Last month, I adopted a beautiful white leghorn hen from a neighboring animal shelter. I excitedly loaded the carrier with my precious cargo into the backseat of my car, ready to deliver Hennifer to the rest of my tiny backyard flock. Surely, they would welcome her with open arms (wings?) and live harmoniously ever after. After all, isn’t that what birds do, flock together?
They did not.
After a short and uneasy period of mutual suspicion and tentative pecking, the fighting started in earnest. This was my first chicken introduction and I hadn’t done my homework. I frantically reached out to Samantha Winegarner, Marin Humane’s animal care manager. She diplomatically explained that she also hadn’t good luck just bringing a new bird into established territory, and urged me to put up a barrier for the newcomer’s protection. She recommended rotating the birds’ locations, and supervised interactions in a neutral open space. She also suggested throwing lots of treats on the ground to keep everyone busy.
Of course, I was still faced with another challenge — what to do at night when all hens would have to be inside the coop. Leaving Hennifer outside by herself was out of the question; not only would it expose her to predators, but it also would likely terrify her. Luckily, I was able to close off the nesting box and stashed my new chicken there during her first night.
With everyone secured for the time being, I could formulate a better plan — something I should have done well ahead of time. This episode made it very clear that animals are individuals, not automatons to be exchanged and combined at our whims. And yes, different strategies are needed for different species as well. For example, all my knowledge about introducing guinea pigs apparently didn’t quite apply to chickens.
We often talk about cat introductions at Marin Humane, but here are some tips on how to help make other types of small pet introductions go as smoothly as possible.
One of our rescue partners, SaveABunny, has an extensive bonding guide on its website at saveabunny.org/rabbitcare/bonding-guide. It’s important to remember that “rabbits rarely fall in love at first sight and indifference is a good first sign.” With patience and careful supervision, rabbits can get used to each other. The key is to watch their behaviors carefully and never let fights break out. Some rescues offer bonding services or “speed dating” for rabbits whose guardians are looking to adopt another bunny. In any case, be prepared for the process to potentially take a long time.
I’ve introduced almost a dozen guinea pigs over the years, which was likely the source of my overconfidence regarding the chickens. An extensive guide can be found at GuineaLynx.info, but the gist is set up a large neutral space, add guinea pigs and observe carefully. Only interfere if absolutely necessary. While it can be stressful for all involved, the dust usually settles after just a few hours.
As for my hens, they did work out their proverbial pecking order over the following days, also in part thanks to a tip I found on a reputable backyard chicken website: wait until nightfall when the chickens are asleep, and place the newcomer into the coop right beside the others. Your chickens will wake up together and might come to believe the new hen was part of the flock the whole time. Just be ready at dawn to open the coop door in case your chickens don’t get fooled.
Carina DeVera is the digital marketing manager for Marin Humane, which contributes Tails of Marin articles and welcomes animal-related questions and stories about the people and animals in our community. Go to marinhumane.org, find us on social media @marinhumane, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.