Introduction: Introducing a Young Rooster Into an Established Mixed Flock or Strategies for Rehoming a Frisky Silkie

About: I live in a forest garden by the sea in an old Celtic longhouse in the Baie de Mont Saint Michel, France, which I share with Andy and our poultry. Before I escaped and became a happy peasant, I had three jobs …

It is a very different experience purchasing a new bird to having one suddenly appear and for you to rehome it, in particular when this is a cockerel or young rooster. That said, just adding a new bird of any description or provenance can cause problems within the dynamics of an established flock, so what is related here can be just as relevant to a planned or unplanned purchase.

In this case, my neighbour presented me with a Silkie, a Birthday gift from her son that hadn't worked out as well as expected! In the following, I'll lay out the case study for what we've just attempted:- to make the transition from noisy, scared and belligerent cockerel into an accepted, calm and still uniquely individual member of a flock.

One of the most important things to remember when rehoming is that you can always say no. It's taken me 20 years to establish this flock in a homegrown organic forest garden. We've taken great pains to provide an environment that is as near wild as possible and to plant areas and build coops that have aided the flocks in their decisions and living choices and this includes their ability to forage freely and to create small harmonious flocks. The last thing I wanted to do was to bring a boisterous, disruptive element into their forest home.

However, look at that face and try to say no. I did however, mention that I would 'try' to incorporate 'Scott' within our flocks and we would need to see how things progressed....

Step 1: Know Your Bird - Research Is Key

"Some are born Silkies, some achieve Silkies, and some have Silkies thrust upon them."
Twelfth Night Act II, scene v

The first thing to consider is what sort of bird you are being given? What is a Silkie? Looking through some fantastic 16th century books in the Internet Archive. I found this wonderful description in Conrad Gessner's Historiæ animalivm published in 1551 and entitled:

'Concerning Wool-bearing Poultry

In the East, fowls are bred as white as snow, covered, not with feathers, but with wool, like sheep and that in the city of Quelinfu, in regno Mangi, M. Paulus Venetus says that hens are to be found which have, instead of feathers, hairs like those of a cat and that in colour they are black, and lay good eggs.'

Certainly as far as the Silkie is concerned his unusual features: purple skin, fluffy feathers and peculiar crow have made all my birds aware that something new had been added!

The chances being that once introduced, they might not realise he was a rooster, although once he spoke they would but the great advantage was that as an ancient bird he should fit well into a 'Jungle' environment. Physically also he would do well on wild forage.

Find out why why he/she is being put up for rehoming...

In rehoming or purchasing an adult bird, I find it is crucial to know as much about the bird's previous behaviour as possible and to try to establish how it has been kept previously. With a rehomed bird you need to ascertain the nature of the problems which caused it to be in this position because this can impact upon the harmony of your whole garden. Having been introduced to my neighbour's new poultry some months back, I luckily had a good knowledge of what to expect. My neighbour has a small five hen flock of large/standard hens in a good-sized but enclosed run and to which this young Silkie bantam cockerel was much later introduced. To this end I deduced that the introduction rooster not only radically changed the dynamics of a single sex flock but being young and purchased from a pet shop, found that his new freedom and sudden superior position in the pecking order 'went to his head'. He had easily become dominant over an unevenly balanced flock with a super-dominant hen, who unsurprisingly since his removal, returned to her previous aggressive behaviour. In truth my neighbour could have persevered and had a well balanced flock but then in an enclosed run that could have entailed a great deal of problems before harmony was achieved and we would have missed having Scott and that would have been a great shame!

Initial Conclusions

The problem with Scott therefore was that he was a young bird suddenly thrust into a position where he could challenge a single dominant hen and he had no male counterpart within this flock to keep him in check. Young roosters, when they start getting interested in hens in my flock are speedily taught what the rules of behaviour are by both my older hens as well as by the older rooster. .Each small flock having a dominant 'power couple' (hen and rooster) who reign over the safety and harmony of the group. Unlike most domesticated birds, my flocks as with wild flocks have many roosters and hens of differing ages but they all get on together because they create their own rules and each bird understands what these are. After many years of observation and research, my belief is that humans will never fully understand how a flock's dynamic works - it just does. The times when things have gone wrong here is when I have done something to change that dynamic, which has led to trouble with a capital 't'.

Step 2: Be Aware of ' Learned Helplessness'

In the exercise of rehoming or adding a new bird of any sort you should consider the well-being of all concerned, the bird added as well as those added to. Therefore you should consider the mental state of all considered as being of tantamount importance. This in particular with regard to how poultry view each others' status because that will impact on how they are treated. Putting a bird on view 'in quarantine' in a small cage, signals its inferiority in the pecking order and it will be treated accordingly when it is finally released. This in turn can create within the former captive a nervous state:

'Learned helplessness is judged to be a state in which animals eventually become passive in reaction to suffering they cannot avoid.' (Appleby, Hughes and Elson, 1992).

