Merging and establishing a new flock

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 a 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 solution to achieving a happy flock, but the tips below might be useful.

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.


Establishing a flock of ex-bats

Annia Fabian

When you collect your ex-bats, it is important to realise these birds may 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.


Introducing new hens to an established flock

Hens out of the farm

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 in the summer months. 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 begin the process of merging.  There are two ways to do this:

  1. You can start to let the birds share the same space for small periods of time over a number of days, ideally allowing them to merge an hour before dusk so they are more focussed on getting to bed than arguing with their new flock members.  Gradually extending the time the birds spend together will allow you to finish the merge when you feel all the birds are confident.
  2. Alternatively, once the new birds have become acclimatised to the new permanent housing, you can carefully place the already established hens in the hen house at night to minimise disruption.

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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