NATURAL OR ARTIFICIAL HATCHING – WHICH WORKS BEST?

By Marion Smith

Whether you use natural or artificial incubation for your peafowl eggs, you likely have encountered problems. If you haven' t, then you can count yourself among the smallest of minorities and check the sign under which you were born because it was probably a good one.

If you are one who prefers the artificial route by using an incubator, let's see if any of the following situations sound familiar:

Scenario # 1: You candle the eggs after five or more days and discover all the eggs are clear. At this point you become extremely concerned and consider taking up a less stressful hobby such as skydiving.

Scenario # 2: You candle the eggs as above and discover that only half or less of the eggs have embryos, the remainder being clear. At this point, you are also quite likely to become somewhat agitated.

Scenario # 3: At some point during the incubation process, you begin to detect a foul odor emanating from your incubator. You know an egg or eggs have gone bad so you begin picking through them methodically sniffing each one. While doing this once, I definitely discovered the bad egg. It announced itself to me by exploding in my face like a stink grenade and covering my entire upper body with a toxic goo so horrendous that I almost tossed my cookies. Folks, if you have never experienced this, there is no way I can describe the smell. Bad as it was though, it was better to have exploded on me than in the incubator which likely would have ruined the entire contents.

Scenario # 4: You discover at some point during incubation that you have many embryos that died apparently at some time between the first and fourth weeks of incubation. You again consider taking up skydiving.

Scenario # 5: You know all the eggs are full term by having diligently candled them. With great anticipation and expectation you very carefully then prepare them for hatch by placing them either in a hatcher or in the bottom hatching tray. As about the 27th day comes, you observe with growing anxiety that none of the eggs have pipped. You close down the air vents thinking perhaps you need to increase the humidity. The 28th day arrives and still no pips. You then open the machine and frantically shake a few of the eggs, then hold them to your ear listening for signs of life. You hear nothing. Candling reveals no movement. Your anxiety grows to an unbearable level and you crack open a few of the eggs being unable to stand it any longer. It is then that you discover what you had been emotionally attempting to deny - all the embryos are dead at full - term. Some probably broke the membrane, but they could not pip. In a few moments of hysterical despair, you consider obtaining a very sharp axe and reducing your incubator to firewood and scrap metal. You may also have an overwhelming compulsion to try peacock and dumplings for the first time.

Scenario # 6: Same as above except this time, many of the chicks do pip but most are unable to get any farther than that. If any chicks do hatch, they are weak, sticky, crooked - legged, crooked - toed, or cross - beaked. There are some other problems primarily mechanical in nature that go along with artificial incubation. If the incubator has only one thermostat, the switch can stick causing the machine to overheat. Any prolonged temperatures greater than 102 degrees F will be fatal to the incubated embryos.

The machine may stop heating for some reason. In this case, you need to do something as quickly as possible though it is not as immediate an emergency as is a machine that is overheating. For the above reasons, I feel that any serious artificial incubating should make a two thermostat incubator a priority.

Now let's take each of the described above scenarios with a sort of trouble - shooting analysis to see what happened:

In scenario # 1, unless the incubator is so filthy that disease is killing the embryos in the germ stage, the problem has to be poor breeding. This can be caused by such a multitude of things that I can outline only the more prolific ones. The first could be that there is a problem with the male breeder. Is he walking poorly or acting sick and lethargic? If he is, then you'll likely need to go further. You need to treat him. Another question to consider is the age of the male. If he is only two, then he is only in his first breeding year and is an immature breeder. If alright otherwise, most second-year males will breed, but it is sometimes well into the season before they get the "hang" of it and can breed reliably.

Another possibility is poor nutrition. If your birds are eating commercial poultry feed and nothing else, they may not be at the peak of health but they should at least lay fertile eggs. Ideally, breeders should be fed a diet of 12-16% protein and be supplemented with vitamins, minerals, and some fiber. Many fruits and vegetables provide the necessary fiber. The bottom line is that if your birds are run-down and anemic, they may not be able physiologically to produce any eggs or fertile eggs.

Another possible cause could be disease and/or internal parasites. How many times have you heard this sage piece of wisdom: DO NOT HOUSE PEAFOWL WITH CHICKENS! Man, is it ever true. I also would add to that list ducks, pheasants, turkeys, guineas, and geese. Over the years, I have heard many breeders scoff at this, but I have subsequently seen many of them pay with sick and dead birds. Chickens pass diseases to peafowl and a diseased peahen will not lay fertile eggs.

Worms can wreak devastation among your flock also. Regular worming at least twice per year should eliminate this problem. If you do not have other birds with your peafowl and still have disease, you need to find out what diseases are there and treat accordingly. Yes, animal husbandry involves much more than throwing birds in a pen and scattering a little cracked corn on the ground. Many breeders seem to desire to turn as great a profit as possible (don't we all?), but in my opinion it cannot be done by cutting corners.

