By Mike Martz, Martz’s Game Farm
One thing I’m always reminded of when I attend gamebird conventions is that, when I think I have 95% of the raising and rearing of gamebirds figured out, the harsh reality sets in that maybe that number is more like 80%. It is always amazing to learn various methodologies of rearing game birds through observing presentations, by asking questions and through socializing with other growers. I feel fortunate to be able to wake up every morning and do a job that I love, but also feel equally as blessed as to the quality of people we have in this industry that will help each other at the drop of a hat.
There are very few gamebird growers I talk to who do not have pride in raising a quality gamebird. Aside from a proper gamebird feed formulation and adequate square footage to raise a pheasant, it is a uniformly accepted industry fact that one of the key aspects of raising a quality pheasant is to prevent birds from cannibalizing and picking feathers. We all strive to prevent cannibalizing. The questions associated with this subject include: how do we do this, what are our options and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each option? The three methods used by most growers for pheasants include specing (also known as peeping), bitting and debeaking.
Specing pheasants is the most universal method used in the gamebird business to prevent cannibalization. The primary purpose of a spec is to prevent the pheasant from being able to view directly in front of it, thus resulting in much less picking. Specs are normally put on the birds while still in the brooder barns at roughly five to six weeks of age. Specing normally only needs to be done one time in the lifespan of the pheasant.
While specing pheasants, it is very important to have an experienced crew. Specing is normally done during a warm time of the year, meaning it is possible for birds to stress due to heat. Therefore, there should be an absolute minimum of one person on the crew who is able to determine acceptable conditions. However, it is preferable to have the entire crew trained on this process to ensure a quality bird. While specing pheasants, it is important to make sure that there is adequate ventilation in order to have air flow in the catching area. Catchers should keep the corners of the catching areas free of birds from piling on top of each other, while making sure to catch and handle the birds with care. It is essential that the people putting the specs on the birds adequately insert the plastic barb on the correct angle through the nostril in order to reduce stress on the bird. After the spec has been inserted, the birds should be taken off the specing table area and laid on the floor, not dropped off the table. We always tell our crews that it isn’t how many casualties there are the day of specing, but rather three to four days after the job is complete that we can determine whether birds were properly handled.
Many growers use lighting programs in order to reduce cannibalization in the weeks leading up to specing. The conditions in the room after the job is complete are equally as important as the job of specing itself. After birds are speced they need an acclimation phase in order to adjust to the new device on their beak. This means that lights should be turned back on to full capacity for a minimum of four days after specing. In addition, the birds will need easy access to feed and water. We always put out extra feed in open-faced feeders, pans or feed flats, as well as fill water pans for the birds to have easy access to drinking. We continue to feed and water this extra space for three days and then gradually take the extra feeders and water pans away over an additional three-day period. It is optimal to wait at least seven days to move birds to flight pens after the specing job has been completed.
Bitting pheasants is a different anti-picking method whereby a bit is inserted into the pheasant’s nostril between the beak, which prevents the bird from having the ability to clamp down and pick another bird. The methodology of the job is very similar in how we handle the birds and is done at five to six weeks of age. The ability of the bird to see is unchanged after bitting. However, we still turn lights up to full intensity and provide access to extra feed and water in the same manner that we do after specing. Like specing, bitting normally only needs to be done one time in the lifespan of the pheasant. In our experience birds can be moved out four days after completing this job. There are some growers that choose to immediately box the birds after bitting and move them out the same day.
Debeaking pheasants is the original method to prevent cannibalization, which I remember from my youth. Debeaking machines are used to burn the end of the beak off of the bird in order to prevent picking. Every aspect of catching and handling the birds is similar to the previous two methods. We always provide extra water pans after completing this job to reduce stress but we do not provide extra feed. When debeaking it is of utmost importance to cauterize the beak properly in order to prevent bleeding. Unfortunately, this method must be done a minimum of two times in the life cycle of a pheasant, and in some cases three times. It should be completed at roughly five to six weeks of age and then again at twelve to fourteen weeks of age because the beak will grow back over time, unless it is cut back too far, which will result in a deformed beak.
