Well, we're here. We've reached the most anticipated month of the year. The majority of our pheasants start laying eggs this month. By the second half of the month our brooder boxes will be starting to fill up but at the moment (at the start of the month) our only chicks are a few Peacock pheasants. Basically, this is what we have spent the past year preparing for. The excitement is great and will only continue to increase throughout the month.
It is Alan's job to look for the eggs every evening and then again in the morning in case any birds have laid late in the day. We don't want the eggs lying too long. Pheasants are not always the best parents and eggs are easily damaged. It can encourage egg eating if the birds find a broken egg as they may well taste it and, worse, like it. Also if an egg is left where it can get wet, in inclement weather, the bloom (a thin protective layer on the outside of the egg shell) will be ruined and the egg is more likely to succumb to bacterial infections. Alan marks each egg with the species initials and the pen number of where the egg was found. I then use a marker pen to write the date laid and the individual egg number and details on each egg. The date is written on the top of the egg so that I can see easily when it should be moved to the hatcher without having to always lift the eggs out of the incubator. When the eggs are collected they are stored in our incubation room for an hour or two to allow them to warm up gradually before adding them to our incubators. Any eggs found in the morning will be left in a cool place until we have more eggs that evening so they are all put in the incubators at the same time and only allowed a short while to warm beforehand. If the eggs were kept warm all day the embryos would start growing before they were put in the incubator but of course this would be at the wrong temperature and could well prove detrimental if not fatal to the development of the chick.
Of course things can and do go wrong, with our biggest worry always being power cuts. Almost every year at some point the power goes off (the joys of the countryside). If this is only for a short while it is not a problem. The worst thing that can happen is the electric going off without us knowing. This happened one year and unfortunately it had quite a big effect on our hatch rate. Most of the eggs that perished were in their first week of incubation. The others, although they were without any power for around 2 hours, did remarkably well. You may find that if you have had a low temperature, during incubation, for a lengthy period chicks are too weak to hatch. We are lucky in that we have a good generator on the farm which we started up as soon as we realised what had happened. We do have an alarm in our incubation room which is handy if the power goes off during the night. Unfortunately we could not hear this when we were away from the house. If the electric does go off do not open the incubator as this will only speed up the loss of heat. We stay out of the room if we can help it as our incubation room is heated and that heat very quickly disappears if we are opening and closing the door. As the eggs generate some heat of their own they can stay warm for quite a while. If the incubator is full of eggs this is also a help in conserving what heat there is available.
There are many problems which can occur during incubation but hopefully by taking careful note of how each egg is progressing and how successful each hatch is we can at least learn from our mistakes. It is always a great help to me to look back at past records to see where we can improve. I think this is particularly useful when breeding many different species as they do not all have exactly the same requirements.
The environment which is perfect for incubating eggs is also notoriously good for bacteria so cleanliness must play a huge part in the incubation process. We try to rotate the use of our incubators as much as we can so that we can thoroughly clean and fumigate each one every few weeks. We also use a separate hatchers which are kept as clean as possible and fumigated any time it is not in use. Our hands are washed every time we have to handle eggs, although we do not wash the eggs themselves (I know washing is usually recommended but I prefer to rely on the egg's own excellent protection system: the afore mentioned bloom, which gives the egg it's shiny or waxy appearance), and surfaces in our incubation room are wiped down regularly with disinfectant.
April is a most beautiful month which is always full of promise for the year ahead. As our chicks hatch out of their shells to start a new life it is impossible not to appreciate the true wonder of nature and what it can create.