The Risk of Adding Hens

If you have a small flock, say three or five, or seven hens, at some point you’re going to want to add another chicken. Just one or two. For a few more eggs, perhaps, or maybe you went to a poultry show and couldn’t resist a pretty grey chicken. Or, maybe you’re satisfied with your flock, but someone calls and says that a fox got all of their hens, but one, and now she needs a new home. So you welcome her. We’ve all done this. I’ve done this. Buffy came to me because an aggressor in her flock aimed to kill her. I took in Tina and Siouxsie when they were a year old.

Taking in a mature hen is a huge risk. Huge. It’s one that I no longer take. Even the healthiest-looking hen, from a known flock, can bring disease onto your property.

There are precautions that you can take. You can do an external examination to look for parasites such as lice and scaly leg mites. You can check for signs of health, like clear eyes and colorful combs. You can go a step further and isolate the new stock for 10 days to see if they develop any signs of disease. But, that still won’t be enough. Perfectly healthy looking hens can be carriers. I once bought a Rhode Island Red pullet from a known breeder. She was hale, hearty, glossy and vibrant. Within a week every bird in my flock came down with a severe respiratory disease. They required medication. The Rhode Island Red never took a raspy breath.

Hens can be carriers of many diseases and you’ll never know it. They’ll look fine. But, when a chicken is stressed (and joining a new flock is very stressful) what had been a latent virus will shed, and hens that had previously not been exposed to that pathogen, will get sick.

I recently talked with a woman who had four laying hens. She went to a local poultry dealer and bought two more. Within days her older hens’ heads were covered with lesions; they had gotten fowl pox from the newcomers. The new hens never showed symptoms.

Perhaps you have successfully integrated hens into your flock and you are saying to yourself, “I’ve done this, and it’s a small risk.” I used to say that, too. But, not long ago I talked to a woman who had the worst experience. She had four chickens who were getting older, and she wanted a few more. She went to a local farm and bought 3 hens, including the prettiest Favorelles. She did everything right. She kept them in isolation, and when she added them to the flock all was peaceful. But, not long after that, her original hens got very, very sick. The Favorelles were carriers of a horrible disease called Infectious Laryngitis. It’s telltale sign is coughed up blood. She lost her entire flock.

The least risky way to add to a flock is to bring in chicks. This is what I’ll do this spring. I can, because I have the space, time and ability to raise them. They’ll arrive vaccinated for Marek’s disease and coccidiosis. They’ll be gradually exposed to the barnyard environment and so will develop natural immunity to whatever infectious agents are floating around in the dust and are harbored in the dirt.


I realize that raising chicks isn’t possible for everyone. If you’re limited by zoning to only three hens, and you’re down to just one, of course you’ll want to bring in two new pullets. I would. You might luck out. You might get a Buffy, who lives to a great old age. But, plan for the worse. Be hyper-alert for signs of illness. Caught early enough and treated aggressively, many diseases aren’t lethal. My flock is proof of that.


What are your experiences with bringing adult hens into your flock? Have you had problems with disease?


  1. We are getting chicks this spring and will be adding them to our current flock. We will keep the chicks in the brooder until they are old enough to be outside.How do you gradually introduce the chicks to the barnyard environment?

    • I’ll be covering this good question in blog posts later this spring. You can also look back to my blog posts from 2011 when I got the Gems as chicks. There’s a blog search and archive button.

        • Ken always fenced off a small corner of the larger coop, set up the dog’s old kennel so they had a covered area for the night and that always seemed to work. When we noticed that the pullets were getting over or under the fencing and into the larger coop, without getting harmed by the other chickens, he’d take the fencing down.

          • That’s a great way to integrate two flocks. So far, you’ve been spared a diseases from the new hens. I got by for several years like that before it hit.

          • We also move the chicks into the larger coop, with chicken wire separating the younger ones and older ones. By the time we remove the separating fence, it is a non-event. They will still have to work out a pecking order, but it seems to go much smoother.

