As incubation can be a complex subject it is very difficult to cover all the details in the space allowed. The best advice we can give is to pay attention to detail regarding each particular manufacturer’s manual. There are a number of excellent manuals available also. However, we propose to impart enough tips to assist you in making a success of your incubation programme.
Location of the incubator
Best results can be obtained when the incubator is positioned out of direct sunlight and in a room where the temperature does not exceed 60F degrees. There must be good ventilation, as airflow is an important factor when using an incubator, but no draught. It is advised to use a spirit level to ensure bench is level.
As already mentioned, check the manual for instructions. Stick rigidly to them. An incubator should be in position and switched on for at least 1 week before setting of eggs. During this week, temperature can be adjusted to remain stable at the required temperature which is normally 39.5C degrees to top of pheasant egg. Only when the temperature is stable, should the eggs be set. If the temperature remains higher than required, it could cause a zero hatch. Low temperature causes a delayed hatch.
For a successful hatch, egg turning runs a good second to temperature. So therefore, in a manual incubator, eggs should be marked with an X and O and turned 3 times daily ( 5 times is better). In some automatic turning incubators it is also helpful to mark eggs X and O and turned manually each day. Pay particular attention to ensure turner motor is working okay. If the motor has failed, you then will have to treat as manual for the remainder of the hatch. Please note egg turning is to be discontinued on the 21st day of the hatch.
In an attempt to understand humidity, let us look at the types of incubators first. The incubators most used by clubs fall into two categories, i.e., still air and forced air. In the case of the latter, there are in-built means of humidity control which operate very well. A word of warning here, if tap water is used, it will affect the wick and interfere with the humidity. So refer to the manual before use. The former, the still air type, is the most commonly used by clubs so therefore it is the one we will deal most with. We have been using the still air for a good number of years with no small amount of success.
So the advice we give is to run the incubator dry for the incubation period which in the case of pheasant is 24 days. On day 24, when hatching begins, fill the water trays in the base of the incubator with warm water. Thereafter, do not open the incubator. When the hatching is complete on day 25 or possibly day 26, but usually on day 25, raise the lid a quarter of an inch to allow air circulation to harden off the chicks. They will remain there for a further 24 hours. Just before they hatch, chicks draw into their abdomen the yolk of the egg which is rich in food value and liquid and is all they require for 3 days.
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The chicks can be gently removed from the incubator 36-48 hours after the hatch is completed and placed in a circular box 8 ” in circumference and 2ft high, suitable for 80 birds approximately. The box can be heated by an infra red bulb suspended from the ceiling to the centre of the circle. The bulb should be adjusted to 15 inches (approximately) above ground level. The temperature should be 90F-95F degrees at ground level. We find that the chicks themselves are the best indicators of the correct amount of heat. By observing their behaviour, you will notice if they are gathering directly under the bulb, it is too high up. Therefore, it will need to be lowered slightly. When the height is right you will see a circle of contented chicks spread out under the bulb. Care must be taken not to hang the bulb too low. This is suitable accommodation for one week or so.
Thereafter, a similar, larger pen must be provided with a cover of mesh wire and gradual reduction of heat. At 3 weeks old, a larger shed will be necessary for the chicks so that they can get away from and return to the heat as they wish. By the time the chicks have reached 6 weeks old, they should be completely off heat and ready for the great outdoors. Great care must be taken not to over-crowd or over-heat as this causes stress which induces feather picking.
Feather picking rarely, if ever, occurs in broody reared pheasant chicks. Picking only happens in artificially reared chicks. Feather picking is an indication that something is amiss. It is very important to take remedial action to address this problem. De-beaking or biting (see NARGC video) will stop the problem. It is advisable to make clean, dry, turf mould available for the purpose of dusting which will rid the chicks of lice and other parasites. It will also encourage full growth of feathers which is so necessary at release time and afterwards.
Food and Water
A good quality game starter mini crumb or meal should be fed from the start in a suitable feeder and also a little crumb on the lid of a biscuit tin encourages feeding and will avoid starve-outs. Clean and fresh water in a shallow container must be available. We find it is a benefit for slow feeders to add sugar or glucose to the water.
A generous cover of treated wood shavings should be used on the floor from day one onwards.
For the Gun Club planning on releasing 100 pheasant or thereabouts, we suggest that the broody hen method is by far the best option. The reason being, it will encourage the maternal instincts in the hen pheasants and thus ensure the emergence of a natural wild breeding stock in following years. When purchasing broody hens, ensure they have come from a line with good broody genes in them. Give egg producing hens from a hatchery a wide berth. We suggest it should be a relatively simple matter for every club, with a half dozen interested members, to keep a few broody hens for the purpose of restocking pheasant, or for that matter, partridge.
The benefit of this method is enormous, with little expense on labour. The preferred breed for this purpose is Silkie, but any cross breed of Barndoor is acceptable. The pure breed Baltan can be flighty and cause problems. While hens must be kept in dry, comfortable conditions, they do not require very elaborate housing. A simply coop, adequate for the purpose, can be erected at a very small cost. Feeding is a simple matter with barley meal being the main diet, with a generous supply of clean drinking water. A covered over dusting area is a must so that hens are lice free when ready for hatching. Hatching boxes must be situated in a dry place and out of direct sunshine. Dimensions of 16″ square, with a thick layer of dried white grass for a nest, is an ideal size. Depending on the size of hen, 11-13 pheasant eggs is normally the clutch size. But better to err on the low side. Always note the date of setting and day and date of hatching out.
Chicks benefit from being left undisturbed for at least 36 hrs after hatching out, but it is essential to remove egg shells soon as possible. On the day before the hatch is due out, pack some dry grass down between the nest and the box to ensure the chicks’ safety from getting lost in the space created during the hatching period. In positioning the hatching box, it is of the utmost importance that the hen is not frightened or disturbed by any animal whatsoever. Depending on the set up, very little attention is required after the first few days of brooding. At the start, the hen must be removed on a daily basis, preferably in the morning time.
Again, ample feed and water and dusting area must be available for her. After a time lapse of roughly 10 minutes, when the hen has fed, watered, dusted and excreted, she may be returned to the hatching box. It is wise to use ordinary hen eggs to get the routine established, and after a few days, with everything going to plan, the pheasant eggs can be set. When the hen gets used to the routine, she will leave and return to the nest of her own accord. If, for some reason, the hen is not sitting tight, delay the setting of pheasant eggs. The hen is going to decide if she is going to hatch or not. If you force the issue by covering the nest and possibly succeed, invariably that hen will leave an unfinished job.
When a successful hatch has taken place, which normally means a 90%-95% hatch out, as already stated, leave the chicks for 36 hrs. Move the hen and clutch to an outdoor, tightly constructed grass pen, moveable if possible. The hen must remain with the poults for a minimum of 6 weeks when the poult can be treated similarly to other poults. Feeding is the same as for incubator chicks. The big difference is, the mother hen will encourage them to feed.