With spring just around the corner, those adorable chicks will be showing up at feed stores, and a lot of chicken folks will be thinking about adding some younger girls to their flock. This can be tough. They say "birds of a feather flock together," and what they actually mean by that is chickens form their own little chicken gangs, and the poor young-uns who try and join will have to be jumped in. Unfortunately this is one of those dark sides of having chickens, and there is really no way to avoid it altogether. But after trying different things over the years, we have found a few ways to minimize the drama.
It stands to reason that young chickens stand a better chance of sticking up for themselves when they are the same size the rest of the flock. There can seem like a long time between when they are close in size and when they are fully grown, so you might be tempted to try integrating sooner. Another good reason to wait until they are fully grown is that by keeping them separate, you can keep your younger chickens on grower feed, which is higher in protein and lower in calcium. Starting your pullets on layer feed too soon, with its extra calcium, could be toxic to their little kidneys.
After the chicks are fully feathered, we move them to a separate area in the coop. Our coop is the old carriage house, which sounds fancy until you see that it really is only big enough for a carriage, and you would have trouble opening the doors of a Smart car in it. We built a wall at the back of it and turned the rest into our garden shed. This gives the hens plenty of indoor space and allows us the space to reconfigure the area inside as needed. In fact, we keep a corner always set up as an exclusion area in case of injury or illness. When we are brooding, we double that area to give them an area that is about 30 square feet, with its own food and water supply. The first few days that the chicks are in there, the older hens are always very interested and want to get inside, but they slowly get used to their new neighbors. As the younger hens get bigger, we start letting them explore the rest of the interior space in the afternoons with the bigger girls outside. This process helps the younger hens get used to the space, and for all of the girls to used to each other, and it greatly reduces the drama when they are allowed to mingle.
Once the big day comes, the key is to keep an eye on them and create distractions. Always start the process before the older hens are going to bed, ideally after they have spent a lot of time outside foraging, and hopefully they will be tired and less inclined to cause a fuss. Next, do everything you can to disorient the older hens. We do this breaking down the brooder space and sticking the component parts in random places around coop. It is hilarious to see the older hens walk in, stop, and wonder what is going on. Instantly the pullets move to the bottom of their priority list. We also look to hang a cabbage outside, just outside of their reach, and they will become preoccupied with getting to it and ignore the pullets. Lastly, keep an eye on them, but resist the urge to intervene. It might not be comfortable at first. We will only step in if the older hens back a pullet into a corner and do not let up on the pecking. Ultimately, they will get through it. As shown in the photo on this post, we try our best to balance out that drama with a little extra hand-fed cracked corn.
We tried all of these strategies this spring, and our youngest hen made it to the roost on the first night. She still gets an occasional peck, but it's simply a reminder of who is boss. Otherwise, she is another one of the girls.
Good luck and let us know if you have any good strategies too.