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Getting in the Game

Raising game birds isn’t simple, but some producers have carved out a lucrative niche

By JULIE STAUFFER

There’s no question that game birds are beautiful. These wild creatures, traditionally hunted for sport or for meat—including pheasants, quail, partridge, and guinea fowl — boast colourful and often stunning plumage.
Across Canada a small but growing number of farmers have been seduced into raising them, attracted by the niche markets that exist among upscale restaurants, ethnic consumers, and hunting preserves.
However, don’t let good looks—or the prospect of a premium price—blind you to the challenges of game bird production.

More challenging than chickens
Because they’re not domesticated, raising game birds in captivity takes special expertise according to Stewart Paulson, a poultry industry specialist for the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. “It’s a much more difficult area than the standard chicken,” he says.
He cites the need for more space, special housing designed for the particular species, and conditions that are just right: many game birds can be flighty if the light levels are too high, while hot temperatures and overcrowding will increase aggression (see sidebar pg. 28).
They are also more costly to raise than chickens, especially when it comes to feed. Game birds need plenty of protein: roughly 25 per cent of their diet, especially in the first few weeks. They take longer to reach market weight than chickens, and conversion rates are poorer.
Then there’s the issue of waste: if your feeders aren’t designed specifically for a quail’s hooked beak, for example, you could lose 30 per cent of the contents in the litter.

Getting your ducks in a row
Too many people jump into game birds unprepared and quit just as quickly, so do your homework carefully before you invest a lot of time and money.
Begin by checking the legalities: local regulations, licensing requirements, and zoning issues.
Next, line up your markets before you buy a single egg or chick. Because game birds aren’t a regulated market, prices can fluctuate substantially. “Don’t go in and produce 20,000 pheasants and then find out there’s no place to sell them,” says Paulson.
Even where markets exist, it’s easy to underestimate the amount of work required to sell your product. “People don’t realize how many phone calls are involved and how much you have to be around to look after your customers,” says one experienced Ontario producer. “It’s not like if you raise dairy where the milk truck comes in every other day and picks up your milk.”
Similarly, if you’re aiming for the meat market, it’s important to line up a processor well before your flock is ready for slaughter. Game birds create a processing challenge: smaller birds like quail and squab require special equipment and small shackles, while many standard processing plants won’t accept pheasants because they are flighty.
Not only that, you need experienced and knowledgeable processors who can prepare the birds correctly for your particular market—in some cases by hand—so be prepared to pay accordingly.

The big picture
So where are the markets for game birds, and how stiff is the competition?
In B.C., a growing Asian population has fuelled a big increase in production. Over the past 15 years, for example, the production of squab (young pigeons) skyrocketed from 55,000 to 600,000 or 700,000 a year, and instead of one processing plant there are now three.
Most game birds in the province are destined for the Chinese and South Asian communities in the lower mainland and down the U.S. West Coast, although a number of European-style restaurants buy pheasants and partridge.
In Ontario, quails lead the pack, at least in terms of meat production. Nearly 1,400,000 quail were processed at provincial plants in 2006, more than double the number ten years ago, while production of other birds has fluctuated or dropped over the same time period.
Elsewhere, the trends are difficult to track. The most recent national statistics are more than fifteen years old, although Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has plans to update them this year.
Paulson notes that with markets still relatively small, the balance between supply and demand is delicate. If 50,000 partridges hit the market instead of 30,000 in a particular year, for example, the pricing quickly goes to pot.

Getting started
If you decide you want to give game birds a try, find a source of healthy, well-bred stock and start off with just a few birds. Study the requirements of your specific breed carefully and learn the ropes before you expand your flock.
Tracking down information can be a challenge, since many producers are tight-lipped about their operations. “It’s an area where you’ll find very little literature and documentation,” cautions Paulson. “People learn by experience, and those experiences are their competitive advantage.”
In Canada, B.C.’s InfoBasket is probably your best starting point. Once your operation is up and running, keeping accurate records including costs, breeding history, and hatching rates will help you track your successes and improve your practices.
Start with one male and half a dozen females, suggest hobbyists Terry and Ann Priddle, who raise pheasants along with peacocks, ducks, and chickens near Windsor, Ont. If you have two males together, they’re guaranteed to fight.
One of the biggest issues in raising game birds are diseases like coccidiosis and enteritis, so invest in good litter to help keep your flock healthy and clean and disinfect the brooder house between groups of birds.

Looking ahead
Genetic stock sets apart one producer from another, so over the longer term you’ll probably want to start maintaining your own breeding stock. (If you’re selling to the restaurant trade, don’t be tempted to pass off old breeding stock in place of grower birds, Paulson warns. Chefs are a very discerning clientele and will spot the difference immediately.)
Your growing flock will require an incubator, since many game birds aren’t inclined to sit on the eggs. “Some of them are and some of them aren’t,” explains Ann Priddle. “Others run around and eat any eggs they can find.”

A Game Bird Primer
The following list covers the most common game bird species raised in Canada. How you rear them will depend on your market: for hunting preserves, birds need exposure to outdoor conditions and the space to develop strong flight skills, while many meat birds can be raised in broiler conditions.

Pheasants
Pheasants are relatively large birds that can be raised for hunting or meat. Meat birds are sold primarily to European-style restaurants, where they are often served as quarters or halves. Pheasant is high in protein, providing more ounce for ounce than pork, lamb, or beef.

Quail
The two most common types of quail are Japanese and bobwhite. Both are small birds that can be raised for meat, hunting, or their eggs, which are a delicacy in many parts of the world.

Partridge
Partridges are medium-sized birds, smaller than a pheasant but larger than a quail. While several breeds are available, chukars are a popular choice because of their docility. Partridges are raised mainly for hunting, as well as restocking birds in the wild, although a small restaurant market exists.

Squab (young pigeons)
The mildly flavoured, tender meat of young pigeons is considered a delicacy in many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Squab are fed by their parents and slaughtered at about four weeks, before they leave the nest. In North America, they are sold primarily to the restaurant trade.

Guinea fowl
Roughly the size of a broiler chicken, guinea fowl are raised primarily for their dark, delicate meat. They can be raised in broiler conditions or as free range birds if you provide some shelter. Beware—guinea fowl can be notoriously noisy birds, liable to shriek at the smallest disturbance.

Feather picking & cannibalism
Strategies to combat troublesome habits
Game birds can be aggressive, making feather picking and cannibalism serious issues. To help control the problem, make sure they have enough space, keep the lights low, and don’t let the temperature get too high.
Many producers trim the birds’ beaks to reduce injuries and mortalities, but the Priddles found an alternative: a home-made brooder made from a cardboard box covered with fabric and set up with a lamp shining inside.
“It’s like this little box thing is their mum, so they go in there and keep warm and they feel comfortable there,” explains Ann Priddle. “It really works.”

Sources
For a list of federally registered game bird hatcheries: http://www4.agr.gc.ca/AAFC-AAC/display-afficher.do?id=1184691968567&lang=e