If you’ve been following the growth and development of the Churchills this past summer, you’ll know that this was the first time I brooded chicks. This was also the first time I tried combine two existing flocks. The Windsors (our Speckled Sussex trio) are an extremely close knit little family unit. Likewise the Churchills (the Orpingtons) are equally bonded to one another. Despite being no expert in the finer workings of chicken politics, I feel like I was successful enough in the endeavor to share what I learned.
Step 1: Consider your existing flock make-up and what sort of coop-mates would be best for them. Find breeds that are most likely to be compatible. Both the Speckled Sussex and the Orpington are known to be docile, laid back, and personable birds. They seemed a good match on paper and have proven to be so in practice.
Step 2: Select the number of new additions carefully. I feel like this is important for two reasons. New hens should be quarantined for at least 2 to 4 weeks before introduction, so that no diseases are passed between the groups. Chickens are sociable creatures and having a friend to quarantine with seems to be the kindest thing one can do. Likewise, from my observations, it seems chickens do better integrating with a friend, because our Orrington pullets stick together quite a lot. With younger chicks, I think three is ideal for shared body heat and because chick mortality can be high.
Step 3: Initiate controlled introductions. Jennie, Clementine, and Marigold started going outside at about 5 weeks. We wanted them to get used to the heat and their new environment. Our “nursery run” was set up a few feet away from the big girls in Fowlsom Prison. There was mutual interest even then. When the Churchills went to live outside permanently at 8 weeks, they still lived separately from the Windsor flock so that they could mature and grow a bit closer to their adult sizes. I was worried that little, flighty birds might be a target for more established and larger hens.
Step 4: Merge your flock into one unit. Originally we had wanted to move all the girls into our brand new, customized John Suscovich Chicken Tractor. This was prevented by the fact that the JSCT is cursed and because Hurricane Hanna was predicted to hit Houston directly. I predicted there would be at least mild pecking and squawking; both of which proved to be true. However, it was not as bad as some other flock integration experiences I’ve seen in other groups, so I’m generally satisfied with that outcome.
Step 5: Observe your flock frequently and make regular wellness checks. Observation allows you to observe developing flock dynamics. It’s important for the wellbeing of your hens to watch for destructive behavior that might be detrimental to a hen’s health. I did see some mild pecking order behavior. I did not intervene interactions, but allowed nature and chickens do what needed to be done. My one intervention was my pullet wellness checks. I would give each Orpington a thorough examination twice a day looking for signs of blood and bald spots; indications of general trauma. We never saw anything particularly alarming, so they were returned to Fowlsom Prison. If I had seen something concerning, the pullet would have been isolated until she could have healed.
Feeding: It is better to feed everyone in your newly integrated flock the same grower feed that the pullets have been eating since they were little. Pullets don’t need that amount of calcium that is in the layer formulated feed. Once they approach laying age, incorporating a ration of layer feed into their food is a good idea. At 16 weeks I started with 1 part layer mix to 4 parts grower feed. I changed this ratio to 2 to 3 layer mix to grower feed in a week, slowly increasing the amount of layer feed each week until they are fully transitioned at approximately 20 weeks, or near their point of laying their first eggs.
Treats: I feed everyone a ration of Grubblies on a regular basis. I didn’t want to create conflict at feeding time, so I began by feeding them treats in separate locations. Gradually, I began moving the treat locations closer together every few days. At this point, a month later, the both groups have moved AWAY from eating in shifts and to eating as a group at feeding time with little incident.
Things I will change for next time: There are two things I would do differently if I could.
First Change: I would set up a second feed and water station, to help alleviate some of the stress on my flock. Territorial behavior centering around food always seems to be a thing. And the bulk of stressful situations happened when the Orpingtons were trying to sneak to the feeder. The new chicken tractor has multiple feeding areas and water is in a central location based on these considerations.
Second change: IF I ever do this again, which is likely and IF I have a larger shelter, I would add some more up close, controlled meet and greets with the pullets in a secure “shark cage” like set up, just to give the birds some more time to grow accustomed to each other.
I am very pleased with the experience of raising chicks, I look forward to doing it again in the future. I am also very happy with the transition from two little flocks to one larger one. I think this experience has made me grow as a chicken mama, both in knowledge and in skill. Backyard chickens have been a very rewarding experience and I can’t imagine life on the backyard homestead without our fluffy-butt egg dispensers.