If you have an established flock of chickens, introducing them to your new chicks is a careful process. Once your chicks are about six weeks old they are big enough to tolerate the environmental challenges of living outdoors, but they may still face a difficult time integrating with the much bigger, usually bad tempered, hens. Making sure that your chicks are big enough to protect themselves is important and you should not try to move them out into your coop until at least six weeks of age. The best strategy to making sure that this transition goes smoothly is to get both parties used to each other before allowing them to actually interact.
Many people use “grow out pens” for moving chicks into the coop. This can be any kind of smaller wire structure that you can put in your run, or out on the lawn with your other hens, that will keep the chicks contained. The hens will get used to the sight and smell of the chicks, but won’t be able to peck them through the barrier. Chicks usually are pretty oblivious to the larger chickens, they are mostly excited to be outdoors. After a few days of this you can leave the grow out pen over night, and then after a week or two you can remove the barrier and let them interact.
There are some exceptions to the rule of grow out pens. Our hens are free range, and our coop is attached to the porch, so we allowed the chicks to join the free range. The hens were away most of the day and the chicks were put back in their brooder at night, but if they were bullied by the adult chickens during the day, they had plenty of room to get away. Additionally, with them so close to the house, it was easy to monitor their introduction.
If you are reintroducing a mother hen who recently hatched chicks, you can do so much earlier (at 2-3 weeks) with supervision. The chickens already know the hen and, after some scuffling, quickly figure out where she fits in and do not bother her babies. If they do, mama hen is there to protect and defend them fiercely.
Before bringing little chicks into the coop, make sure that you have enough space for all of your chickens (especially roost space) and also enough food and water access to go around. The time to pay closest attention is when the hens all go up to roost at night, and when they first awake in the morning. This is when, even in an established flock, there is the most jostling and pecking.
Remember, also, that chickens have a natural pecking order and the addition of chicks to the mix requires them to reestablish their boundaries. Some of this may look cruel to us humans, but it is perfectly natural and as long as no one’s life is endangered, it is important to let the chickens work it out.
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