Month: January 2015

Urban Chickenkeeping: Introducing New Chickens to a Single Chicken

Here I’m going a bit off my usual other topics, to cover in more detail what happened when we tried to introduce two adult chickens as companions for our solo adult chicken. We had a difficult experience that ultimately turned out fine, but we were unprepared for the violence of establishing the pecking order. I hope that this story will be helpful to others who want to provide companionship for a single chicken.

I’ve been keeping chickens for over seven years, though I’ve only had primary responsibility for them over the past three years or so. In May 2014, our elder chicken, Moxie, who was over eight years old, passed away, leaving Gabby, the 3.5-year-old, alone in the coop. We had originally gotten Gabby to keep Moxie company after her two coopmates, Raleigh and Q-Tip, were killed by raccoons (don’t worry, we have a more secure coop now). Gabby arrived when she was only about eight weeks old; she and Moxie got along great, and we think Moxie kind of adopted her as hers to raise to adulthood. They never fought.

So now Gabby was all alone, and chickens are social creatures. I set out to find one or two new chickens to keep Gabby company. It turns out if you ask your local urban farming co-op e-mail list if anyone has any extra chickens, you get a lot of offers. In June 2014, I decided to get two chickens from a couple who wanted a slightly smaller flock (they had eight chickens but wanted only six).

Following the good advice on other websites, I put up chicken wire in our coop so the new chickens would have one half and Gabby would have the other. Since Gabby’s side had the perches and nesting boxes, I put a nesting box in the corner and rigged a perch with a metal pole and a cinder block to use as a step to get up there. I also put newspaper up to cover the chicken wire so they wouldn’t see each other at first.

(Many chicken keepers advised putting the new chickens up on the perch after dark, saying that once all the chickens woke up together in the morning, they’d assume they were all supposed to be there and get along. I read one report where someone did this and found a chicken pecked to death by the flock within 24 hours. Since I wasn’t going to get up at 5 AM to supervise their daylight introduction after a night on the perch, I decided to go with a more gradual introduction method. I have no way of knowing whether putting the new chickens on the perch at night would have eliminated the problems we had; since we were introducing two new chickens, I think the dynamics were different from the beginning.)

We transported Pansy and Camelia home in a dark plastic tote covered with a dark towel. Chickens calm down in darkness, though a car ride or any sort of transportation is a jarring experience for a chicken. We got them home, and put them into their half of the coop. Almost immediately Gabby got agitated. She could tell other chickens were there even though she couldn’t see them, and was squawking and pacing. Pansy and Camelia were a bit shocked from the drive but got acclimated in a couple of hours, and then pretty much immediately started tearing down the newspaper. 24 hours later there was hardly any left. So the chickens could see each other. Sometimes they’d stick their beaks through the chicken wire and tap the tips of their beaks together. “Oh, that’s cute,” I thought. “They’re saying hi.”

*scary music*

In a week we decided to introduce the chickens. We put up our portable fencing around the coop and opened both doors so the chickens could go outside onto the grass. At first they didn’t notice each other, cheerfully eating grass at opposite sides. But when Gabby saw Camelia, she fluffed up her neck feathers, hurtled herself across the yard, and began pecking her violently on the head. Camelia sort of fought back, but she is much smaller and clearly at the bottom of the pecking order. Though at first we were in shock, we finally acted and separated Gabby and Camelia. Then Pansy stepped in. She and Gabby both had their neck feathers on display and were more or less fencing with their beaks, pecking viciously on each other’s heads and then dancing backward for a moment before heading in again. We got them separated too and put a fence between them. Everyone was bleeding from their head wounds. Pansy and Gabby remained rather worked up; if Gabby could even see the other two for several hours afterward she’d start pacing and squawking. We moved her in her own fencing section around the corner of the house so she couldn’t see the other two. Camelia seemed a little shocked but clearly wasn’t interested in the drama. She and Pansy continued to get along just fine.

We got all the girls back into the coop but switched the sides, so Gabby was on the side that Pansy and Camelia had been on before. I had a vague theory that this would somehow help the new chickens feel at home in the whole coop. (No idea whether this made a difference.)

A week later, I tried introducing them again in the yard. This time, I arranged the fencing so that they could be out in the yard and see each other, but not have full-body contact. Nevertheless, Gabby and Pansy went right back at each other as soon as they realized they could peck each other through the fence. Again, blood was drawn, but Camelia stayed entirely out of the way, and neither Pansy nor Gabby got quite as worked up. They went back in the same sides of the coop they had been in for the past week.

Gabby, gold-laced Wyandotte, top of the pecking order.

Another week and a half later, I put them back out in the yard with the fencing between them, and had readied myself with a spray bottle of water. When Pansy and Gabby started to peck at each other, one sharp spray on each of them broke up the fight entirely.

Now I forget at this time whether we kept them apart that day afterward, or what.  But it was either this time or the next time we had them separated that I left the fencing up, but I forgot to check that the gate on the fence was shut securely. When my boyfriend went out to check on them later, he found the gate open and the chickens able to walk between the fenced sections. They weren’t fighting and no one was injured! Instead they were just grazing around on the grass. Amazing.

Pansy, Barred Rock, middle of the pecking order. Always nice to Camelia.

We supervised them for a couple hours – sometimes Gabby would peck at Pansy or Camelia, but in a way that was more like herding or scolding them for getting in her way than wanting to draw blood.

We did one more all-together outdoor session a week later, with similar results, before deciding to take down the divider in the coop.

Camelia, silver-laced Wyandotte, bottom of the pecking order, will steal raisins from anyone regardless of consequences.

Since then, Gabby has mellowed out quite a bit more and even hangs back when treats are given rather than immediately bustling out in front. Camelia, at the bottom of the pecking order, is still routinely chased away from feed by Gabby. So we have been putting food at both ends of the coop. Pansy always lets Camelia eat with her, and Gabby will eat with Pansy sometimes but can get territorial.

Anyway, the reason for writing this is to provide another story of how introducing new chickens to your flock (or a solo chicken) might go. I can’t promise anything about how your individual girls might get along. We were just floored that Gabby could be so aggressive after the great relationship she and Moxie had had, but every situation is different, we’ve learned.