Meet Juan Zamora. Juan has worked at MacFarlane Pheasants for 19 years now. But Juan isn’t just loyal; he’s gifted, and Juan’s gift is that he can stand in an 85-degree incubation room for hours on end separating fertilized pheasant eggs faster than any man or woman we’ve ever seen. Simply put, Juan is a master at candling.
“Candling” refers to the process that we separate out fertilized pheasant eggs from the unfertilized. Eggs are hand-collected from the outdoor pens, washed, and then incubated for a week. After that week, in trays of 276 eggs, employees grab a Maglite LED flashlight, loaded with two rechargeable AA batteries, and shine the beam on each egg to check for fertilization or disposal.
After a week of consistent heat, fertilized eggs have developed a system of blood vessels latticing the inside of the egg. With a flashlight you can even see a heartbeat and the tiny embryo moving. Unfertilized eggs have none of this and are then pulled out for disposal or fertilizer, while the fertilized eggs return to the incubator to grow into the finest pheasants in the U.S..
While the best MacFarlane employees can go through a tray of eggs in about 4 or 5 minutes, Juan is in a class of his own. He can flash through a tray in half that time, averaging two minutes, or more than two eggs per second. He explains it’s “because I’ve been working so long at it,” but adds that he was that good after his first two years of working at the farm.
The later into the season you get, the lower the percentage of eggs that are fertilized. There are a number of reasons for this, the main being temperature and weather. Too hot, too cold, or too wet, and the birds will lay, but the cocks won’t fertilize. While in a typical week during our main season, we see around 10 percent of the eggs unfertilized, but late summer it rockets to around 30 percent. It’s because of this that we stop collecting eggs around the end of July.
Accuracy is something that develops quickly, but speed is God-given, and Juan has it. He’s one of the many MacFarlane employees have contributed their talents to build the America’s largest pheasant farm. If Juan is any indication, there’s no question: the egg always comes first.