pellets will calm and help to merge new flocks.

Illness

Sometimes a flock of hens will suddenly shun or pick on one bird. This may be because she has underlying health problems which the others sense, but is invisible to us. Examine the hen for any obvious signs of illness, see our guidelines on health and/or take her to your vet.

Moulting

Moulting causes a hen to change her behaviour, she loses her rank within the flock and can become quiet and withdrawn. As she loses her feathers, she will begin to act submissively, squeaking when other hens approach her, freezing like a statue or dashing away if others get too close. This is acknowledgement of her low rank. Keep an eye on a moulting hen to ensure she isn't being bullied and is getting enough to eat. If necessary remove her 2-3 times a day for 10-15 minutes to allow her uninhibited access to food and water. As her feathers return, her ranking will rise again and she will regain her position within the flock.

Introducing new hens to an established flock

All new hens should ideally be kept separate, but within sight and sound of your existing flock for a week/ten days. This is an important quarantine time if the new hens are not ex-bats, as hens from auctions, markets and hobby breeders are unlikely to be vaccinated. It is also a good idea to worm and treat all the hens against parasites, especially red mite at this time. Observe new hens closely for any signs of unusual behaviour, illness and infestations.

Always give advantage in numbers to your new hens. For example if you have 4 hens, we advise you take 6 new hens to minimise bullying. (Introducing 2 hens to, say, 8 hens would create a great deal of stress to the new outnumbered hens).

Merging two flocks will depend entirely on your set up, so please ask the re-homing team for advice. The ideal method is to give both flocks equal knowledge of a common shared area so neither flock has an advantage over the other. Knowing the best places to hide can really make a difference to a new hen entering an established flock, so give her time to learn the shortcuts and places to escape bullying.

If possible move your established hens to a temporary run for a few days and put the new hens in the main long term housing. This allows the new birds to get used to their permanent home. If you can, allow the established hens to see the new hens through the fence and when the new birds have built confidence and settled, you can place them all together. Do this at night when the hens are asleep, carefully lifting them into the house.

It is important to let all the hens out at first light, so in summer black out any windows with a black plastic bag to prevent bullying starting before you are up. Inevitably there will still be some squabbling as a new pecking order within the enlarged flock becomes established.

If you have a small coop and run with no room for other housing in your garden, we do not advise you take on new birds until you can give advantage in numbers to the new hens. Watching a merge in a confined space can be very distressing - and not only for the hens.

If you have a large area, then set up a temporary house and pen within the area so you can keep the two flocks separate until they are used to each other's presence and ready to mix. If you have two houses you can merge over a period of time by allowing them to mingle for 30 mins at dusk; they will be more interested in roosting than squabbling and this can be a gentle way to merge two flocks over a period of a week or more.

With all flock integrations, try to provide as much safe range space as possible and always have several sources of food and water.

All merging/integration problems should resolve themselves in 2 weeks. If they persist, please get in touch with our Careline who can give you bespoke advice for your hens and set up.

 

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