It was in 1869 that Arthur Wingfield Douglass (pioneer ostrich-feather farmer) imported a machine to experiment with ostrich eggs; which was regarded as a crazy idea by South African farmers. The machine consisted of a wooden box with two drawers, (where the eggs were placed), a water tank, with a thermostat and a paraffin-burner. There were a few problems with this attempt, and today we have improved on and perfected the technology, and incubators are 100% effective and safe.
Ostrich hens normally become sexually mature when they are between 2 – 3 years old, and males usually mature a year later. At the beginning of the breeding season, the males show a distinctive reddening of the shins, the beak and the rims of the eyes. To draw the attention of the females, the males perform a mating dance in front of them. A broody female walks with her head held low, whilst opening and closing her beak and her drooping wings fluttering lazily (languidly). Once the male and the female have mated, the female lays one egg every other day until there are between 10-15 eggs.
The great advantage of artificial hatching lies in the fact that the birds lay double or treble the number of eggs they otherwise would. Eggs are removed from the nest as soon as they are laid, and replaced with a couple of dummies to that “fool” the hen. As many as thirty or more eggs will be laid by one hen in these circumstances.
The incubator on our premises can take as many as 800 eggs. All the eggs taken from the hen are immediately placed in the incubator. Many factors need to be taken into account when using the incubator, for example, the temperature must be 36˚C, eggs must be turned twice daily, and after 2 weeks of incubation the eggs are tested for fertility under a light.
The development process inside the egg goes by rather quickly. After 3 days, one is able to hear the chick’s heartbeat. After 9 days, the head and body are formed. By day 14, the embryo’s development is completed, and from then on only increases in size. On day 42, the chick breaks through the air space to fill almost the whole egg, but must then break through the shell within about 24 hours. Once hatched, they are left in the incubator drawer for another 2-3 days. For the first few days after hatching, the chicks live off the egg-yolk which has been drawn into the abdomen through the navel opening before hatching. The chicks are put into a sheltered enclosure once they are out of incubation, where they can collect gravel, crushed bone and egg shells. These incubated chicks are treated in the same manner as naturally hatched chicks, by putting them in the care of a herd boy or a foster bird.