November 8, 2013

Of Chickens, Chicks, & Flock Integration

We've been keeping chickens for about four years now. We started with a batch of mail order chicks and have had hen hatched chicks too. I've also had successful adoptions by slipping mail order chicks under my broody hens at night. The success that's remained elusive, has been getting the older chickens to accept the new chicks as part of the flock.

Our first year with this was our worst experience. I put a broody Welsummer into the goats' kidding stall with nine home-laid eggs and gave her Buff Orpington chicks at night. All the other chickens could see them through fencing, but not get to them. When I first let the new chicks out, they had their own area. Eventually they began to mingle with the original flock.

I let the chickens out to free range at about 8 a.m. This used to be to
keep the crowing from bothering the neighbors too early. Recently my
next door neighbors got chickens, so perhaps it doesn't matter so much.

Two chickens in particular were constantly chasing and attacking the newcomers. These were my Barred Hollands. Lord B, our rooster, was extremely possessive of the coop, chicken yard, hens, and anything he thought they might like to eat. He was persistently aggressive toward the chicks and finally killed one of them. Eventually, we had to eliminate him.

The next year I wasn't ready for another broody hen, because I was still trying to figure out an area for hatching and brooding when the kidding stall was otherwise occupied. I had one, however, and this one was persistent. I finally gave her three eggs, of which one hatched.

My three Speckled Sussex hens drinking whey from mozzarella making.

I set up mama and chick in a pen in the chicken yard. They kept getting out so I just let things be. With only one chick to guard, she was able to keep him safe from the other chickens. Eventually mama returned to the flock and I had a lone rooster who was always by himself. However, we only keep one rooster and he wasn't it.

This past year I decided to try something different. We hadn't been all that impressed with our Buff Orpingtons so when one of them went broody, Dan wanted to get some Silver Laced Wyandottes and I wanted some Speckled Sussex. I decided to fence off a nesting and brooding area within the coop itself. I hoped that this way, the chicks would be seen as part of the coop territory. They remained in their brooder area until they got too big and I had to let them out.

One of my 3 Silver Laced Wyandotte cockerels

Nothing stops the "initiation" rites amongst chickens. The pecking order is very specific and no chicken wants to lose her place. The oldest chickens are always on the top and always have first rights to anything chickens want: food, tidbits, water bucket, and the top roosting bars. Eventually, after much pecking, many squabbles, and considerable chasing, every chicken knows their place in the chicken order of things. The best I could hope for was that they reached that understanding quickly and that no chicken was totally rejected or killed in the process.

The biggest trouble maker was our Buff Orpington rooster, Cowboy. He wasn't as viscous as Lord B had been, but he seemed to take great pleasure in sneaking up behind a young pullet or cockerel, grabbing a beakful of tail feathers, and strutting around proudly with those feathers in his beak.  

Cowboy's legacy: 6 out of 6 eggs were pullets!
A pullet is a young hen under 1 year of age.

Well, we'd already decided to have a go with the Wyandottes, so Cowboy and the three Sussex cockerels were the first elected for freezer camp. That leaves us with about 20 hens of six breeds and 3 SLW cockerels from which to eventually choose a flock rooster. The good news was that the chicken yard battles gradually began to smooth out and I noticed the chickens simply hanging out together.

Chickens hanging out by the fenceline. Why there? I don't know.

One other thing seemed to help. That was moving the feeder out of the hen house and into the chicken yard. Food is always something animals are possessive about, so I figured moving it out of the coop would make it more neutral territory. I cover it at night and move it back in when it rains, but otherwise, this has worked very well.

Eventually we'll get down to one rooster again. I also still have some of my original hens, so I'll have to see how laying goes after they finish their moult. The Welsummers laid extremely well in their fourth summer, which I think recommends them. Free range hens are said to lay as long as 10 year, although production decreases. For now, we'll sit tight and wait and see what the future brings.

I would love to hear your experiences regarding chickens, chicks, laying, brooding, and integration! Please do take time to comment.


Kate said...

I add 10-15 new mail order chicks every year and I use your same tactics: keep the feeder outside and move it around the yard, raise the chicks in a pen in the yard so the rest of the chickens can see them, and don't let them out until they stop peeping and start clucking, and maybe most important, have a friendly, gentle rooster (not always so easy to come by)!

Renee Nefe said...

Freezer Camp. he he that's funny.

I don't know much about chickens other than recipes, but I think Kate's plan of moving the food around the yard has some merit. Keep the chickens guessing.

Nina said...

Our chooks like to hang out it the fenceline too. It's a safe place for them though, with lots of cover from hawks and other predators. I didn't really have any problems with flock integration this year, although for a good few weeks, they tended to hang out as 2 small flocks. After a while though, you could see them come together. We don't have a rooster though, which changes dynamics.

Sandy Livesay said...


