Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Backyard Flock: Acclimation

Introducing the dog to the flock

The girls in the the chicken run often have to get used to new neighbors. Over the years, I have introduced many new chickens, a tricky process at best. The proscribed method is to put the new birds into the coop in the dark of night. That way when the established birds wake up in the morning, they won't notice that there are some newcomers in their midst. That might work in a flock of 100, but it is a dubious process for flocks of six to twelve birds. Chickens are not that stupid and they are especially good at recognizing other chickens. I prefer to install a temporary chicken run and coop next to the permanent run, exposing the chickens to each other for at least a couple weeks. It gives them a chance to get to know each other.

Given the difficulties involved with introducing new chickens to the flock, one might think that introducing another kind of animal would be next to impossible. However, as I have reported here numerous times, my girls have regularly accepted groundhogs to the extent of eating alongside them, both in and out of the coop. On only a couple occasions have I witnessed any difficulties, and surprisingly it was when one of the older chickens ran a groundhog off by pecking at his head.

Wild birds, squirrels and even a young raccoon have shared the bounties of Chickenland with my flock without causing a stir. In the case of the raccoon, I had to chase him away myself, because I didn't like the idea of the chickens becoming too familiar with him. I have lost chickens to raccoons in the past.

Dogs are another matter. Those that have been raised around chickens will usually ignore them. We have all seen dogs and chickens running loose together in a farm setting, if not in real life, certainly in the movies. This was a common scene when chickens used to run loose at Stutzman's Nursery. Once in awhile, there will be a dog that just doesn't get it, and the farmer will lose a couple chickens before he identifies the culprit and fences him off.

I have had chickens escape into my neighbor's yard where they were killed by his dog. It wasn't the dog's fault. They wandered onto his turf and he was only acting naturally. When our daughter's dog visits, he delights at taking runs at the fence around Chickenland and scattering the flock. I would hate to see what would happen if he got inside.

One of the things that concerned me when we got our Australian Cattle Dog pup was that she might take up similar behavior. So I am trying to introduce her to the flock at an early age. I hope that her herding instinct will be stronger than her hunting instinct. But I also worry about the former, as herding cattle requires some very aggressive behavior. I just want everybody to be friends.

The introduction process started with me letting her follow me out to the run in the mornings to feed and water the chickens. She would wait outside the fence while I took care of business inside. In actuality, she seemed more curious about the chickens when she watched them from the house. Once outside, there were plenty of other distractions. When she did give them her attention, it was only to look from close to the fence. The chickens soon learned that she was not a threat and appeared to be just as curious about her as she was about them. Our oldest chicken, Pee Wee (of Rocky and Pee Wee fame), would move closer to get a better look. They would often be only a foot or two apart, with the fence between them. She showed no signs of aggressive behavior.

After a few visits, I took her with me inside the run, holding her in my arms; later, I took her in on the leash; and finally, I let her run loose inside Chickenland, keeping a close eye on her. On each occasion, she appeared to be more wary of the chickens than they were of her. One day, Amy took her out to the run. She reported that the dog was just standing there watching, when Pee Wee came up to her and pecked her on the nose. She said the dog appeared startled and backed away, ending the confrontation. Maybe it's not the dog that is going to be the problem.

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