  2. Looking back, i have brought new pullets in 3 times and each time all of my birds got sick and had to be given antibiotics, but it wasnt immediate it would be like 3 or 4 weeks after, I never made the connection untill the last time I did it… it is unfortunate but a neccessary lesson…. From now on it is chicks only…

  3. An egg-cellent post! I was just mentioning this a friend of mine of who wanted to add mature hens. And for the same reasons you’ve state, I will only ever raise chicks to introduce new flock members. Keep up the great work, I love reading your post!

  4. Even if you get pullets of the same breed from the same breeder? I am thinking about getting a few more buckeyes this year to join the ones i got last year, maybe not.

    • Great question. I would think that the risk would be minimal, although your hens might get the new ones sick! It goes both ways. It really depends on what is lurking about on the two properties. Wild birds can bring in mycomplasma and you’d never know it. But, if I were you, I’d probably do it.

  5. My Sunshine died (she was an egg laying hybrid) from illness, but i dont know if I could directly connect it to getting new birds. the birds I got at that time were only 2 weeks old and under lights seperated for a few weeks,
    her comb started shriveling she lost weight her demeanor changed, she was the epitome of a production hen, I swear she would lay every single day and sometimes I think i would get 2 eggs from her a day, she had a very distinct eggs colour. so it was easy to tell her eggs apart from the other girls.. So my point while no fatalities, the having to go on antibiotics 3 times and the wthdrawal period isnt worth the risk I had to throw many many many eggs out…

  6. You are dead on right with this one Terry. I no longer take birds in..even when I hear a tale of woe, The only time it and it did not create a problem is when that one lone guinea hen made a magical appearance in my yard and proceeded to settle in with the birds without me knowing. She turned out to be a nice addition with no problems. I have also incubated birds for WEEKS and had my whole flock come down with coccidiosis which is a freaking nightmare to get rid of. Good sound advice.

  7. I recently added 4 laying hens to my flock of 2 laying hens and a rooster. Brought in the new girls 12/15. I was very aware that I could have problems. For that reason I bought the new hens from the farmer who got me started with my original flock 1.5 years ago. I kept the new girls isolated (a run within the big run with their own coop, food, water, etc.) for 4 weeks. Both small flocks had limited contact through a chain link fence on 1 side. They now have all been together in the same run for a few days. So far, so good. I am watching everyone carefully for signs of illness, lethargy. A certain amount of establishing the new pecking order has been going on but not too much. The run is quite large for 7 chickens and everyone has lots of space. So far it has gone well. Fingers crossed. I may try chicks next time I add to the flock, but am not set up for chicks at this point. Not sure I would ever try to incubate eggs. I have a rooster and an Orpington hen and a Dorking hen (both breeds supposedly go broody and make good mothers) – hopefully they will provide me with chicks at some point.

  8. hi there,
    Im a fairly new chicken keeper, we got 2 Silver appenzellers from a relative back in june 2012, last weekend i got 2 more chickens, a Campine and a Vorwerk. I never thought of the risks to the health of my existing birds, but i have taken poo samples and im sending them off to the vet tomorrow, to check for anything. I was concerned that the 2 new ones were drinking a lot of water and had runny poo. Hopefully everything will be ok, im a bit more concerned now though after reading your bog!

    • I had to look up what a Vorwerk is. You have a gorgeous mix of breeds. The fecal won’t indicate respiratory disease, so stay vigilant.

  9. I was aware there might be problems, but being a risk taker and somewhat naive, I introduced a 1 1/2 yr old hen(mixed breed), into my young flock of 4 point of lay hens in early Dec. Not having the place or room to separate her from the others I just slipped her into the coop after dark. Lucky for me and her new mates she just fit in like she was there from the beginning and so far we have had no health issues. And….the girls that had just started to lay, continue to do so along with Gussy who lay a nice pink one on her first day with us. I will not be so eager to risk my luck again though after becoming very attached to my hens and realizing just how fool-hearty my impulse shopping could have been.

