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Urban Quail Keeping

By Kat Lavers

Would you like fresh, golden-yoked eggs and feathered company in your tiny urban backyard or courtyard? Most people have only ever used chicken eggs in the kitchen, but many other birds have been domesticated for egg production. Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) are a fantastic alternative in urban areas where space and noise constraints preclude a backyard chicken flock.

How many quail to keep?

A healthy quail hen will lay an egg virtually every day during spring, summer and autumn. Egg laying will slow down in winter and when quails are molting, just like with chickens. Use this equation to work out roughly how many quail hens to keep:

((No. of chicken eggs you normally eat each week x 5) / 7 ) * 1.2 = No. quail hens to keep for a similar quantity of eggs

As an example, a flock of 10 quail hens should lay the equivalent of a dozen chicken eggs per week for most of the year. The minimum ethical housing size for this flock would be just over 3m2 (if it is a rich and interesting environment, see Housing). They are social birds so please never keep a single quail – they do get lonely.

Keeping a rooster is optional for egg production but of course, very important if you want to raise chicks. Choose a gentle, quiet male to avoid stressing out your hens and your neighbours (though quail rooster crows are far softer than chicken roosters). Keeping more than one male is not recommended as wounds from fighting can be fatal and it will also stress the rest of the flock.

Diet

Our quail receive chicken mash/pellet as a basic ration. Choose the highest protein you can find as quail need more than chickens (ideally 20%). Pellets may need to be blitzed into slightly smaller pieces in a food processer for younger birds. We buy an organic certified brand to support better farming practices but this is expensive. Reduce waste and avoid attracting rodents by removing the feed a few hours before dark to encourage clean up any spillage.

This basic ration is supplemented with homegrown compost worms/mealworms (important to increase protein content as noted above), scraps from the kitchen, bugs from the deep litter and garden, plus a bunch of garden greens every day. Quails enjoy common weeds like chickweed, fat hen, milk thistle, amaranth, nettle and dandelion, and will eat unused parts of vegetables like pumpkin and broccoli leaves, carrots tops and beet greens. Silverbeet and sorrel are particular favourites if you have surplus.

Birds have no teeth and instead swallow small stones and shells to grind up food in their gizzard. We give finely crushed eggshells back to the quails as grit and a calcium supplement – baking them first makes them easier to crush. You can also provide small stones or shell grit.

Abundant, clean, cool water is essential. It should be clean enough for you to drink. The easiest way to do this is with nipple waterers screwed into the base of a food grade plastic bucket. For our small covey we use 2 nipples in each 10L bucket, and 2 buckets as a back-up in case of blockage or failure. The water stays very clean, the larger volume keeps it cool, and they only need refilling about once a week. A large ice block in their water encourages them to drink more and continue laying through extreme heat.

Housing

As quail are ground-dwelling birds, they can either be kept in a low hutch (eg. a rabbit hutch), or in a walk-in aviary. Unlike chickens, quails don’t require a nesting box or a coop and will lay their eggs anywhere (usually in the afternoon), so yes it’s an Easter egg hunt every day and you’ll need easy access to all parts of the run to collect them. They can sometimes be encouraged to lay in the same place by offering a quiet, dark place and nesting material (eg. dry grass or shredded paper).

Housing must be dog, cat and fox (and child!) proof, and ideally rodent proof too though this is tricky in practice (no gaps >10mm). At least part of the run must be sheltered from hot summer sun, cold winds and rain. Quail seem to handle extreme weather better than chickens. Even in the depths of winter they prefer to sit on the ground at night and won’t use shelters, though they enjoy naps in these during the day. They cope well during heatwaves given shade and plenty of cold water.

Ethical quail keepers generally cite a maximum stocking rate of 3 birds per square metre, though I give my birds more than double this space. A stimulating environment is at least as important as the amount of space though, so make sure they are able to express their quailness by scratching for bugs (see deep litter below), dust bathing, exploring new objects, napping in a quiet area, nesting, pecking at greens etc. Keeping inquisitive birds that love to scratch permanently on a wire mesh floor in a small cage with nothing to do is cruel, and will lead to stress, illness and fighting.

