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After a few deaths in our chicken flock our family decided it was time to add more chickens to the family so our remaining single girl would not be alone. Whilst a social species, chickens are highly territorial so introducing new hens can be tricky: lots of aggression and territorial defence. I want to share this story with you of how I integrated them. Whilst this story is about chickens, it illustrates many of the basic behavioural principals that can be applied to any species.
First thing was where to get our hens from? We decided to adopt rescued battery hens as a small contribution to stopping animal cruelty in factory farmed animals. If you don’t yet know about how cruelly hens are treated in battery farms then I’d encourage you to learn about it.
There are a number of organisations that rescue hens. We decided to use a group called “Let the ladies go” Let the ladies go Facebook page. They are a hen rescue group who rescue an entire shed full of many thousands of birds at one time, and they do this multiple times per year. Homes are always needed for these beautiful creatures who have spent the first year to 18 months of their lives in cruel confinement. Arrangements were made to collect the hens.
Before I leave I have at make a new area for the new hens in my existing pen. An old fence is used to create a small area for the new girls, whilst leaving my current hen the larger area with her house, water and feeder. Most of the fence is covered in shade cloth, with just a small area near a gate left open for some visual contact.
Day one: we have hens!!
I drive up to the collection point and am overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds I see before me.
A sea of many hundreds, if not thousands of small brown girls, chattering away and moving like a giant sea of faces and feathers. I’ve never seen the likes of it before and it gave me a sense of the massive number of chickens who are involved in industrialised egg production.
Fortunately my choice is made easy for me as I have been allocated two birds. One was a young hens who was being picked on so had been separated from the main flock, with an apparent “friend” who got along with her. Both have only been out of the factory farm a few days. The new girls are loaded into the back of my car in their secure carry box (my dog carried, with newspaper on the floor). It is secure, comfortable and affords good ventilation.
When collecting animals always make sure you come with an appropriate carrier.
We set off for home. By now it is late afternoon. I make sure the gate is closed into the main pen and place the carrier into the new area and let the girls out for an explore and something to eat and drink before dark. I add a few drops of rescue remedy to their drinking water to help with the shock of such a big change. They seem to have survived the transportation ordeal well. I allow my original hen, bossy, comes up and investigate the new ones in the carrier with the gate closed: she stares, calls out and paces looking towards them.
By night fall the new hens are back in their carrier for the night so I shut the door to keep them safe and cover the carrier to keep it warm. I can hear pecking at the sides of the carrier: I presume this is because the hens are so bored and so frustrated in the battery they have come from that they do a lot of pecking at each other and at the bars of the pen.
I’m up early to let them all out of their pens, as hens wake early, with the sun. I add more flower essences to the water of the new hens and also to Bossy’s water (she gets vine for territorial related aggression and honeysuckle to help adjustment). The new girls seem quite content. They explore, the new young one especially likes to flap her wings and it is lovely to see. I am amazed how quickly they learn to scratch the ground and adopt all the usual chicken behaviours: literally only days out of captivity. Their diet is straight grain as that is what they have lived on.
Bossy is not impressed to have new hens in her territory: she paces aggressively along the fence line. They are kept totally separate today. I come down at night to check on them and secure them in their houses. The young one (whom I’m calling “little brown” ) is not in the carrier but out on the grass. I put her in the carrier with the other hen and close it all up. I wonder why she didn't put herself to bed in the crate and think I am so smart for saving her from the cold!
Essences are given in the water 4 times day to start with.
Day three: double trouble!!
I let everyone out and continue with the essences and full separation. I notice little brown is spending a lot of time up on the rocks in the enclosure. I think “cute; she likes rock climbing!” How wrong I end up being. As I observe more I noticed that her so called friend is picking on her and being very aggressive so it seems they are not really friends at all!. I feel bad for putting little brown in the same cage with her at night (that explains why she had chosen to sleep alone out in the cold). Tonight I need three separate bedrooms so I make another house and they all sleep separately. Everyone now gets vine and honeysuckle in their water to try to settle the aggression issues!! I can hear pecking at the night cages from both the new girls…
Day four: take down the visual barrier so they have more contact
Bossy continues to strut along the fence line and cluck aggressively. I take down the shade cloth off the fence which has been a visual barrier. Now they can see more of each other but still through a fence.
Feed time is multiple times per day, and placed in multiple small piles for the new ones so no one can monopolise all the foods. Bossy has her food near the gate to the new girls pen, so that she can make a positive association with them. Ie the feed is there when they are close and she can see them.
Little brown continues to spend a lot of time on the rocks staying away from the older hen, who continues to be aggressive.
Sleeping continues apart in three separate houses
New hen rewards us with an egg which I find tucked in beside her night carrier (I thought that was happening when I saw her tucked up there).
Day five: first interaction
Little brown and the new hen seem to be getting along a bit better , and less time on the rocks….not so much agro which is good news. The new girls get to taste some new food: a small meal of watermelon..I think they enjoy it. Not too much..just a taste.
