Introduction (This article was reviewed for currency on 10 Apr 2015)
Raising or keeping quail isn't the first thing that comes to mind when one ponders self sufficiency. Needless to say, poultry have always been a favourite for self sufficiency and backyard farming because they are relatively easy to keep compared to livestock, they grow fast, they can be a steady source of protein through meat and eggs, and poultry manure is rich in nitrogen when used as fertiliser in the garden. However, most westerners immediately think of poultry as chickens first, ducks or possibly turkeys, not necessarily quail. In Asia and the Middle East, quail production is second nature and have been farmed for thousands of years.
I started with chickens (layers) and I never really contemplated quail until my wife saw them at a stand during a visit to a gardening expo in Nambour (Sunshine Coast QLD). She called me back from my mindless wander in the 'cowboy hatted' crowd and asked if I had ever been interested in growing quail and I confessed I knew little about them. The following week I decided to do some research into keeping quail and I became quite intrigued with the idea. My main reasons for deciding to try and raise quail were: how easy and moderately low cost it actually was to keep quail, I could use them for meat and not just eggs, and the fact I had seen quail featured in posh French restaurants and on TV's Master Chef as an expensive gourmet dish that I had never tried (just joshing on the last one).
The common brown quail, coturnix or Japanese quail is the fastest growing domesticated poultry species with an incredible 18 days from egg to chick and a further 6 short weeks to become an adult. There are several different variants of common quail but mostly all are cosmetic with colour differences and some examples are: the Texas A&M – a white feathered bird especially bred by the American university with the same name (acclaimed by some to be the best eating); the Italian – a smoky grey feathered bird; the Tuxedo – a dark winged and white chested bird; and the jumbo coturnix – the most common with brown feathers, some black stripes and spots making them fantastically difficult to see in scrub-land. The bird can only fly a short distance, 10 metres maximum, before it needs a rest and if it is startled the bird often shoots several feet straight into the air like a rocket. Therefore, a mesh roof is recommended in pens to limit injury if they do literally 'hit the roof.' In the open, quail are easy enough to catch if they escape from your grasp but in a bush setting the task is harder.
When young, the males and females are difficult to tell apart. After about 4 weeks some variations can become clearer by identifying certain markings like a speckled chest (dots) usually mean female (Right Image) and a brown or coloured feather neck collar identifies the male (Left Image). Also, the males are the only sex to 'crow' but it's not like a rooster it's more unique like a bad hawk-call sound effect from a spaghetti western done twice in quick succession (you'll know what I mean when you hear it). The female makes a calling sound similar to a small frog or cricket, which I find quite therapeutic. At the end of the day, the best way to tell male from female is to wait until both reach maturity (at about 6 weeks) and then tip the bird upside down looking at its rear. If you can see a pronounced lump it's a male and if you're still not sure lightly press above the opening and if a fizzy white substance oozes out it's male. If you see a larger opening usually black or dark in colour without a large bump that will be the vent and it's a female.
Major quail farmers have refined growing techniques to such efficiency that they can produce thousands of birds in relatively small areas, which suits the needs of densely populated countries. However, from a self sufficiency/backyard grower perspective quail can be given the luxury of more space, even if, many of the techniques from the major growers are adopted. Typically, quail are kept in cages with mesh floors so waste can easily fall through to a collection area and this keeps the birds clean and limits disease. Cages for this type of poultry are widely accepted in a humane sense because quail actually like small spaces. Pens are also an effective way to house quail but it takes more space (of course) and a little more work to clean out the pens and collect eggs.
In the backyard environment, depending on the amount of quail you want to keep, the cages or pens you have, and how serious you are, will determine how many you keep together. Some specialist breeders keep quail in pairs within small cages, some keep one male with two females, others keep as many that can fit (within reason giving about 30 cm square per bird) with a ratio of males to females usually 1 to 5. The larger the females to males to harder it is for the male to do his 'business' and if you have too many males with not enough females the males will fight and likely kill or badly hurt each other.
If you do find you have a glut of males from the same brood they can usually be housed safely together until you can sell, eat, or do whatever to them. Just keep it a bachelor pad and don't introduce any more males to the pen/cage once settled or the 'intruders' will likely be harmed. The females don't usually fight so they can be moved around a little easier, if required.
It's important to house quail in a protective environment as their size and grounded nature make them easy and preferred targets for predators. Unlike chickens where you need to watch out for larger predators like foxes, dogs, eagles etc quail will get attacked and eaten by rats, snakes and hawks also. Therefore, cages and pens need to be made with at least one inch mesh and be 'dig proof.' Quail have been known to attack and kill mice but rats will make a terrible mess of your quails in a single night if they can get to them.