    • When I first started with hens I did exactly what you did, and had no problems. Now I know how lucky I was that it worked out.

  10. Oh, that Buffy. I have such a soft spot for her cute little face.
    When we had our first flock of four hens, we got them from my brother …they all lived in the same coop. We ended up with 3 hens and 1 rooster, so we swapped the rooster for another hen. Just the three weeks that the three lived together, they formed their little flock and weren’t happy at all to invite a new gal into the mix. We got through it though. Just goes to show how little time it takes.
    We have four hens now and I really would like to get 2 more. I definitely don’t want to risk getting my girls sick though. I loved raising our chicks so we may go that route again. Looking forward to your post about integrating the little ones in the existing flock.

  11. Hmmm, I was planning on getting 3 chicks from a breeder (he shows his birds) while I was picking up some chicks at Meyer Hatchery. Meyer’s would be a day old, of course, but the breeder’s birds would be as young as possible, according to his hatch time. Now I am re-thinking the breeder’s birds. I just assumed a breeder would have clean, healthy birds. I’d hate to make my lovely ladies sick. They are such a joy.

  12. BTW, you have so much snow today! We (a few miles south) just have rain rain rain. And mud. And muddy chicken feet dirtying up the nest boxes.

  13. Terry, can you post the link to the post about integrating the Gems? Also, what flock do you plan to put the new chicks with when they are ready?

  14. I agree, great entry. I really think this is absolutely necessary for people to realize the risk with bringing in even healthy looking birds. I am 2 years+ into chicken keeping, and it is really hard to say no to friends with birds, especially hens since I can always use more eggs for my customers. I have a friend who takes in all kinds of animals including hens from the swaps. I LOVE going to see her new birds, but I would never bring another bird in from her place because of her practices. I also am careful about the clothes/shoes I wear to her place so I don’t cross contaminate — I don’t wear my regular muck boots. May seem overly precautious, but I really don’t want a mess of sick chickens. And with our flock numbering in the 60s, it would be a mess to treat.

    So far, have only brought ducks in as grown ups, but I took those in to prevent over breeding of my lone duck with a drake, I was nervous about that, but it worked out well. I have vowed not to do it again. Any ducks I get will come in as eggs for day olds, even though brooding ducks is a pain!

    Thanks, as always, great information and I love your site!

  15. Even though the Vorwerk only arrived with us on sat, she is already more tame than the two Appenzellers! The Campine is still very timid. Ive just dropped of the poop to the vet and explained my concerns, she also said stay vigilant. She suggested i weigh all the birds, it will be useful to know what healthy weight is so any change could be another indicator of any problems. I didn’t weigh the Appenzellers as i didn’t want to wake them too much. They are still not too happy about having the new ladies in the flock. I put the newbies on the scales and the campine is 668g and the vorwerk is 596g.

  16. I had a horrible experience last summer but it wasn’t from bringing new birds in it was from someone who had sick birds visiting my coop. The person had just taken in several older hens when she came to my house, her hens apparently were sick with infectious bronchitis. When she walked through my chicken yard she infected my whole flock. We lost everyone, 20 chickens and 5 turkeys. It was a horrible experience that I hope to never relive. I am very cautious now and will not let anyone with chickens into my coop and if I go anywhere chickens/chicken keepers have been I will not see my chickens until I have changed and bleached my shoes. I had no idea that so many diseases could transfer on surfaces, clothing, car tires etc. It was a hard lesson to learn!

    • What a terrible experience. It cautions me that when I give my chicken keeping workshops here, that I should be even more careful than I am. I do ask people to wear clean clothes and shoes that haven’t been in their own coops. You always think you’re doing enough until disaster strikes.