Step 3: Considering Facial and Voice Recognition and How This Could Help to Rehome Scott

There are various studies on facial recognition abilities in birds. One of the most recent ones from The University of Lincoln has looked at how birds recognise human faces and voice patterns to identify if someone is a friend or stranger and thus potential foe. If you've had visitors to your garden with your birds free-ranging then you are probably aware of this already! It has been postulated that poultry can recognise at least eighty individual bird faces, so when adding to your flock this is an important consideration. Certainly birds identify voices too and this was something I believed would help me with Scott, as we named him, or rather Andy did after the Silk Scott motorbike. As my birds had heard the Silkie crowing over the hedge every day, I reasoned that if I had him in the arbour in the middle of the forest, those birds might not realise that he was a new member of the garden.

Step 4: Starting the Rehoming - We Bond With Scott

Details of how I did this are best explained in the film. One thing that was very important to remember in the case of this particular rehoming was that Scott had been used to French language and I speak English at home. However, it is the tone that counts! From all I have read about Silkies, they are quite easy to tame and they have a good rapport with humans. This is great for starting out with a rehoming exercise but it may also mean that this will preclude a further bond with the flock. My beautiful Barbu de Watermael, for example comes of a race that forms an incredibly strong bond with the 'keeper' but in my experience, completely shuns the company of other birds. I used to have Gabriella as almost a permanent fixture on my shoulder, so much so that one passerby once asked if she was some sort of parrot. However in the case of Scott I already knew he had a penchant for hens and that was to be my next but one step.

Step 5: Establishing a Homebase

This was to be the arbour in front of a studio we have within the garden. It is large enough not to be seen as a cage and it has plenty of everything, shade/sun, vegetation, scratching/dustbathing, somewhere higher up to crow from. It is an area that I use for hens, who may need a little extra breakfast, so it is a great place for them to be enticed into, which was my next idea. For Scott this became his domain, a place he could call his own and in fact even though at my time of writing Scott is out in the garden and mingling with the flock, he still often hangs around this arbour and is let in and spends some time there each day, often with one of the original hens to whom he was formally introduced!

Bonding with Individuals

Food is always a great way to get birds together, it can also be the cause of conflict but with hens and young (and old|) cockerels it is also a form of courtship, so I knew Scott would be keen on this ploy. How did I know when he was ready? Well because once I had established he felt good within his new domain, I provided him with his own food trough. Prior to this point he hadn't wanted to eat unless I was with him. He pecked a little at food I presented during the day but if I left him food, he just left it for the wild birds. After around the fifth day, I noticed him removing individual pieces of fruit and grain from his bowl and placing it on the ground with accompanying friendly noises, similar to those a mother hen uses to encourage chicks to eat. This is a ritual courtship behaviour known as 'tidbitting'. Unscrupulous males will pick up bits of stick or any old rubbish just to attract foolish females but Scott was luckily the roses and bracelet kind, happily, because my hens are wise to all those tricks!

Thus I opened the door and one of the several of the hens, who had been hanging around for days hoping to get some of Scott's uneaten food, was lured within his domain. Scott's first potential girl friend was unhappily a bad choice, a very broody Chickles (half-Sebright) and she told him in no uncertain terms that his intentions were not welcomed. However as the day went on Scott had greater luck in his choice.

Step 6: Bonding With the Flock - Success!

On the first couple of nights Scott was with us, I put him to bed in his carrier box as I thought this would give him a sense of security. On the third night though I put him onto the perch in one of the coops and removed him each morning to his arbour. Once I thought he had had enough contact with individuals and small groups of hens, my plan was to then introduce him to the flock attached to the coop wherein he slept. However...the first time Scott did this, it was unannounced, he basically evaded my grasp one morning. The result was very much as reflected in The Poultry Book - Comprising the Breeding and Management of Profitable and Ornamental Poultry, their Qualities and Characteristics by W. B. Tegetmeier pub. 1867

'This is the breed which gave rise in 1776 to the fable of the rabbit -fowl, shown at Brussels as the produce of a rabbit and a common hen.'

This even though I have many Cochins in the garden many of who have similar 'silk' feathers but it is the general shape of Scott I believe as well as his bright blue ear lobes and pompom crest that make him look so otherworldly. As this half-rabbit, half -chicken ran around, every one in the garden went into Red Alert mode! Ironically this is one of the ploys I use if all else fails when introducing a new bird:- I create a false flag event so that every single bird can become worried and vocal, coming together as a common force irrespective of one of them being uncommon. Andy's Hawaiian shirt, with its colourful and obviously to poultry, deeply disturbing pattern that looks like a bird of prey (?), is one such item.

Since that episode which luckily ended speedily with my recapturing of him, Scott has been formally introduced and is now, touch wood, a member of the flock. There were two episodes prior to his formal acceptance upon which he escaped and he did start several ritualistic fights, both with cockerels and hens. The first time, I believe took everyone by surprise and Scott had a lot to crow about but I gave one of my older cockerels a little time out with me and then put him back down in the garden only to see him go straight for a return bout and with one swift kick to the beak put Scott in his place as a juvenile. I supervised all these encounters just to remain confident that they were ritualistic and I will keep an eye and ear out for future problems. However, touch wood to date there have been none!

For the Birds Speed Challenge

Participated in the
For the Birds Speed Challenge