Deep litter

Deep litter is the secret to healthy and happy quail, all while minimising work and creating a useful end product for you. This is simply a 10-15cm layer of carbon-rich materials (eg. untreated wood shavings, wood chips, autumn leaves, shredded paper and cardboard) spread on the base of the cage or aviary. The carbon balances the nitrogen in manure and any uneaten scraps, and eventually breaking down into a rich compost for your garden. Worms and other bugs are attracted to deep litter, adding hours of entertainment (for you and the quail) plus valuable live food to their diet. Keep it slightly damp to assist breakdown, and turn over the litter with a garden fork once a week to bury manure in the carbon as quails are not strong scratchers. The beauty of this system is it will never stink and you never need to clean out the cage – you’ll just harvest finished compost ready for the vegie patch.  

Quail as garden helpers

As well as making compost for you, quails can help with pest control and fertilisation. While quails are ground-dwelling birds, they will fly straight upwards with force if alarmed and will easily clear an average fence. They must also be safe from predators – cats, dogs, foxes. This makes free ranging a bit problematic in urban environments, but movable ‘quail tractors’ or ranging in netted garden beds are good options. As well as accessing a more nutritious and economical diet, foraging quails will vacuum up pests and fertilise your soil. And of course you can always take them pests that you have handpicked or trapped in the garden.

Healthcare

Focus on preventative healthcare by giving your quails a nutritious diet, generous housing and a stress-free life. Preventing contact with wild birds, quarantining new birds for a fortnight and raising your own chicks minimises the risk of introducing pest and diseases. Dust-bathing naturally inhibits pests like lice and mites and keeps feathers in good condition, so every week I give the birds a tray with a small scoop of wood ash. You could also use sand or dry soil. They love it. Sometimes beaks or nails will need a trim with a pair of nail clippers. Occasionally a quail will get ‘toeballed’ where a chunk of manure sticks to their feet and sets hard – hold the quail’s foot in warm water until the ball breaks up. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a herb that may be useful for preventing intestinal parasites, and many backyard poultry keepers put garlic in the water. Injuries like cuts seem to heal rapidly without intervention. Scan the birds daily to pick up problems early, and if you do find an unwell bird, isolate them immediately to prevent disease spreading to the rest of the flock, and allow recovery without investigative pecking from other birds.

In the kitchen

Quail eggs weigh 12-15g. The taste is indistinguishable from chicken eggs and they are interchangeable in recipes – just slightly richer due to the larger yolk so they make incredibly yellow pasta, creamy custards and delicious quiches. You need around 4-5 quail eggs to replace 1 chicken egg. Processing quail for meat is also straightforward.

Buying or breeding your quail

Quail reach maturity and start laying at only 6-10 weeks, but they typically reduce egg laying after 2 years and rarely live past 3, so if continuous egg production is your goal then you’ll need a succession plan. It is rare for a Japanese quail to go broody (sit on eggs) so eggs are almost always hatched in an incubator, though some have had success with a broody bantam chicken as a foster mum. Raising chicks is a bit of work but a lot of fun and will allow you to breed for desirable qualities. You’ll need to have a plan for surplus roosters. Alternatively you can buy hens at point-of-lay for around $7 each from Gumtree and the Trading Post but please support responsible breeders who are raising quail in humane conditions.

Resources

The Small Scale Poultry Flock – Harvey Ussery

Not a lot specifically on quail, but a real gem of a book on holistic management and integrating poultry into productive food gardens.

Chicken Health for Dummies – Julie Gauthier and Robert Ludlow

Again not specific to quail, but an invaluable and thorough book specifically written for backyard poultry keepers. Diagnosis and treatment advice, but more importantly an emphasis on preventative practices.