  17. I have lost two girls to Mareks disease. I started with a group of four. Two passed away so I was left with two. I introduced four more (less than a year old). Lost two to Mareks…I paid a lot of money to have an autopsy done by my vet. I have four beautiful girls left but cannot introduce any more because my original four have been exposed to Mareks. Maybe I was not paying a lot of attention with my original purchases but I feel that the Mareks vaccination is not hugely encouraged. What have I learned???? It is extremely important to purchase chicks that have been vaccinated for Mareks.

    • I think that despite having chicks vaccinated, that most backyard flocks have some exposure to Marek’s. The vaccine wears off after a couple of years. But, by an older age the hens have some immunity; it’s the younger ones who tend to die from it. So, yes to the vaccine.

  18. I’ve been so worried about Buffy this week. When it was so nice out, all the other hens were outside scratching in the straw, but Buffy was inside with her backside plastered in the corner of the coop. That’s been the way I’ve seen her all this week. This morning, when it was so cold and snowy, she was again in the corner, but all her hen friends were gathered around her, as if to keep her warm. It’s as if they know she doesn’t feel well and they are trying to take care of her. What wonderful friends!

    • Buffy’s legs are weak. Although she is eating fine (she’s still a hefty bird) she is not very mobile. Also, Siouxsie bothers her if Buffy moves out of her safe corner. I do not expect Buffy to outlive the winter. She’s had a long and good life, and is not suffering yet, so I leave her be.

  19. This is a timely post for me. A friend has asked me to adopt one of his 6 hens that is at the bottom of the pecking order and has been separated from the flock for months now. He has a closed flock in a suburban area that had never been exposed to chickens but I’m still uncertain about taking her in.

    • Hens can exist fine at the bottom of the pecking order. If she’s being hurt, though, then there’s something else going on, whether her health, or management of the coop environment. Sometimes people get so worried when they see pecking that they remove a hen from the flock before the flock can (and do) settle down. In any event, those hens have been exposed to whatever there was at the hatchery, and since then they’ve been in contact with wild birds, who can spread disease. I wouldn’t take her in.

      • I think I will take your advice Terry! I do feel bad for this hen (he has 6 RIRs in a very small space), but I don’t think taking her in is worth the possibility making my hens sick. I’ve grown very attached to them and would feel terrible if I put them in harms way. I dread the day when I’ll have to make an “end of life decision” for one of them. It’s something that will be hard in situations outside of my control but much harder if it was something I could have prevented.

  20. Thank you for mentioning this, Terry. Our first supplier of chickens recommended a friend who had taken three bantam wyandottes she had bred in the past and now needed rehoming. As we were ready to start purchasing our first chickens we thought it was a perfect way of increasing the variety in our flock.

    We bought them all home on the same day (the wyandottes and four other girls from the breeder) and we put them all in together as we were advised. (mistake!) We now know that one of the wyandottes (suprise, surprise) had contacted a respiratory disease from another group of chickens they had been mixed with, and this spread to all our girls. Some are still vulnerable from it two years since, and sadly the carrier chicken died the following spring. It was a real wake up call for us as beginner chicken keepers.

  21. I just wanted to say thank you. We have decided to try our hand at keeping chickens. I’ve been reading and reading for months now, trying to be prepared and I have to say I have learned more in the last few hours perusing your FAQ and blog than I have in the last few months. All the really important, interesting and fun information is all in one place and clearly presented. We live outside San Antonio so our environment is quite a bit different than yours (although I was born in Winchester and lived in Boston for a few years after I got married so I am not compeltely clueless).
    I was happy to see you vaccinate your chicks. I got a lot of conflicting info about that and in the end decided to go ahead and do it, your choice validated mine. I ordered Buff Orpingtons, Australorps, Barred Rocks and Americaunas. We’ll keep 8-10 and give the rest away. We are rural enough lots of folks keep chickens. Again, thanks for such a great presentation of chicken basics. I’ll be sticking around!!
    Chicks arrive Feb 10-11.

    • I’m glad that you found HenCam! I have a lot of readers in Texas, so I hear about the heat. There’s always challenges, wherever you are.