When we left off last week, I had let my new chicks get to know my old chickens by putting them out in the run in the protection of a dog crate. I figured after a while, everyone knew each other, so all I had to do was show the chicks that at night they went inside the coop, and then we’d just have one big happy family. When night fell, I went out, took one of the chicks out of the dog crate, and put her just inside the coop door. Within seconds there was a loud squawk and a blast of feathers, and that poor little chick came running out at top speed with my alpha hen right behind her. Henny Penny, the leader of the flock, stood in the doorway making unhappy noises as I put the hopefully not too scarred chick back in the dog crate. This would take some more work, it seemed.
I decided to return to the idea of letting everyone free range together and see if that helped. The coop was like the big kids’ clubhouse, and maybe the little kids needed to hang out and show that they were cool before they’d be allowed in. With humans, this means proving you’re not going to tell mom what they get up to in there. With chickens, I wasn’t so sure, but I figured there was less smoking and fewer dirty magazines. What I did was let the grownup chickens out into the yard, and once they were on the loose, I opened the dog crate door so the babies (well teens, but they’re still my babies) could stretch their legs a little. Just like the first time I opened the crate door to let them out, the first to the threshold took a triumphant leap into the outside world. This time, she stayed out though, and then she and the others began to explore the run. More importantly, they began to explore the run without the older chickens there to bully them. They checked out every corner, and after they felt they had seen it all, one or two of them even made the trip out of the run and into the yard. Nothing too crazy, though, they kept to around the doorway, or hung very close to the edge of the run. But this was huge for them.
Even more interesting was that one of them wandered up to two grown ups, including Henny Penny, Queen of All She Surveys, and everyone pretty much shrugged it off. “Maybe there’s something to this letting them free range together after all,” I thought.
You’d expect that at this point I was setting you up for someone pecking the chick within an inch of her life, but that didn’t happen. They continued to peacefully co-exist the whole time. I was as shocked as anyone.
Eventually I ushered them all back into the run. I decided to not press anyone’s luck, and put the chicks back in their crate. The next day I let everyone out again. There wasn’t quite as much hobnobbing, but there also wasn’t any aggression, so I figured this was real progress. I still had learned my lesson though, and didn’t put the chicks in the coop yet, though I wanted to.
After two days of milling around together, I felt it was safe to leave the crate door open during the day so everyone could continue to get to know each other. If there was any bullying, the chicks could run back into the crate to safety. That was my thinking anyway. When I got home each day, everyone seemed happy, if a bit weirded out by the new arrangement. But weirded out is better than covered in blood, so I didn’t let a little avian awkwardness get in the way of my new system.
A less than happy development I noticed was that the grownup chickens learned about the chick food in the dog crate, and that is apparently the donut of the chicken world, because they gorged on that like you wouldn’t believe. I would chase them away whenever I saw them eating it, but since I’m gone all day, I could only do so much. I ended up putting the food up on top of the dog crate. I don’t know why, but I figured it would somehow stop this. And the weird thing is, it sort of did. The adults did go up on top of there, and I had anticipated this by putting cardboard over the top, so as to prevent them from pooping on their new friends. That’s a bad first impression. But they didn’t go up there as much as I thought, and so the food got eaten less.
After a few days, the chicks went from sleeping inside the dog crate to sleeping on top of the dog crate. I’d fill their food up each night, so they could get access to it first thing in the morning. Once they got hunkered down, I figured they weren’t going to eat much, but it was there for breakfast. This way I at least knew they were eating. Eventually, I decided they couldn’t just sleep on top of the crate out in the run every night. It was getting colder, and they needed to be inside. But just how to get them into the coop?