In scenario # 2, The solution depends upon whether the infertile eggs were laid during the earlier or latter part of the season. If from earlier, then you probably had an immature male that needed a little practice or perhaps the breeders were unfamiliar and nervous around each other at first and required a bit of time for the male to establish his dominance. If the infertile eggs came later, then my guess would be that something has happened to the male breeder. Illness, premature molt, leg or foot problems are all possibilities.

In scenario # 3, the culprit is rotten eggs. The primary contributing cause of this is improper storage of eggs prior to incubation. Everyone knows table eggs will spoil if left unrefrigerated in a warm area, so why should hatching eggs be any different? Very early in my peafowl hobby, I ordered some India Blue hatching eggs from a commercial hatchery (I would love to give their name since they are still in business but I won' t). Being inexperienced and ignorant, I noticed when I opened the box that some of them already smelled bad, yet I didn't know enough to throw them away. Two of the eggs exploded in the incubator ruining all the rest, if any of them were fertile to begin with. I later discovered the eggs weren't even peafowl eggs. They were turkey eggs. The hatchery refused to refund my money or even answer my letters. They haven't to this day. What I 'm saying here folks is to take care of the eggs before you put them in the incubator. Keep them in a cool place (not cold) and hold them no longer than 7 days.

Scenario # 4 could be caused by poor breeder nutrition, incubator malfunction, improper temperature setting, or poor incubator hygiene. Keep a diligent eye on the thermometer, and if possible, use a separate hatcher. This reduces trauma to the eggs from wide temperature fluctuation and toxicity.

Scenarios # 5 and # 6, the biggies for peafowl eggs. Once after experiencing # 5, I went out and bought damn near every setting hen in Northeast Georgia swearing off incubators entirely. Others apparently have suffered this knockdown punch also because I still frequently talk with breeders who say you cannot, cannot hatch peafowl eggs by artificial incubation. Well, I sympathize with their emotional commitment to the belief, but I no longer agree with it.

Okay, stay with me here, because what at first appears to be one problem is actually two, but they are two sides of the same coin. What I'm referring to is oxygen starvation and low humidity. If the embryos are reaching full - term and dying just before pipping, then they are doing so primarily from oxygen starvation. It very frequently occurs under one or two common conditions. The first is when the incubator is kept in an
air conditioned house, building, or room. The air conditioner sucks the air of moisture, and the air vents in the incubator are narrowed to bring the operating humidity up to manufacturer recommendations. Peafowl eggs are much tougher than are chicken eggs and more difficult to break (I hatched 8 or ten eggs this year that were laid from a five - foot roost onto hard ground). While it is true that peachicks are bigger and stronger than standard chicks, thus more capable of breaking out, they also require much more oxygen. I have personally solved this problem by opening the vents all the way during the last three days. On the 27th or 28th day after most of the eggs have pipped, I place a water pan next to or under the eggs if possible. I wait until the eggs have pipped because their struggling makes them absorb the yolk. If they break out with too little struggle, they will have rough navals, and if they survive at all it will be a miracle.

The second common cause of oxygen starvation is the use of automatic humidity systems. I am fully aware that many will cry "foul" at this, but I will stick to my guns on my position on it in analyzing what my problems and the solutions have been. In my experience, it has worked better to fill the water pans by hand because the process of opening and closing the incubator door floods the incubator with invigorating fresh air. The worst hatching season I ever had was when using automatic humidity. Though I view other factors as contributing, the automatic humidity in my opinion played a key role.

Also important to monitor in oxygen starvation is the location of the incubator. If in a room with little fresh air circulation or with dead and stale air, this could result similarly.

With a hatch having poor humidity the chicks will be unable to struggle out of the shell though they will try as long as the oxygen is sufficient. Most of the eggs will pip, but the egg shells will be too sticky for the chicks to discard and emerge from. If any do hatch, they may feel as if covered with glue. As in the previous example, it has worked for me to what I refer to as direct - blasting of the eggs from a close source of humidity.

Another condition I would include here is a hatch in which many chicks are splay-legged, stiff-jointed, and cross-beaked. Though these conditions can be precipitated by low humidity, I have encountered them more frequently when a higher than normal operating temperature is present.

The end summation here regarding oxygen and humidity is that they are functionally interrelated with the incubator' s controls and that increasing one may reduce the other in a hazardous manner. Always keep a vigilant eye on both and compensate if necessary. It is much more difficult to gauge oxygen content, but if the vents are completely open, there should be sufficient oxygen.

Let' s now examine natural hatching. If you prefer this method there are only two avenues from which to choose: using peahens to set the eggs or using other fowl.

Using peahens in my opinion has many disadvantages for someone interested in maximizing the yield of peachicks. The more obvious disadvantage is that the hen becomes broody and ceases to lay. If the eggs are allowed to accumulate in the nest, the hen will become broody after laying 8-12 eggs. If the eggs are gathered daily, the hen will "clutch-out" after laying 8-12 but will shortly begin laying another clutch and usually a third after that. I frequently have peahens turn broody well into their third clutch late in the season. When this happens, I generally will let them hatch out the setting. Let me say that I have been warned by other breeders that this can lead to premature broodiness and that I may end up with hens that become broody on one or two eggs. This has not happened yet.

