If you’re trying to get by and want a self-sufficient meat source, but are limited on space or are trying to do it on the sly so your landlord and neighbors won’t find out, quail is an excellent option. They’ve been domesticated for centuries, are very quiet, and can be raised both indoors and out.
Quail come in many breeds, but for the intent of this article, we’re going to focus on the most commonly raised domesticated quail. Note: regulations vary depending on your area. Always be sure to check with local authorities (your local Department of Fish and Wildlife is a good place to start) to determine which breeds, if any, you’re allowed to raise in your area).
Japanese quail, also known as Coturnix quail or “cots”, are the easiest to obtain, have the best feed-to-meat ratio, and are prolific layers. They come in a variety of colors, but the least expensive and most common is a basic brown. Their adult weight ranges from four to six ounces, depending on sex, and they can be sexed as early as three to four weeks old by the color patterns of their feathers.
Japanese quail are the best choice for beginners. They require less space than the other breeds of meat quail, tend to be calmer and less prone to startling, and are less aggressive and cannibalistic with each other than other breeds of quail. There’s also a jumbo version of the breed that has been selectively bred for its larger size and the can reach nearly a pound live weight.
Button quail are the smallest of the domesticated quail, so not a good choice for food and eggs. Bobwhites, Gambel’s, Mountain, Montezuma, and Blue Scale are native to the USA (known as New World Quail), and larger than Japanese and Button quail, but they’re also more difficult to keep. The Japanese quail have been domesticated for centuries and most of their “wildness” has been bred out of them. New World Quail, on the other hand, have only recently been domesticated for a few hundred years. New World Quail are more aggressive and tend towards cannibalism at much greater ratios than Japanese quail.
All animals need adequate food, fresh water at all times, and shelter. Japanese quail can be raised on wire in cages or on the ground in colonies. Because of their small size, extra care will need to be taken to insure they’re protected from predators. Everything from mice and rats on up will try to take advantage by stealing eggs or killing your quail. We’ve even had wild birds, like Blue Jays, swoop in and eat the eggs before we can gather them. Whether you decide to raise quail in cages or in colonies outside, make sure that whatever wire you use to construct the cages has small enough holes that the quail won’t get out and the predators can’t get in. Each bird will need at least one square foot of space and ensure they have a water source.
Quail like to hide- hiding and sudden flights are their way of surviving and they’ll greatly appreciate some kind of cover that makes them feel secure. Options include new or used (if used, thoroughly cleaned!) small animal hideaways like the one found here, cardboard boxes or shoe boxes, and branches and brush trimmings. Quail will poop indiscriminately, so it’s best to choose either plastic hideaways that can be cleaned and reused, or disposable hideaways made from natural, easily-compostable material.
If you choose to raise your quail in cages, care should be taken to keep the height of the cage no more than 18 inches high. Quail startle easily and will instinctively, suddenly shoot upwards in flight. High ceiling cages, like a rabbit cage, allows them to get up too much speed on their initial take-off. They’ll brain themselves on the ceiling before they can calm down and slow their flight. Very often, this ends up causing the quail to scalp the tops of their heads or causes brain damage. If your cage is long enough, you can place something over half of the cage like a small piece of plywood or leafy branches and leave the other end open. Throughout the day, the quail will travel from one end of the cage to the other and back again to sun themselves or hide under the canopy of plywood or branches.
If you decide to go with an on-ground, colony-style enclosure, you’ll need to make it tall enough for you to enter and gather eggs. Six feet tall is a good height. That’s tall enough for most people to get into comfortably and will also give your quail enough height to startle, fly, and calm down without braining themselves. Some kind of bedding should be placed on the ground to help absorb moisture from their droppings. Pine shavings work well, but so do dried leaves or pine needles from your own yard, or straw. The enclosure should be cleaned regularly to reduce odor, moisture, and parasites.
There’s no need to supply nesting boxes for them to lay eggs in. Japanese quail will find a spot they like in the bedding, hollow out a little indentation, and lay right in the middle of the floor. Sometimes I think they just walk and lay an egg wherever they happen to be standing at the time.
If you’re planning on raising quail indoors, pet rodent cages are excellent choices and can be picked up on the cheap at most thrift stores.
Quail are considered “game birds” and as such, they require higher protein levels than chickens. They should be fed a balanced feed with at least 18 percent protein in it for layers and about 21-22 percent for growing birds. Without adequate protein, they’ll stop laying and won’t grow and put on meat as well. They also enjoy kitchen scraps (mine love grapes and tomatoes), grass clippings, carrots tops, bits of leafy greens, and will go absolutely nuts if you toss them a few juicy worms from your yard.
The high protein in their diet means VERY aromatic manure. If you’re raising quail on the down-low, you’ll need to be extra diligent about cleaning up after them. They’re quiet, little birds and the sound they make blends in well with the sounds coming from wild songbirds, but the odor from their droppings can give them away. The manure is also very hot, which means it needs to be composted before it can be put into gardens; otherwise, it will kill your plants. If you’re unable to compost the manure, treat it like cat poop- bag it up in a small plastic garbage bag and throw it in your regular trash can.
Another good way to control the odor is by using lime, a calcium-containing, inorganic mineral. There are two kinds of lime, garden lime and hydrated lime (also known as “builder’s lime”). DO NOT use hydrated lime! Garden lime is used as a soil supplement and won’t hurt your garden. Hydrated lime, on the other hand, will melt worms and greatly reduce the health of your compost pile or garden soil.
Quail are an excellent meat and egg choice for urban homesteaders, apartment dwellers, and Broke Folk that don’t have a lot of money to invest to get started raising your own meat and eggs. They’re quiet, can be raised without anyone else knowing about it, can be housed indoors or out, and are easily obtainable.
Up next, we’ll go into more depth about how to get started (live chicks versus fertilized eggs), the equipment requirements for each, and how to harvest the meat. Stay tuned!