One of the biggest appeals for me about moving to our historic Appalachian homestead this fall was the opportunity to have some poultry. I have a love for chickens that defies common sense for someone that has never owned her own, so I convinced my husband to make it a priority to restore the old chicken coop on our property. When we arrived in late August, the chicken coop was so choked with a weed forest that the door couldn’t be opened.
We worked together over several several weeks to clean the coop and build an outdoor run for the birds. Learning as we went and utilizing the help of several work groups, we eventually twisted the last piece of poultry wire into place and were ready to claim some chickens for our own. One of our neighbors had agreed to sell us a portion of his expansive flock, so the two of us packed the dog's crate into the back of the Sisters' pickup and drove the half mile past Big Laurel to his property to buy them.
We gathered the hens without too much difficulty and brought them back to our newly restored coop. The size of the coop dwarfed our six tiny hens, and the underutilized space was all the encouragement we needed to peruse Craigslist until we found more fowl to add to the mix. Two weeks after getting our original six, we added two silkie chickens, and a month after that we introduced four guinea fowl.
Within a short amount of time we have managed to get three different varieties of bird and successfully acclimated them all to each other. But often times this posses a problem because introducing new birds into an existing flock puts all of them at risk for avian diseases, territorial behaviors and the perils of the pecking order. Below are some hints and tips (some that we followed and some that we will be using in the future!) for introducing new birds into your existing flock.
Quarantine the new girls. It is recommended that new poultry be quarantined for one to four weeks before being introduced to the new flock. The new birds should have a separate coop and run to use and should not share any space or breathing air with the established flock. Keeping them separate while they are stressed from being moved also allows the new birds to get used to your farm or homestead without the pressure of having to meet new flock mates right away.
Slow introduction. Once the quarantine period is over, allow your new birds to share some run space with the existing flock, separating them with a wire fence divider. This will allow them to get used to each other in a non-threatening environment and will prevent fights that could get nasty.
Introduce the new girls into the coop at night. A sleepy bird is a dopy bird, and a dopy bird isn't likely to pick a fight, even when new birds are in her territory. Chickens become very sleepy and docile when it gets dark out, meaning they are less apt to fight newcomers. The newest hens might take a few days to fully adjust to the coop, but they will benefit from watching the behavior of their new flock mates.
Let the pecking order resolve itself. Like many other animals, chickens have a pecking order that allows them to have a sense of where they belong in the flock. Some are dominant peckers, others are on the bottom and will be pecked into place. Pecking order will happen even if your chickens all look exactly the same to you. Throw some tasty scraps to your chickens, and by the fighting and pecking that ensues you will see who the top girls are! Pecking order is part of a chicken's biological nature, so try to stay uninvolved unless you think some hens aren't getting enough food or should be separated from the rest of the flock for their own safety.
Note: Problems can occur "mixing" breeds in a flock when you have several chickens that are very similar looking and then one or two of a different type. These oddballs are often mercilessly picked on. We feared this would happen to our silkie chickens and watched the very carefully for their first weeks in the coop. There was some territorial pecking from the youngest hens but nothing that seemed dangerous. One benefit for us is that our coop is big enough for the silkies to be able to keep to themselves and avoid some of the meaner hens if they need to.
Special instructions for Guinea fowl: Guinea fowl can be bullies with other poultry and won’t easily tolerate newcomers. They can be relentless in their pursuit of a victim, and may keep him or her away from the food. We didn't have this problem because our guinea fowl were only three months old when we introduced them and they were brought into a coop that already housed chickens that felt secure in their pecking order. So far there have been no issues for us, but keep their bullying behavior in mind if you chose to reverse the order of your introductions.
Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with two nuns and help to run a sustainable homestead mountain-ridge retreat and ecology center that resides on a 500-acre land trust. You can find her at her personal blog and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.
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