Feed and Water
Quails don't eat much, but feed should always be available to them to eat ad-lib. And, quails make great use of the food they do eat, which is why they are such efficient growers. The easiest way to feed your quails is with a pre-mixed game bird feed purchased from a good farm-feed retailer. Game bird feed is higher in protein to emulate the birds natural diet if it were in the wild. Sometimes, game bird feed can be a little hard to find on the shelf, however, a good retailer will order it in for you if they don't stock it. An alternative off-the-shelf feed that can be used in the interim if game feed is not available is chick grower crumble for chickens (make sure the product you get is non-medicated if you are feeding it to adult birds you intend to soon eat or use their eggs). Turkey crumble is good to use also as a substitute to game bird feed. If you are feeding quail chicks then a medicated feed until week three or four is advised to stave off diseases like coccidiosis (the main symptom of this disease is diarrhoea). Some people prefer not to use medicated feed at all and that's their prerogative, however, I personally see the benefit in using a medicated feed for the chicks only so the little fellas get off to a good start.
Water provision for quails is similar to chickens. Stand-alone drinkers can be used and filled daily or larger containers feeding a drinker system (cups or nipples) can be a convenient way to water for several days. Be aware of the potential drowning danger when using drinkers for quail chicks. Due to the tiny size of the chicks and the tendency for the little buggers to fall asleep instantly when newly hatched, drinkers should be shallow or filled with marbles to allow easy escape if they fall in.
Coturnix quail can lay 200-300 eggs per year in the right conditions. The eggs are about ¼ size of a medium chicken egg and although they taste the same as a chicken egg the nutritional values are different. Cholesterol and saturated fat are similar on a gram-to-gram comparison but there are strong held beliefs by some nutritionists claiming quail eggs are superior then chicken eggs when it comes to amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. I think they taste rather good especially pickled but they are awfully tedious to peal once boiled.
After a very short childhood quail start laying eggs around the 6 week mark depending on the time of year. In the tropics/sub-tropics quail can lay all year but I still tend to see a decline in egg laying throughout winter due to the shortening of the days. In a colder climate the birds may not lay at all through winter unless an artificial light source is provided to extend the daylight.
Egg collection is easy enough if the quail are kept in cages particularly if the cages are built with a roll-out incline floor. In pens, egg collection can be more difficult as quail tend to lay eggs in the litter or dirt and because the eggs are speckled brown they are harder to spot. Hopefully, the quail will lay in the small, private, sheltered area you have provided within the pen but it isn't always the case and sometimes you'll feel a tiny crunch as you tip-toe through.
On occasions, my quails have been such productive layers that I have had to feed the excess eggs to my chickens and dog as treats and they just absolutely love eating them. One other thing I am often asked about eggs is the edibility of 'fertile eggs' – just because the eggs are produced from quail which are likely fertilised due to housing with males it does not mean those eggs will develop. Fertilised eggs are exactly the same a non-fertilised eggs and can't develop unless incubated at the correct temperature. Therefore, if the eggs are kept at normal room temperature or especially if refrigerated they will never develop so don't worry.
Quail don't live very long and they are considered pretty old at 2 years. I like to refresh my stock totally at least yearly and I do this by keeping some of the best males (from different broods if possible) as specialist breeders, and I phase the rest, pen by pen cage by cage. Occasionally, I may buy a male or two from another breeder just to re-freshen my stock and I have found no lines of deformity in my quail to date with this system.
For incubation, I usually collect the eggs over a seven day period or until I have enough. Then I inspect the eggs for cracks or abnormalities like too big or too small, discard the bad and place the good ones in my incubator. I document the date and time and set my calendar to prompt me when hatching time will be.
So that's it for my general outline on keeping quail. You can also view some of my videos on quail by clicking here! If you would like to find out more or ask questions feel free to utilise our forum – Self Sufficient Culture. Otherwise, over the coming months I will be writing more about quails and exploring aspects in depth. I'll be covering things like my personal quail set-up, things that worked and what hasn't, building cages and pens, processing quail for meat and how to cook them, and much more.
Look, and see the Earth through her eyes
Mark (Editor – SSM)
Mark Valencia retired from the Australian Army in 2008 after 21 years of service and is married with two children (boys). He has always been passionate about self-sufficiency (even as a child) and he is now enjoying the opportunity to communicate this passion through his Blog and YouTube Channel.
Self Sufficient Me is a blog about self-sustainment by growing our own produce (plant/animal), and self-fulfilment by looking after our health (physical/mental) through exercise and slowing life down a little.