The first little peep hatched yesterday, and more hatched overnight. So far there are five tiny, baby quail chicks in the brooder. So fluffy!
Japanese quail, Coturnix japonica (not Coturnix coturnix – that’s the common quail from which the domesticated Japanese quail is derived), are a small, round bird kept for eggs, meat, and sometimes for their voices. I’m unsure about that last, since they’re not especially tuneful; they’re not a noisy bird, though, and I imagine their quiet chattering and the occasional trilling crow of the males could be a pleasant background noise.
Because quail are relatively quiet, and because they’re such small birds (even the giant meat quail are only up to 300g at maturity, and strains bred for egg laying tend to be 90 – 200g at maturity), they’re perfect backyard livestock. You can even keep them indoors, in a small aviary, if you don’t have a back yard suitable for keeping birds. Many people keep them in aviaries with other birds (parrots and parakeets, canaries, pigeons, etc.) because quail are primarily ground-dwellers and will eat leftover spilled seed that the other birds waste, thus discouraging rats and mice.
These birds cannot be free ranged – they’re not smart enough, and they’re too flighty. Give a quail a scare, and it will shoot upwards in a panic; sometimes they land somewhere in the vicinity, sometimes they go further. I know one person whose panicked quail flew straight up until it died of a heart attack or hypoxia, and then feel like a stone right back down to where it started. Quail must be kept enclosed or you will lose them, and unlike chickens they cannot be relied on to come home at night. It’s recommended to either have a low ceiling on the quail enclosures (no more than 35 – 40cm) so that the birds don’t break their necks when startling upwards into the ceiling. I’ve found that giving them some cover to hide in makes the neck breaking less of a problem, as they prefer to hide under a bush or broken ceramic pot if there’s one available. Rabbit hutches make quite good quail enclosures, or make a mini version of a chicken tractor.
Like any other poultry, quail can be stinky if their coops or cages aren’t kept clean. They need daily cleaning, and their water needs to be checked daily as well because they do tend to poop in it if they can.
Female Japanese quail, which can be differentiated from the males (at least in the wild-type colour – there are a range of other colour variations) by their lighter breast feathers, begin laying at 6 – 8 weeks of age. They will lay an egg a day for the rest of their lives, about 2 – 3 years. They’re photoperiod layers, so they do need long daylight hours to keep them laying – not a problem in Perth, but in some places people use artificial lighting. Eggs hatch after 16 – 17 days of incubation at 37.5 degrees C. The chicks, like newly hatched chickens, can survive for 12 – 24 hours on the leftover yolk, so don’t worry if you don’t see them eat or drink at first. They’ll get it quickly enough.
They are voraciously hungry when they hatch, and basically from then onwards. They eat a variety of seeds and insects, and if exposed to the possibility of eating greens when they’re young they also love some greens – but quail are very habit-bound critters, and once they’re 3 – 6 months old it’s a real chore to get them to accept any new food as edible. My last lot of quail were terrified of greenery, and would circle around it and cheep plaintively that they were hungry because the scary green stuff was too close to their food to risk going to eat. Generally, quail should be fed a gamebird diet or turkey starter; chicks need about 22 – 25% protein for the first 5 weeks, and laying birds need about 24% protein.
Quail eggs can be used just like chicken eggs; they taste almost the same, although slightly sweeter and slightly richer. About 3 – 4 quail eggs are equivalent to one chicken egg in terms of volume, and they work perfectly in baking at that ratio.
Quail raised for meat should be killed humanely, just like any other bird or animal raised for meat. We use controlled atmosphere killing, using nitrogen gas (carbon dioxide will cause the sensation of suffocation, which is cruel; nitrogen is odorless and the bird doesn’t feel any suffering, it just goes to sleep), but you can also break the animal’s neck or cut off the head with a sharp axe or knife. Generally, plucking quail is very difficult, as their skin is quite delicate; most people just skin them rather than plucking. Gutting the bird is a bit tricky due to their small size, but it can be done.
If you want to hatch your own, you’ll need an incubator or a broody bantam hen – Japanese quail don’t go broody or set their eggs. The instinct to hatch their own eggs has been bred out of them.
- Produce: eggs, meat, fertiliser (bird poop is great fertiliser)
- Space requirements: minimum of 125 – 145 sq cm per bird
- Food: adult quail eat 14 – 18g per day, and need around 24% protein
- Water: obviously
- Other requirements: quail are flighty prey birds, and will be happier if they have some cover or something to hide under if they are frightened. They are also avid dust bathers and really need some clean sand to bathe in (they may turn to cannibalism and feather picking out of stress and boredom if they have no sand available for dust bathing).
More info and pictures? Try these sites: