This has been a long journey, starting way back in February when a friend suggested, very firmly, that I wanted to get an incubator and hatch my own pheasants.
Apparently I did, and after a search on ebay I bought the cheapest incubator I could find that held a significant number of eggs (well, I don’t do things half heartedly!) and waited until the shoot had more eggs than their incubators could hold.
After a lot of research on what to do, what to expect, and on all the things that could go wrong when bringing up baby pheasants (there are many!), on 15 April I was given 60 small, brownish eggs to look after for the next 25 or so days.
I had set up the incubator in the conservatory, and spent the entire incubation period worried about the cold nights dropping the internal temperature too much. I don’t know how old the incubator I bought is, but the box looks like something from the 90s at least, maybe earlier, and is very simple: it has a deep base where the eggs sit on a shelf with space underneath, and a deep lid with an element circling the edge and a fan in the middle to keep the hot air moving. It has a dial/internal thermometer that means the temperature could be adjusted between 34⁰ and 40⁰C. The ideal temperature for eggs to hatch is a consistent 37.5⁰C.
Given this simple set up, I wrapped it up in towels and bubble wrap to give a bit of insulation against the cold nights and measured the temperature morning and evening. Setting the dial to 38⁰ seemed to give the right internal temperature and I mostly didn’t change that over the whole time.
After turning the eggs morning and evening for 3 weeks – and I can assure you that turning 60 eggs twice a day gets utterly tedious – it was time to let them sit and find their hatching position.
There is a technique called ‘candling’ which you can do after 10 days, where you shine a bright light through the back of the egg and you can see what is happening inside. Theoretically it means that if you have any unfertilised eggs you can throw them out, but 1. I couldn’t see anything at all and 2. What if I’d gotten it wrong? So I candled, shrugged my shoulders and carried on turning them.
I was expecting eggs to start hatching on Sunday 10th May, so it was a nice surprise to see the first one had appeared on the Saturday night.
Everytime an egg hatched I was amazed anew at how something so tiny, and soggy, has so much strength to force the egg open. They all do it the same way: peck a tiny hole and then rest for awhile, peck down either side of hole, unzipping the egg shell, and then with their legs push the two halves apart. It can’t be easy. They all take different lengths of time to do it, some over a day to fully hatch, and when they finally pop out they look all bedraggled and kind of flop about for a bit.
Every time I saw them at that stage I thought that they couldn’t possibly survive; they had to be too weak, but we didn’t lose a single chick in the incubator.
When they first hatch there is nothing cute about them at all. They are soggy and mostly look like tiny dinosaurs to me, and they stay in the incubator until they have dried out and turn fluffy and cute.
Just let me tell you how hard it is to keep that incubator lid on the first time you see eggs hatching! It’s so exciting, and the new chicks are so clumsy and are clambering all over the other eggs, and other hatching chicks, and every instinct is telling you to take out these tiny little wrecking balls of energy. But opening the lid is one thing you can’t do.
In the final few days up until hatch day you need to get the humidity up inside. This helps the chicks open up the shells, and once they have started to crack it prevents the membrane from drying out and sealing itself to the new chick. So opening the lid to remove a chick could mean harming others. So it’s a case of sitting on your hands, watching the chicks as best as you can through the bits of the incubator you can see through and waiting.
By this point you’re probably wondering about food and water for them. Well, new chicks have between 24 and 48 hours worth of nutrients from the yolk all stored up inside them, so they are quite ok. I varied between 24 and 36 hours between scooping out chicks and leaving the remaining eggs, trying to find a balance between keeping the lid on and removing them as necessary from a time point of view. And I didn’t seem to cause any ill effects with that time frame.
The first chick hatched on the Saturday and the last on the Tuesday and by that point we had 45 in the brood box.
There are two things I learned very quickly:
- Chicks are REALLY loud. How can something so small make so much noise?
- They poo a lot! This was a trend that was to continue…
I was very fortunate to have 45 out of the 60 eggs hatch, that is a very good percentage and then I lost just the one after that. Because of this, I straight away got given a further 75 eggs to incubate!
What happened next is coming soon…