SHERIDAN — Although Easter was several weeks ago, local kids may delight to know that the ultimate egg hunt is still underway at the Sheridan Bird Farm.
The bird farm, located near Big Horn, raises several thousand pheasants each year that will eventually be released for area hunters to pursue. For the past couple weeks, employees at the bird farm have been busy collecting eggs that the farm’s hen pheasants have been producing by the dozens.
Darrell Meineke, a bird farm biologist, who has worked at the bird farm since 1996, said the approximately 1,000 brooder hens that are kept in a four-acre enclosure lay an average of one egg per day.
“Hens begin laying in mid-March behind shade structures we build and encourage usage by adding fresh dry straw frequently to simulate a cozy nesting environment,” he said. “A hen pheasant will lay approximately one egg a day until late May. In the wild, hens will lay nine to 12 eggs before setting on them.”
Employees check the shelters daily and remove any eggs they find, sometimes up to several dozen at a time. The eggs are collected in large wire baskets and then hand-washed.
Each egg is also closely inspected to look for any cracks or deformities that would prevent the egg from hatching. Meineke said many of the initial eggs laid by young hens are misshapen or otherwise have a reason to be rejected for collection
“It is like anything you do for the first time, it takes a while to get good at it,” he said. “The first few weeks, you can see some small eggs and some misshapen eggs.”
“I call it their factory,” he continued. “If we were to look inside a hen pheasant, she has all the eggs inside her that she is going to lay, from pinhead size to full egg size. They are all right there, as they move through the production line in her reproductive system, they form and grow and then are laid.”
Once collected, sorted and washed, the eggs are put into a special cooler that keeps the eggs at 55 degrees and 60 percent humidity, essentially suspending development of the eggs.
“This holds the eggs in a state of readiness for no more than nine or 10 days,” explained Meineke.
When a large enough amount of eggs has been collected, usually about 7,000, the eggs are transferred to another incubator.
The incubator is computer controlled and keeps the temperature steady at 99.5 degrees and 56 percent humidity. The eggs, held in trays, are automatically rotated in the incubator once an hour to simulate turning that a hen would do if they were in a nest.
“It is a pretty simple machine really,” said Meineke. “They have heater bars, and then it has a cooling system that is just water that runs through pipes. There are temperature probes and humidity probes. Once it gets up and going the computer really runs it. A couple tenths of a degree is all it fluctuates.”
After 21 days in the incubator, the trays are removed and the eggs are placed into larger, closed baskets where chicks will emerge from the eggs about three days later.
The tiny birds are assisted in their escape from the egg shell by a temporary small growth on the end of their beak known as an egg tooth. The tooth is used to help cut the egg membrane and through the shell and later falls off.
Meineke said most people think the hatching process is a one or two hour event, but in reality, it is an exhausting endeavor for the tiny birds that can take up to 16 hours. The birds will use the egg tooth to cut a small amount of the shell, rest, then resume activity. When they finally are released from the shell, they begin stretching out from their cramped position and begin drying.
“They are wet, wobbly and helpless,” said Meineke, about the newly hatched chicks.
Once the first batch of incubated eggs is transferred to the hatching incubator, another batch of eggs is taken from the cooler and put in the incubator. Meineke said the farm usually has four hatches per year, based on how successful each previous hatch is.
“Our facility can only hold 13,000 to 14,000 happy pheasants. Too many results in fighting and distress,” said Meineke. “So you set the next group of eggs based on how good your egg hatch percentage was last time. It gets kind of touch and go at the end. You don’t want to hatch too many.”
Meineke said the hatch rate averages about 75 percent, which mimics closely what he has seen on wild pheasant nests in the area. The eggs come in a range of muted colors such as light brown or light green.
“For the most part, they represent what the ground looks like in the spring and that is how they stay safe,” said Meineke. “Because they are on the ground for 24 days, they have to be hidden and stay that way. They are constantly being looked for, so nature gives them this camouflage pattern to keep them from being consumed, primarily by raccoons or skunks.”
Once hatched, the chicks are placed in a warm building and eventually transferred to outside pens that are fenced, with steel mesh wire over the tops to prevent owls and other raptors from eating the chicks. The chicks are fed in the enclosures and grow quickly. In the fall, they will be loaded into trucks and released in several areas around Sheridan to provide quarry for local hunters.