Operation Flock-Merge

Since last October, we have had two flocks of hens, the main flock consisting of the Black Rocks, Bluebelles, Warrens (joined by Mabel the tail-biter at Christmas) in the large house and run, and the rescue flock in the small house and run. With chicks rapidly growing, we knew we would have to merge the flocks so that we could free up the smaller house for the growers. I was not very happy about this, as Gracie Ginger Ether and Doris formed a nice gentle group, with few arguments and no pecking order; I was doubtful that they would be happy in with the main flock which had a strict hierarchical structure.

Pecking order in a flock of hens is no laughing matter. Betty established herself as chief hen when she was about 18 months old, Hetty defers to her and occasionally gets pecked but mostly keeps the two Bluebelles in order. Bluebelle Polly is the guardian of the coop at dusk, patrolling the perch and pecking at a lowlier hen who deigns to hop up onto it; Bluebelle Molly keeps the Warrens, Dolly and Lily, in order. Lily was bottom of the pecking order for a long time, and was cowed and subdued around the other hens, but when we introduced Mabel at Christmas, Lily suddenly had someone to peck, and she has grown in confidence. Mabel is a wiley bird, though. She is submissive and deferential around the larger older hens, but is not completely browbeaten by Lily; and whenever the two flocks were let out to roam, Mabel gravitated towards her old flock because she knew that they were still her inferiors. I never quite understood why, when we removed Mabel, the smaller flock did not then produce a new leader; perhaps they were all so relieved at Mabel’s departure that they decided that they did not need one! But why do they not stand up to her now?

The two flocks have known each other and mixed without too much trouble for months. They are let out together each afternoon but they tend to each have their favourite spots in the garden so can largely keep out of each others way. If they meet over a handful of seeds, the smaller flock will defer to the larger to avoid trouble, although Ginger has been getting a little bolder lately. I worry that once they are all in the same house and pen that there will not be enough places they can get away from the “big” girls and will end up huddled unhappily in a corner. The house is more than big enough for all eleven hens, in fact it could house 20 although we might have to add another nest box and perch for them to be completely comfortable.

It is always a bit traumatic trying to introduce new hens to an established flock; this is the fourth time we have tried to do it, although this time the hens have known each other for a while now and I thought it would be easier. Last night, after dark, we carried the rescue hens one at a time to the big house, and put them into the nest boxes. There was still a little light in the sky, and they were a little agitated by the move [Lesson 1: wait until it is pitch black, they will be much calmer]. It took a while for them to settle and eventually we left them to it. This morning, I got up before 6am and let them out. Doris came out and down the steps from the pophole as though she had always been doing it, and started exploring the pen. All of the the “big” girls came out, but Gracie, Ginger and Ethel would not be tempted down the steps, even with sunflower seeds placed strategically on each step. Lily decided that they needed encouragement and marched up the steps to stare meaningfully at them; they did not budge. Eventually I had to take the side panel off the house, and they then jumped down. They had some food and drink, most of the “big” girls keeping out of the way under the trees, but Mabel decided to put her oar in, and grabbed Ginger’s poor scraggy tail! I’m still not sure this is going to work. Chickens do not like change at the best of times; removing from their snug little coop and dumping them in a big house with lots of other hens is about the most stressful thing we could do to them. Perhaps we should have left them in their familiar surroundings and instead bought another coop!

I may go out this morning to look for another house for the chicks. I’ll keep you posted.

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