Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Integrating Your Flock

Carolee's birds                                                                 Photo by Nancy Shobe

My thirty-day old chicks are no longer chicks, they are pubescent teenagers. Their heads, feet, and bodies are all out of proportion. Their feathers have taken on a "just woken-up" look and they've acquired some "leave me alone" attitudes. I swear one of them even has the small start of a pimple growing on her face.

Just two weeks ago, they scampered and chirped in their very large brooder box. Now they are roosting and pooping on each other. I've even seen them moshing while trying out their wings.

What should I do with my teenage flock?

It's time for integration.


I'm not prone to drama but everything I've read suggests that this process can be quite dramatic...and deadly...because, when the new hens enter the flock, the pecking order gets all "screwed up".

Instead of greeting the older gals with a big Southern "howdy", the young chicks stir up jealousy in the matronly hens by sashaying their tight backends. The older hens go into a huff and peck the lights out of the younger chicks.

For several weeks I seriously contemplated how I was going to integrate my nine new chicks with my adult hens because I was positive that one of the older ladies would dominate the pecking order like Cinderella's evil stepmother. I decided, teens deserve their own living space. I remember what I was like. Share a bedroom with my sister? Are you kidding me?

In order to avoid a major snit and save the new chicks from having to scrub dirt floors, I needed to create a separate space. But, how was I going to remodel the pen without it costing a fortune? I already had a $1 million dollar coop!  (Just kidding on the $1 million, but it sure seems like it sometimes.)

After a look-see at the local home improvement center, I decided to purchase some bamboo fencing. At $25 for 6' high by 16' long fence, I felt like I was in the pink...or, green, or money, or whatever that saying is. Twenty-five dollars to alter a pen? Not bad, I thought to myself. A worthy investment amortized over the next three months.

So, we, and I mean we because it takes a marriage of hands to divide a pen, stapled the bamboo fencing to half of the length of the pen to block the sunlight and then turned the fencing and pulled it across the middle to divide the pen in half. The only major addition was the nailing down of a floor stud to give the willowy bamboo fencing additional base support.

So, far, it's been working...at least for the last two hours.

I discovered that the bamboo fencing serves three purposes: it shields the chicks from the "elements", creating a space that is more coop-like than pen; its loosely woven timbers afford a peek-thru rather than peck- thru; and it allows me to pull back one side and step in--a necessity to ensure there's nothing unsavory going on.

The common rule of feather is that chickens shouldn't be put with the older flock until they are 16-18 weeks old. So essentially, that means I have to wait three or four months until the full integration.

In the meantime, I'll sip mai tai's on the back patio. If the essence of some strange weed starts wafting downhill or beer can ringed tops begin glinting in the afternoon sun, I'll need to derive another solution.

Or, find solutions from integration of another kind.

Remember the Brady Bunch?

Our family has its very own Brady Bunch story. My grandmother, with her two sons, married my bonus-grandfather, with his three daughters and integrated their "flocks" when the kids were all teens. Throughout our many years of family gatherings and Thanksgivings, no one ever dared inquire "What was it like to meld a house of teens?" And, because my grandmother and bonus grandfather were of old-school values and private natures, neither shared their integration stories.

I often wonder what it must have been like to create a brand new household of five teens in the 1940s.  I ne'er heard one complaint.

Today, because research after research study flings statistics into our faces, and the media twists  and turns the stats into dramatic, fearful stories, many second marriage-ees are worried about integrating their flocks.

"One in five children will become a stepchild" and "60% of today's marriages create the need for integration," stats say. And, then there's the threat, "The second marriage has a '75% chance of failing unless a new child is created together.' Is joining families really that difficult? Do we need to worry?

One thing that seems to casta a pallor over the "blended family" is, perhaps, the easiest thing to change--the stupid name "step". Goodness. Where did this term come from?

A quick Google search reveals on Wiki answers that stepchild (steopcild) is an Old English term that means "orphan" and has connotations with the word "loss" or "to bereave to deprive of parents or children." "Etymologically, a stepfather or stepmother is one who becomes father or mother to an orphan but the notion of an orphanage faded in 20th century."

Could we PLEASSSSE move on from this horrific term and into the 21st century?

A blog by relationship experts Jann and Sheryl suggests we refer to the new children or parents as bonuses instead of steps.

The definition of bonus? "Something given or paid in addition to what is usual or expected."

Hmmm. I like that definition. It works for me.

Bonus parents. Bonus children.

I've had bonus children throughout much of my adult life. One from a marriage and several from dating.

What I have discovered is that there are no clear rights or wrongs about "integrating", but, there are few things I've learned along the way:

1.  It took me awhile to realize that I'll never be the biological parent. Sure, there are many bonus parents who assume the parental role and fulfill it quite nicely. But, it's a safer bet to assume you'll never be the "parent" and to treat your bonus child with the same care and respect that you would a great friend. I learned to expect nothing more. And, it eased a lot of pain, on both sides.

2. I learned to leave my parenting judgments locked away behind closed lips and to be creative. Every family has different parenting techniques. Judgments and criticism only serve to make the chasm larger. Think the bigger picture, and leave the tiny grit alone. And, if you can, manage a positive relationship with the ex or "the other parent." It makes the children's load infinitely lighter.

3. If necessary, it's okay to create a bamboo boundary for yourself to avoid a pecking war. Locking the bathroom door behind me while I slipped into a bubble bath became the perfect solution to a momentary breakdown in integration. A modicum of silence created a multitude of understanding.

4.  Be patient. I sat with my first chicken flock for over a month, sitting quietly in their coop, waiting until they felt safe enough with me to begin interacting. It's important to do the same with bonus children. No child likes an overbearing, gregarious "trying to be parent" hen or rooster. Patience always wins...and this is spoken from the Queen of Impatience.

5.  Put on your imaginary protective shield in preparation for some hard pecks. No matter how smoothly the integration goes, a pecking order still needs to be established. Don't take it personally; it will work itself out at the end. It's merely a hard fact of integration.

Integration of any kind takes incredible work, including large doses of diligence, patience, love and compassion.

And, one day after you've been sitting on the back patio for awhile, contemplating whether or not your integration's been a success, you'll climb the hill and discover several brand new eggs waiting for you in the nesting box. That's the bonus of integration.

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