Quails are classed as a game bird and belong to the pheasant and partridge family. There are many different breeds, strains and colours of quail. They are bred for meat as well as for eggs. They make great pets, provide delicious and nutritious miniature speckled eggs and are very curious and flighty in nature.
In the wild, common quail live in small groups and scratch for insects and seeds. Quail migrate to central Africa near the southern edge of the Sahara desert for winter and return to England in spring.
The most common breeds kept for eggs are:
Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica)
They are known as the migratory quail. They grow to 20cms in height. This breed is ideal for aviaries and is proven to be less flighty if enough cover is provided for nesting.
Button Quail come in a large variety of colours and mutations. Choose from buff, silver, barred, spotted, blue, and many more. They are smaller and flightier than Japanese quail. They produce smaller eggs too. Their lifespan is three to five years. Hens have a slightly shorter lifespan as it depends on how many eggs she has laid in her lifetime and if the required nutrients such as calcium were readily available. Button Quail chicks are very cute and look like bumble bees due to their striped heads.
Chinese painted quail (Coturnix chinensis)
These are often thought of as Button Quail due to their size, but are a different strain as shown by the latin name. They are the original aviary cleaners. They are half the size of Japanese quail. Their lifespan is five to seven years. Females are usually light brown with speckled feathers. It is possible to tell which are cocks as they have a painted white bib under their chin.
Domestic quail are timid creatures and if spooked, fly straight up into the sky. They can easily fly over six foot fences, so it is important to house them carefully. If they escape, it is almost impossible to catch them.
Quails are prolific egg layers and lay tiny speckled eggs that are the size of an olive. Quail’s eggs are a delicacy in some countries. They are much richer in flavour due to the higher yolk to white ratio and have a strong, gamey flavour unlike chicken eggs. They are rich in vitamin D and high in antioxidants. You only need to eat two quail eggs per day to reach fifty percent of the recommended dose of vitamin D. Quails start egg laying at six weeks old and are into full egg production at fifty weeks of age. Expect two hundred to two hundred and fifty delicious eggs per year.
Always keep quails in pairs or at least one male to three hens to prevent fighting. Quails nest on the ground and lay six to twelve eggs. They sit on them for thirteen days and if the amount of eggs is too large for the hen, the cock will join her on the nest. Chicks are tiny, but are able to feed themselves straight away. If you wish to breed quails, provide a secluded area for them. Cover a corner of the run with greenery, as they like to hide. Keep a close eye on the cock when the chicks hatch. If he attacks separate him. It is more likely he will find special treats for the hen and bring them to her. Provide a small water dish filled with marbles for the chicks to prevent drowning.
Button Quail eggs hatch after twelve to thirteen days and the chicks are able to fly after two weeks. Choose extra small gauge weld mesh, as the chicks are tiny and can jump through the holes in the wire. Seven millimetres is ideal.
What type of housing do quail need?
It is ideal to keep quail in an aviary with budgerigars, doves or cockatiels, as they will clean up the dropped seed. If the quail fly up, they will have plenty of headroom to do so and will not bang their heads.
They appreciate secluded corners, as they like to nest on the ground and hide behind plants and greenery. Place small, cut branches of conifer around the edges of the aviary for the quail.
Wood chippings or soil on the aviary floor will encourage natural foraging behaviour. A mixture of wood chippings and soil would be perfect. They enjoy dust bathing in soil or sand.
Quails do not need much space, therefore a rabbit hutch or a small weld mesh run with an attached coop, such as a broody coop that you would use for a hen, is fine to keep a trio or two. It is best to put the rabbit hutch inside another run as quail are flighty and may escape when you change the food and water. Put wood shavings on the floor for them and provide a sand bath, as they like to dust bathe.
Quail eat the same food as chickens; layers pellets, chick crumbs or layers mash. If you don’t have chickens, purchase mini quail pellets in small sacks. It is best not to buy 25kg sacks if you only have a few pairs of quail, as the feed will go off before you can use it all.
Supplement their main diet with kitchen scraps such as left over vegetables, sweet corn, chunks of apple, grated carrots, lettuce, broccoli, chopped cabbage and peas. Millet or mealworms are ideal as a treat. The cock will not eat mealworms. He will usually present them to his hens to show his appreciation.
Quail are fussy eaters and you will soon learn what they do not like. Do not feed any cuttings from the garden, as it is all too easy to mix in a poisonous plant. Do not feed avocado or chocolate – they are poisonous to all birds. Quails need grit to help digest their food. Always provide clean, fresh water.