Friday, June 03, 2005

The Quail Chronicles

Besides the move, we have been incubating and hatching Bobwhite Quail as part of a somewhat controversial repopulation effort. We began by building our own incubator out of a styrofoam ice chest. At the bottom of the ice chest, there is a pan filled with water to help maintain the proper humidity necessary for incubating and hatching eggs, which is different by the way. We used an incandescent light bulb as our heat source, which was rather tricky trying to regulate within the one to one and a half degree margins necessary for the embryos. On the top of the incubator we cut out a viewing window and covered it with plexiglass, allowing us to check the temperature and watch during hatching.

As you can see, the quail eggs are quite tiny--that's a regular size light bulb in there. Next to the eggs is a rectangular thing, which is our remote thermometer and hygrometer. Bobwhite quail take approximately 23 days to incubate, though ours took between 23 and 25 days to hatch. While it was cool to make our own incubator, the downside was the lack of fine temperature control and regulation, which meant that I was up multiple times each night for those 23-25 days checking the temp of the eggs. That got a bit old, but I must say that the remote thermometer I splurged on really saved me. I could bring the main unit into the bedroom at night and just check on them with the touch of a button--kind of like hitting that snooze button--not enough to totally wake me up.

The incubator temperature needs to stay between 97.5 and 102 degrees, depending upon the kind of incubator, and the eggs must be turned at least twice a day. The last three days before hatching, we stopped turning the eggs, decreased the temperature slightly and increased the humidity to prevent the shell from sticking to the chick. The really neat part about the whole process, however, was "candling" the eggs as they developed, which simply means putting the egg on top of dime-sized light source that shines through the shell and allows one to see the developing embryo. The kids thought this was great, and even dh was interested enough to check out at least one each time we did it. By the end, the whole egg is filled, and as I candled the couple eggs that weren't hatching with the others, I could actually hear the chick inside peeping. Totally cool.

The chicks began hatching out on the 24th day at around 12:30 am. I know this because I woke up to go check on them just as the first one began coming out of the egg. It was pretty amazing to watch, and I was surprised at the struggle. Birth is not an easy thing. I learned some pretty interesting things during this process as well. The first crack in the egg is called a "pip" and made with an "egg tooth" on the top of the chick's beak that disappears shortly after birth.

The very first pip is the result of a neck spasm in the chick induced by a build up of carbon dioxide within the egg. As the embryo grows, it fills a greater and greater space within the egg, eventually puncturing the air sac in the top of the egg. As this happens, the chick's lungs begin to work for the first time, taking over from the embryonic system that has sustained it while in the egg. There is enough oxygen in the egg sac for the lungs to begin to work, and as the chick uses it up, the build up of carbon dioxide causes a muscle spasm, which breaks the egg shell and allows fresh air to penetrate. After that point, the chick takes anywhere between a few hours to 24 hours or more to begin systematically pecking a circle around the top of the egg, perforating an escape hatch of sorts. Once it breaks a complete circle, it must then push its way out--no small feat for such a tired little thing.

While this has been a tremendous learning experience, it's also been fraught with stress and anxiety. We began with 25 eggs, four of which were not fertilized,and as we incubated the eggs, one either stopped developing or became contaminated, dropping us down to 20. At one point, early in the incubation stage, I switched the bulb to a higher wattage, trying to increase the temperature slightly; within 20 minutes, the temperature soared to 108 degrees, high enough to cook or seriously compromise the embryos. Luckily, I caught it quickly before it likely did too much damage, but it was enough to make me quite upset and feel terrible about it for several days.

We hatched out 18 of the 20 remaining eggs, two died shortly before hatch as we discovered after cracking them open. That, too, was a bit difficult to handle. Once the quail chicks were about a week and a half old, we lost several chicks in one day, one after another for no explicable reason--none drowned, none got wet or chilled, none were pecked at, though a couple may have been smothered--a danger when the chicks pile together for warmth. Since then, we've lost four more here and there and are now down to nine. The chicks are now four weeks old and about 4 weeks away from release. It's been really hard losing the chicks, though I know that some loss is inevitable. All in all, however, it's been a great experience to do once; I'm not sure that I would do it again this way. It's a whole lot easier to get the day old chicks in the mail!

No comments: