What if I told you that out there in the world exists a bird that is so low to the ground that it often goes under the radar of the vast majority of homesteaders? It’s the same bird that allows folks in both rural and urban settings to explore several aspects of self-sufficiency while still often abiding local by-laws, all the while capable of laying an egg a day and using only a fraction of the room and energy that chickens require. Not to mention, they also provide delicious and easy-to-prepare meat.
Sounds too good to be true, right? I thought the exact same thing until a friend of mine showed me his covey of Coturnix quail, which led me to invest in thirty birds the next spring. What surprised me the most was how ridiculously easy it is to keep quail and even make a few dollars in the process.
As with anything, having a solid understanding of quail is important. The vast majority of quail in domestic captivity are called Coturnix quail, sometimes called Japanese quail. They’re a drab-looking bird that comes in various plumages and can sustain brief stints of airtime, but they really shine when it comes to putting on weight and laying eggs. Also, they don’t need much space, which makes them a favorite for urban homesteaders.
When you’re looking to invest in a covey, it’s important to know how you want to start. Are you looking to invest in chicks to raise or are you hoping to get adult birds that are already laying eggs? The answer will dictate how you go about getting your setup ready for when your birds arrive.
If you’re going down the chick road, a good brooder setup is important because that’s where the chicks will spend the first three to four weeks of their lives. If you’re feeling a bit on the impatient side and want to skip to adult quail, then you’re going to want to construct a proper enclosure. Adult quail need roughly 0.6 square feet of space to live comfortably, so it’s just a matter of deciding how much space you have for the birds you need.
There are plenty of ways to house your quail. Most folks usually go for a hutch-type pen that sits off the ground with a floor on a slight angle so that when the birds lay their eggs (usually mid to late afternoon), the eggs roll out of the pen and into a catchment area. The floor of the pen generally consists of hardware cloth, so their waste goes through the holes of the hardware cloth and into a tray underneath for convenient cleanup.
Keeping your quail on the ground is another great choice if you can guarantee predators won’t be able to claw, chew, or dig their way into the pen. I dug a deep trench around my quail pens, filled it with chicken wire, and put hefty stones on top to prevent predators from getting in.
A word of caution—while we often think about hawks or foxes, rats are my biggest predator concern. Last year, two rats killed eighteen quail overnight after tunneling more than seven feet into the pen. Don’t underestimate this sly adversary. But a bonus is that if you decide to keep your quail on the ground, they sometimes go broody and will try to hatch eggs, which is a lot of fun to watch.
One final reminder: these birds are nomadic in the wild and will camp out just about anywhere, so free-ranging is not an option. They’ll free range right into the next county, never to be seen again.
Coturnix Quail have an average lifespan of roughly two years. Similar to turkey poults, it seems like they’re always finding new ways to end their lives prematurely. In addition to quail, I’ve raised ducklings and chicks, and it’s always the quail who seem to take it upon themselves to thin their numbers out on their own. In other words, they like to die.
The good news is that they don’t need to live for long. At just eight weeks old, they’re fully grown and ready to be butchered. By 10 weeks old, the hens will begin to lay eggs and lots of them. But due to their short lifespan, their egg production slows down more quickly compared to ducks or chickens.
A little bit of common sense goes a long way when raising these birds. For example, if you have newly hatched quail chicks, putting a few stones in the reservoir of a waterer will prevent a lot of chicks from drowning themselves. My adult birds use a drip system made from an old five-gallon bucket and, one night a few years back, I forgot to put the lid on the pale. The next morning I pulled seven dead quail that had flown into the bucket and promptly drowned. The takeaway here is that if there’s a way to die, these birds will find it. So take measures to nip whatever that might be in the bud ahead of time and save yourself (and your quail) the grief.
Quail chicks need a higher source of protein than chickens or ducks, so start with a good source of game bird feed that comes in crumbles instead of pellets. The reason for this is that when Coturnix quail hatch, they’re smaller than a golf ball and simply can't fit pellets in their beaks. Baby quail need a food source with roughly 25% protein in it. Unfortunately, most feed mills don’t keep a ready supply of game bird feed on hand, which can make things difficult. A great alternative is turkey starter, which offers 23% to 28% protein, and is perfect for your quail chicks (and easier on your wallet).
I start giving my chicks bits of greenery around three weeks old because my quail live on the ground once they’re fully feathered—usually around four to five weeks old. Plants like dandelion leaves and bits of grass will give them an added source of nutrition, and by three weeks old, they’re unbelievably efficient foragers.
Though they’re awkward and bulky, Coturnix quail can fly and do so quite well. No matter how you decide to house your birds, it can be next to impossible to get them back if they take off. Make certain there’s only one way in and out and that they can’t get through it. I once left the door to my pen open for about three seconds, all the time my birds needed to make their daring escape. One flew into the woods and was never seen again, while the other made a short flight onto the roof of our house.
You’ll quickly discover that by six weeks of age, your roosters are beginning to get teenage urges. They’ll begin to crow, too, but not like your typical barnyard rooster. Males make a sound that I can only describe as the call of a redwing black blackbird that’s had too much to drink. One male to every six females is a good ratio to start with, and you can cull the rest of the males at eight weeks old for the freezer.