Advantages and Disadvantages:
For simplicity sake let us lump bitted birds and debeaked birds and compare them to speced birds, since the advantages and disadvantages of each are differentiated by the bird’s ability to see directly in front of it versus being able to see from the side.
Pen Cleanliness – Advantage Speced Bird
Speced birds tend to have cleaner areas around the feeders, as well as less residue in the water fountains/pans. The reason for this is that a bitted bird will tend to shovel their feed since they are unable to fully close their beak. We have seen pens around feeders where this is very obvious and pens with bitted birds where it is not as obvious in regards to feed being scratched out around the feeders. In addition, it is always obvious that there is more residue in the bottom of our V-trough fountains in pens where there are bitted birds.
Bird Performance: Field Hunts – Advantage Speced Bird
Our guides on our hunting preserve cringe at the thought of having to use bitted pheasants on any given day. We normally try to use speced pheasants for the field hunts on our preserve. Our guides are uniform in saying that the bitted birds tend to run more and get more wild flushes out of gun range. Many times, you could simply chalk this up to the strain of bird. However, in our case we are dealing with the same strain of bird in relation to this subject.
Bird Performance: Driven Hunts – Advantage Bitted Bird
Depending on how a driven hunt is set up, there are many clubs we deliver to that strictly want a bitted bird for their driven hunts. Their opinion is that bitted birds are easier to direct on drives while the speced birds many times will peel away and not get to the desired destination. For continental shoots it does not make a difference. We do not do driven hunts on our preserve but we do continental shoots. Our managers running the shoots do not see a difference in performance although they do agree a bitted bird tends to fly straighter.
Mortality and Acclimation – Advantage Bitted Bird
There is little doubt that a bitted bird will acclimate quicker in the brooder barns as well as the flight pens. They tend to spread out quicker in the flight pens when moved out, and there is normally a slightly reduced mortality.
Flight Pen Space – Advantage Bitted Bird
If a grower has well-drained pens on a grade, so long as the bits were properly inserted into the birds, we can get an extra two square feet per bird with bitted birds than we can with speced birds. Some of this could depend on the strain of pheasant. I know of another grower that raises a bitted pheasant at 12 square feet per bird with bitted birds. I would have thought he was exaggerating a bit if I didn’t know this is factual information. I can also vouch that he raises a very nice pheasant. We raise our speced and bitted birds at roughly 17 square feet per bird in most pens. However, I do go 15 square feet per bird on well drained pens that are on a grade.
There are advantages and disadvantages to specing, bitting and debeaking. If we were not in a position where we had to use both methods, I will be honest in saying that we would probably spec all of our birds for simplicity sake. Overall, I feel it is the most economical, consistent and cleanest way of raising pheasants. Having said that, I do not feel strongly against bitting, and if a grower has customers that do primarily driven, continental or want extremely wild field hunting birds, it may be something to consider.
We all do things a bit differently. I certainly don’t know it all by any means, so don’t take this article for gospel. It is a balance of facts versus my opinion. In the event that you make any changes, I would suggest starting the change on a small scale to see how it works for you. The great thing about this industry is that we have the freedom of not having a one-size-fits-all approach! God Bless.
Mike Martz is the primary owner of Martz’s Game Farm and Martz’s Gap View Hunting Preserve, Inc. Martz’s Game Farm is a third-generation farm, located in Dalmatia, Pennsylvania. It was established in 1955 by Mike’s grandfather, the late Harold Martz, and then Mike’s father Don took over the business in 1980. Mike grew up loving the gamebird business and has remained employed on the farm in some capacity his entire life. In 2006, he took over as the General Partner from his father Don has been operating the game farm and hunting preserve entities ever since.