I love the coloring in several of your chickens. Right now we don't have chickens but when we do, I will be educated completely on raising them from reading your blog, and a few of my other Blogger friends. Thanks Leigh!!!

Leigh said...

Kate, oh for a friendly, gentle rooster! Trouble is, when you've got half a dozen or more cockerels in the yard, it's impossible to tell who could be that one!

Renee, I can't claim credit for "freezer camp." It's been in goat circles for awhile. :) The feeder outside definitely seems to help.

Nina, I think that it for mine too, the overhang of the trees provides a sense of security. I'm glad to hear your birds are getting along!

Sandy, chickens are so much fun. When you get ready, ask readers of your blog for opinions and advice! You'll get a lot and some good recommendations to boot.

Farmer Barb said...

When I integrated Brown Chicken with the last three pullets I had, I placed their tractors right next to each other. They could trash talk from the safety of the inside. Then I let out the older hen. She circled and caused a lot of squawking. Then, a week later, I let them out together. Gold Chicken thought she was going to hand out a load of whoopin' to Brown Chicken. She was, however, unaware that Brown chicken came to me plucked nearly bald by all the mean hens in her previous coop. That made her one tough customer. Eventually, they all were let out together and Gold chicken submitted, minus her tail feathers. Brown Chicken was queen until it was time for Freezer Camp.

I think the key for me was that I didn't have a LOT of older birds. I needed to get them together because winter was coming. Now, I have none. I like having eggs, but a break is nice, too. The reality is that they are chickens and they do what they do no matter what WE do. It's a chicken thing.

DebbieB said...

As you know, I don't have chickens, but I'm always very interested to read about your chicken experiments!

Unknown said...

"Freezer camp" Hilarious!!

We are introducing chickens again after a number of years without, the stories bring back so many memories.

Woolly Bits said...

we don't have birds yet, but we plan to get some - so thank you for all your tips and experiences! very much appreciated, though we won't have as many birds as you have...

Sherri B. said...

OH my, I am so glad you came by and commented on my blog because I have not been getting your posts..It is all fixed now as I have added you to my bloglovin account.

Chickens are such strange creatures. We are down to just 2 now and they are from our original first flock. We aren't going to get any more for awhile. We finally found that if we let them come and go as they please from the coop to the covered run and then out to our back yard, they seem to be much safer from the eagles and have managed quite well. I think they are at least 6 years old now and still laying off and on.
Have a great weekend. xo

Leigh said...

Barb, excellent point and it's true of all animals. We humans basically have little say-so in their lives except for feeding them and fencing them. Otherwise, the do what they do!

Debbie, I could write a book on the life lessons I've learned from my animals!

Jackie, it is pretty funny. I picked the term up from a goat email list I belong to. Do you have a blog? Your name in the comments only links to a G+. I'd love to read about your getting chickens again!

Bettina, you will so enjoy chickens! They are endlessly entertaining and produce excellent manure for the compost, not to mention those eggs! Two dozen is a bit much, I admit. Especially since everybody is either moulting or not quite old enough to lay eggs!

Sherri, I wondered why I hadn't heard from you! When my blog domain name needed renewal, I switched it from google to another company. Unfortunately feed readers don't update automatically when that happens.

That aside, I'm glad to hear you've worked out how to keep your chickens safe. That's always a concern for chicken owners.

Unknown said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting on my blog today. Looks like we have a love of chickens in common.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Leigh, we have 10 acres and our main business is pigs and our cow dairy. So the chickens are just "extra". This means they have full range to be free range. We have several sub-groups. The ones at the coop, the ones at the barn, the ones by the feed shed. It really is funny how segregated they can be. Oh yeah, one more group...those at the back door. The fattest of them all. We throw out very little feed but there is tons from the other animals left over. And 10 or so will return to the coop to eave us eggs. It's a sloppy system that works well for all concerned.

Unknown said...

I've found that chickens do not like change and the pecking order is a real no joke deal. When I got my chicks I kept the brooder and and the chick run in the main area but separated with a fence so the big girls and new girls could see each other for a couple months but have safety of a fence. Once I put them together I did so in the evening at roosting time. I have both water and feeders spread out so everyone has room. It went okay but I seem to always have one big girl that goes after the new ones for a while before mellowing out. Thankfully it does, mellow and is well.

Quinn said...

Leigh, I have had no luck getting broody hens to accept new chicks by sneaking them under the hen at night, and every time I've added a new batch of chicks I've had to keep them in a separate pen until they are about half-grown and well able to either choose a battle or get out of the way. Maybe they'd all work it out eventually if I just ran them together when the chicks are little, but I can't tolerate the meanness. In fact, I once sold five Wyandottes because two of them would not stop attacking a really good adult Buff Orpington hen, and I just got sick of it.
Side note: instead of having chicks shipped, I'm hoping to find locally-raised chicks (or even hens!) next year, but so far have only found fancy types that wouldn't really fit my, um, rustic lifestyle!