My birds are kept penned during breeding season to permit more control over egg collection. However, many peafowl owners prefer to allow the birds free range year round and prefer not to get involved in the laying and hatching process. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In my opinion, it is a picture of natural beauty to have peafowl roaming freely on a farm or estate. The males are extremely ritualistic in their colorful displays in establishing dominance and territory, usually from an elevated position so they can be seen. I' 11 say also that free-range peafowl seem to be more hearty and vigorous than penned birds. In any event, if you are one who allows your birds unlimited free range, you probably aren' t overly concerned about hatch. Left alone, the birds will likely hatch sufficient numbers of chicks for your purposes.

Now, what about using other fowl for hatching peafowl eggs? I've seen chickens, I've seen ducks, and I've seen turkeys used. The most common fowl used is probably chickens. With chickens, bantams and games are probably the most broody. When I've used bantams, silkies have performed extraordinarily well. Cochins are also very broody and commonly used. Games are as broody and can cover more eggs, but they are more high-strung and less conducive to handling such as when changing or candling eggs. I have found that if dealt with diplomatically, a hen can be used for several consecutive settings. What I mean by this is that if the chicks are removed very shortly after hatch and a new setting of eggs placed before the hen comes off the nest, the hen will immediately resume her set mentality and remain on the nest. Some have defined this as cruel and abusive to the hen, but I would agree with them only if the hen were deprived of food and water. By having food and water close to the nest, the hen will leave it every day to obtain sustenance and will not die on the nest as I have heard some say. I have never lost a hen from setting yet, and many go through two and three settings.

So what advantages are found with natural hatching? The first is that one doesn't have to suffer what I call incubator anxiety. This can result from any or all of the scenarios outlined in the first part of the article. No power failures to lose sleep over, no expensive hygrometers to monitor humidity, no constant disinfecting and scrubbing between hatches, etc.

Are there disadvantages? I'll never forget another incident that occurred early in my hobby. I was this time buying chicks to build my base of breeding stock. I bought these four blackshoulder chicks from an acquaintance who I knew used chickens for incubation since he had frequently ridiculed me for expressing doubts about it. He preferred game hens. These chicks seemed the picture of health for about two weeks. It was then that I noticed one with swollen eyes and nasal discharge. By the next day, all were showing symptoms. While treating them with every antibiotic and medication I knew to use, they all rapidly succumbed and died. After visiting my acquaintance who denied he had ever experienced anything similar, a mutual acquaintance informed me this individual would routinely lose at least half his chicks from this illness every year. Though I am no veterinarian, I believe this was sinusitis and was passed from the chickens to the peachicks. Once again the moral of this story is - chickens carry diseases. They have built resistance to common avian diseases from thousands of years of captivity. Other fowl, however, are more susceptible.

This is not an argument against natural hatching with chickens. It is merely a danger and can be circumvented by maintaining a disease-free hen house with a minimum of bringing new replacement hens in. Keep a rooster and hatch your own replacement hens every year.

Another disadvantage and one that dismays me every year just after hatching season is that I know I have to feed the chickens all year until the next spring when the peafowl begin their annual egg-laying routine again. Unless you are a chicken fancier (and I know many of you are so don't get mad with me), this becomes dreadfully tiresome. A suitable way around this is to allow the chickens free range where they require less maintenance. I have never been able to exercise this option due to predator problems but would readily allow it if possible.

The disadvantage that has consistently caused me the most worry is the lack of control I feel when the eggs are outside under hens. Numerous times have I discovered a nest that has been abandoned by a hen for a better nest that may be full of chicken eggs. When this occurs, it is a simple procedure of placing the peafowl eggs back under the hen and removing the chicken eggs, but of primary concern is how long the hen has been off the nest.

In my opinion, it is absolutely necessary to check the nests every day to monitor the hens movements. This will usually prevent the eggs being abandoned long enough to cause any real problems. Monitoring the nests can also prevent predator problems. Remember, the eggs, are outside and probably outside your control. In the southeast, we have big problems with raccoons, possums, skunks, and weasels, any of which would raid a nest of eggs. The last big advantage discussed is humidity, and the severity of the problem can vary greatly with wherever you are located. In my region, the summer season usually finds enough natural humidity in the air to accommodate the eggs, even if they are set off the ground in a nest box. And that is about all I will say on that. Which do I recommend? As you've just seen, both have advantages and disadvantages. For best results, I use both. This article originally appeared in Volume 1, Number 1 of The Peacock Journal.

This article is reprinted here with permission from the author. Reproduction elsewhere in any form without prior consent from the UPA is strictly prohibited. 1999 The United Peafowl Association. All rights reserved.