Chicken keeping can be an addictive hobby. When I got my first three birds I did not consider the possibility of adding to the flock. The steep learning curve that I went through on dealing with these feisty and adorable feathered friends made me realise how much pleasure could be derived from having a small flock of chickens running around the garden. By the time we suffered our first fatality I was feeling more knowledgeable and confident about many aspects of chicken keeping and wanted more.
I had learnt that chickens thrive in a flock and that a lone bird could suffer from a lack of friends. Introducing new birds to an established flock can be tricky, but bullying can be minimised if more than one bird is added at a time. The established birds do not then have a focus for their anger at having their territory invaded by interlopers. I decided that the best course of action would be to add two new birds to my remaining two to ensure that I would never have to deal with a lone and lonely hen.
That first attempt at introducing new birds taught me a great deal. As I had one coop and run they all had to sleep together, but this lead to what looked like vicious attacks. Adding new birds also risks passing on diseases as new and old will not have the same resistances. After a failed attempt at putting all the chickens in together at night and hoping they would simply wake up and accept each other, I divided the run with a bamboo criss cross fence and gave the new girls a pet carrier with improvised roosting bars to sleep in at the far end of the run. This arrangement was far from ideal but meant that the birds were safe and could see each other without being able to attack.
Chickens may appear daft but they are capable of breaking through fences when they are determined enough to get to the other side. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because she wanted to. During my regular checks I would find the old girls in the new girls area of the run and the new girls cowering in the old girls area. How these birds squeezed through the small gaps in the barrier I had created perplexed me and I would add more and more bamboo canes to the improvised divide. My attempts to keep them apart were constantly foiled.
After a few days I decided that this wasn’t working but, as no bird had been injured, I removed the barrier and let them run together. The severity of the pecking had subsided and, although the new girls still acted unhappy, they seemed to be coping. Over time they were accepted and their life became peaceful. I had learned that introductions need to be better managed.
Four chickens still didn’t seem like enough so when we were offered a stray hen that one of my daughter’s friends had discovered roosting in the trees in her garden we looked into buying a second coop. Finding just the sort I wanted available second hand in our area made me think that this was all meant to be. Once again I was wary of adding a single bird to the flock so I purchased one more hen. We moved the existing flock to the new, bigger coop and our two new additions went in the old coop. Stray hen didn’t take too kindly to the friend I had provided for her but things settled down quickly enough with no injuries sustained in establishing the pecking order.
We now had enough housing and big enough runs for fourteen hens. As we only had six I was itching to get more birds. We gave the flock a few months of sleeping apart but running together in the garden before we put stray hen and her friend in the big coop and purchased four pullets to put in the small coop. With two separate houses and runs available, introductions became easy and something we could now do annually with ease.
Hens start laying eggs at around five months old. Those bred to be commercial egg layers, the little brown hybrid hens, should then lay well for around a year. Although they can continue to lay for a further two years after this, their eggs may not be as strong shelled and their laying can be less predictable. Commercial establishments replace their entire flock after eighteen months as they do not wish to feed any hens that are not laying good eggs.
Pure bred hens are not kept for commercial egg production. These birds have a longer life expectancy and will lay well for longer, but go off lay through the winter months and have a tendency to go broody in the spring. In order to keep the lines pure, breeders will keep a close eye on the flock and cull any birds with defects. They will also ensure that birds are kept in separate enclosures so that matings can be managed. If new birds are to be added then they will be introduced as chicks.
Small, domestic flocks are therefore the only ones where birds of varying breeds and ages run together. I have been told that the varying ages and colours are a factor in bullying issues. If I wish to maintain harmony then I should entirely replace all my birds rather than adding just a few at a time and allowing the established birds to remain when they stop laying. I should also keep just one breed so that all birds in the flock look the same.
My experience has shown me that this is good advice but still I do not follow it. I like having lots of hens and we are very fond of our birds. I will only dispatch one if she gets ill and I cannot make her better. I currently have several hens eating my expensive feed and producing no eggs; they can be recognised by their shrunken comb. A laying head has a large, bright red comb. This turns pinkish and becomes just a little ridge on the head when a hen goes off lay.
I like little brown hybrid hens as I have found them the easiest to deal with. If I had my way then that is all we would keep but the rest of my family prefer variety. Thus we have brown, grey, black and speckled birds running around our garden. The variety does look very pretty but each acts differently and we do have occasional issues with broodiness and bullying. Giving the birds enough space minimises most issues as boredom and overcrowding can exacerbate problems.
Having put all our existing birds together in the big coop recently, we purchased four new pullets yesterday. At around seventeen weeks old they look very sweet and seemed to settle in well to their new home. I will be spending a lot of time with the flock over the coming weeks, ensuring that all remains well. As we drove to the farm that supplies us I reminded my husband and children that I wanted four little brown hens this time. We came home with two light sussex and two partridge leghorns. My daughter has named them after the angels from Supernatural and they are beautiful.
Gabriel, Castiel, Balthazar and Lucifer settle into their new home