I decide it is time to try a short, supervised introduction between bossy to the new girls. I open the gate……disaster….bossy lays into both the new girls., pecking aggressively at them and chasing them. After only 1-2 minutes I put her back on her side of the fence.
Day six: try again…no luck. Bossie is not having any of it
Same again: much agro so back behind the barriers they go. Everyone continues to have their flower essences, both in the water and also in some sunflower seeds that I have soaked. They are fed so they can see each other to create a positive association.
New girls are still in the small pen and are getting along better. Little brown shows deferential behaviour to Einstein (no need to fight: you are the boss!) They can happily spend the night together now so at least progress…..down to only bedrooms again!
Day seven: still no luck.
Bossy is not having it. The new girls seem settled and are trying small amounts of new foods without getting any diarrhoea so good news for them, more variety. There is another egg though!!
I notice bossy is behaving with more interest and not as aggressively stalking back and forth through the fence today. Hopefully they will do better on the short interaction. ..and they do.!! She still pecks at them and chases them but with less ferocity and they have about 10 minutes together today.
This gives the new girls a chance to make an incursion into the main pen and check that out. I find another egg and thank new hen. I start to move their night house a few feet each few days, drawing it slowly closer to the main pen.
Essences reduced to doing three times daily now.
I now give them about 15 minutes twice a day today and they seem to go OK. If Bossy gets too much little brown escapes to the hills! I include some tasty food rewards at that time, thrown in different areas so everyone can have some. I now also slowly start to move the dog carrier a little each day towards Bossy’s house. As well as spending time together during the day, I eventually want them all to sleep together too. I am wondered maybe the new girls won’t like it when I move it but to my relief I find them tucked up at night in it together. I can still hear them pecking at night at the carrier but it seems to be getting less.
Day 10: Finally more progress!!
Half an hour twice a day all going Ok. The new girls can explore the main pen and bossy is showing less hostility.
Another egg in the grass in the main pen so clearly new hen has bene spending her time checking things out. I continue to move the night cage a couple of metres each day and everyone still gets their essences in their snacks and water.
Time together increased to an hour morning and night and all Ok. Little brown flaps her wings and escapes to the hills if it gets too much. Bossy alternates whom she picks on the most: new hen or little brown but she gets less intensity and is more easily distracted into eating. I noticed the quality of her cluck starting to change from a less aggressive to one that is more inquisitive.
Day 12: so far so good.
Dog carrier now in the main pen (just) and the new girls are sleeping together and hanging together OK. Bossy is less bossy and seems to be adjusting. New girls get their first experience of rain…..I wonder how completely strange they would be? Another egg, thanks as yet un-named new hen!
I get a bit stressed as I have to leave them together for several hours today due to work commitments. Will they be OK? Thankfully yes!!!
After yesterday success I decide to open the gate between the pens for half a day and that seems to be fine. Bossy is getting used to them and the new ones are settling into the new habitat! Getting along better Bossy rushes at Einstein but no attacks video
I continue to move the dog carrier and keep up the essences. I feed them all together, putting multiple small piles so everyone has a chance at the food.
So after two weeks they are finally assimilating and can be left together half the day. The refugees from the battery have experienced new foods, scratching, wing flapping, the feeling of grass, and sun and rain on their backs!
Days 15 -18 continue in the same vein.
On day 16 I find an egg in the main house so new hen is definitely going in their which is great! New hen also learned to use the grain feeder and spends a lot of her time there. Little brown prefers to enjoy the coverage of the choko vine. I dose with essences only twice day now.
By day 18 I have the dog carrier right beside Bossy’s hen house.
I decide to make the new house sell like the new chickens to get bossy used to that. I transfer the little from the small carrier into the main house and add it to some fresh litter. That way the new house smells inviting for new hens and also gets bossy used to their smell at night. On the night 19 new hens voluntarily puts herself to bed in the new house. ..just have to convince little brown. They are together all day by now and aggressive interactions are much reduced. I find I only have to give one dose of essence now in the sunflower seeds and can stop putting it in the water.
There is still an odd squabble here and there but they are mild and occasional. The new hens know their place lower on the hierarchy and everyone seems to be able to work with.
By day 21 I am pleased to report I now have a full integrated chicken flock. I have taken away the dog carrier and they all now sleep in the big house (albeit with Bossy on the top floor and the others on the lower floor!) They can spend the whole day together and have all settled into the new routine. My refugees are now part of the family and can enjoy the life of backyard chickens. There will always be little squabbles and a definite hierarchy. This is normal for hens.
New hen finally has a name and I call her Einstein as she is the most intelligent one of the three. She learns so quickly and is so alert. Little brown is sweet and fun and Bossy seems to be more beautiful than ever before (perhaps it is her top hen status?)
This story I hope illustrates some of the basic behavioural principles that are applied in all situations