Trials & Tribulations of

Breeding Ornamental Pheasants

Probably the biggest problem to deal with when breeding most species of ornamental pheasant is inbreeding. Unfortunately with many of the species available there are very few birds that have been imported into the UK or even Europe so after a few generations they begin to show many genetic weaknesses as the offspring are all related to a few pairs of birds. We also get lots of e-mails and messages from keepers in many other countries around the world who are having the same problems and are unable to get new bloodlines. The number of regulations safeguarding wild birds to encourage conservation and hinder trapping in their homelands, while having obvious advantages, also causes major problems when trying to keep a good stock of breeding birds in captivity. Although it is ideal to breed birds in their country of origin it is also of benefit to allow people all over the world to see live birds for themselves as it is far more memorable than a picture and can help to generate more feelings for animals that need our help. It is not possible for the majority of people to go to Asia to see them so it is very useful to be able to breed them in different countries including the UK. It is vital that we try and breed the best birds possible to strengthen what birds there are in captivity rather than allow the species available now to disappear a few generations down the line.

Sourcing birds is a huge task which tends to require great patience as there are very few breeders who have numerous birds and trying to find those that only have a few, even if they have great success in breeding them, is not always easy. We try to have a good number of species ourselves but this has to be limited so that we can manage to keep a few pairs of each, of unrelated birds, as this is extremely important when it comes to breeding and selling our young poults. We have found that, due to the cost of some of the rarer birds, keepers will breed them, regardless of the quality of the adults, so as not to waste them. Unfortunately the result of this is often weak and unhealthy chicks.

We are always on the lookout for new birds and it is extremely sad to see species apparently dying out in the UK that were available when we started keeping our pheasants. I am hopeful though that with online connections, being more widespread than ever, breeders are getting to know one another on social media where word is spread quickly and easily, both of any birds available and for tips on looking after them well. It is a great way to find out all sorts of information that has not been available in the past and could well be a saviour for our rarer birds.

Aggressive cock pheasants can cause problems and we have a great number of people either getting in touch to ask for some advice about an injured hen (an antibiotic spray such as Terramycin is something we would not be without for injuries) or to replace one that was killed. We also have customers tell us they don't want a particular species because they either had an aggressive bird before or heard from someone else that they were bad birds and would attack them. Quite often the Reeves and the Silver Pheasants are mentioned as the culprits. We ourselves have had Bornean Crested Fireback cocks fly at us in the past and one of our Reeves cocks, we have now, has a bit of a dislike for Alan taking eggs and becomes a tad angry, to put it lightly. Some pheasant cocks can become violent, towards the other birds in the aviary as the days start to lengthen. A bird that has been fine for months can suddenly turn on his partner. Once the hens start to lay the male seems to calm a little and usually the hen will be far safer.

Some of the pheasant species do not seem to build up resistance to bugs and germs easily and so buying them in is always risky. It is important to put new birds into a clean aviary. If it has also been left empty for a while - so much the better. It is easy when in a hurry to think that, as the pen looks fairly clean, it might be alright this once. It is a change of environment for the new birds though and any build up of bacteria, fungus, viruses or parasites that they have not been exposed to before can be disastrous. Tragopans are one of the species that do seem to be more problematic in this respect than many others. Of course the rarest birds are rare for a reason and this is often why. Evolution has not prepared these birds for our climate, our soil etc. Much of the food they are given, although possibly similar nutritionally, would not normally be eaten by the birds in their homeland. Even the birds that have many generations in the UK can still struggle with this alien environment and even small changes are not always easy to adapt to. With care most birds will adjust fine. Normally after they have got through their 1st winter there is much less chance that they will succumb to problems but do keep the birds wormed and always give the birds good quality food and plenty of space.

Disease in our pheasants is not actually very common however when a bird does become ill it can often hide it very well so that when the problem is spotted it is too late to help the sufferer. It is very important to check birds regularly and we feel the easiest way to do this without unduly stressing the bird is to go into their aviary on a daily basis so that the birds are not worried by our presence and offer them treats such as fruit, mealworms, nuts and grain. The birds become used to coming up close and it therefore becomes much easier for us to see injuries or strange behaviour of any sort in the birds. A good habit to get into is checking a bird whenever there is a need to catch the pheasant anyway. So if a cock is being moved away from the hen after the breeding season and needs to be caught just check him over for lice, feel him to make sure he is not too thin or too fat, check his eyes to see if they are clear and feet to make sure there are no problems with infections or swellings etc. and listen for breathing problems. This may seem obvious but it is easily forgotten and a good opportunity missed.

Talking of habits - Egg eating is often mentioned when discussing pheasants. It seems to be a fairly common problem and one that is not always easy to deal with. If this problem arises try and find out if it is the cock or hen eating the eggs. More often than not it will be the cock. If this is the case he will need to be kept separate from the hen when she is due to lay. Of course this does not always work out as the hen may not be reliable at laying on the expected days. Try giving the hen plenty of cover in different areas of the aviary as sometimes the problem is that the hen is laying eggs out in the open. Unfortunately once a bird has developed a taste for egg he or she is likely to tuck in as soon as the egg is layed therefore not giving much time for the keeper to collect it. It may be possible to dissuade a bird from eating them if plenty of ceramic eggs are added to the aviary. I have also heard of eggs with lots of revolting tastes added to them being used but not with a great deal of success, as far as I know. We had a trio of Brown Eared Pheasants with the two hens kept separate who shared their mate. He was a terrible egg eater but as the hens laid on alternate days the cock would get a walk in the morning to see his "wife" and then the following day would visit his "mistress". Even when the hens did not lay as expected the change in habit seemed to help to at least give us enough time to gather any eggs before they were eaten.

It is a bigger problem if the hen is the one eating the eggs as she will immediately break the egg as soon as it is laid. We once had a Monal hen doing this so out of desperation we decided to try something similar to a battery hen's cage. In reality it was a converted cupboard sat at a slight slope with the door cut along the bottom to make a gap big enough for the egg to roll out of. We tempted the hen into her new nest box, on the days we expected her to lay, with some peanuts and shut the door. To be honest, we were amazed when our idea actually worked - within an hour and a half we had a whole egg. And to make things even better, she didn't seem bothered about being shut in the dark and continued to lay well and go to her nest box without being at all stressed but we always treated her to peanuts in her special cupboard, which I am sure was a great help.

As always if anyone has any questions or tips please do get in touch - we are always pleased to hear from other bird breeders or keepers.

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