Towards the beginning of May we got our first quail. Initially 3 week old Golden and Partridge Cortunix quail (also known as Japanese quail and the species that is farmed commercially for meat and egg production). It wasn’t long afterwards that we went on to bring in some further white Cortunix as day olds (we raised them under heat).
In researching keeping quail I have learned some very interesting things and become increasingly enamoured with these busy, tenacious little birds.
The main thrust of advice regarding keeping quail recommends that they are kept in cages (and much of it that they should be kept on wire – as in a wire floor, although people do give them some non-wired space to retreat to). Newcomers are assured that this is the most productive way to keep quail and that it really doesn’t bother them. NB: EU minimum space requirements for quail are horrific – the size of a beermat! Please visit the link at the end of the post for more information and support the call to end this terrible practice!
With its association (in my mind) with battery farming, there was no way that I could do that, so we started off keeping them in small numbers in a rabbit hutch. It was indeed messy – they needed A LOT of cleaning out. I felt rather sorry for them and, noticing that they were attempting to dust bathe in the wood shavings, we popped a seed tray of dry soil in (which they immediately dived into and proceeded to scratch and roll around in with great joy – at which point I shed a tear at the thought of birds kept with no access to such small pleasures!) We were also “hardening off” the white quail (much like plants, as the young quail had previously been kept inside with a heat plate, they had to be steadily acclimatised to the outdoors) – popping them in a covered run, I often found them sunbathing and it was very clear they were enjoying having greens to peck at. It became increasingly clear that they all needed something *more* than the rabbit hutches.
Free-ranging quail isn’t really much of an option for us – they’re tiny and a massive target for any passing predator (unlike chickens who are too big generally for cats or sparrowhawks), plus they have harrier jump jet tendencies (if spooked they will launch themselves vertically into the air, before zooming off in any given direction – I have watched this happen and, believe me, they are FAST!) Apparently they are not likely to come back (although I’m not sure I’d want to if kept in a wire cage, either and I have read accounts that don’t agree with this). They are just not very safe out there in the big bad world and as a UK summer migrant at its northern limit here, I would be concerned for any escapee’s survival once winter hit (they are on the RSPB’s amber list – if you’re interested in learning more about wild quail, they have a page here).
I started to read more about keeping quail in aviaries and began to wonder whether, as with chickens, there existed a “more natural” approach to their keeping. I found “The Holistic Hen”: http://holistic-hen.blogspot.co.uk who has some fantastic articles. Reading her blog and a few threads on various forums, shored up my belief that, as with chickens, quail are best kept in as close to their natural environment as you can provide for them.
A friend was giving up keeping chickens and offered us her old coop and run. The coop was reserved for our growing flock of chickens, but the run, at over 2 metres long, seemed perfect as an upgrade for the quail. It was divided into two with an internal dividing door, meaning that we could introduce the separate coveys (groups) of quail to each other before letting them run together and, if a big clean was needed, could shut them all into one part temporarily, to minimise stress (and possible escape) for them.
I set about fixing and amending it for the quail as one major addition had to be put in. As mentioned before, when startled, quail jump vertically (aka “boinking”). Over a certain height they reach a velocity that means if they hit their head they will do serious damage (or die). My solution to this was to give them a reserve parachute to help slow any rapid ascent by loosely stretching some netting across (although, since their introduction into the run I haven’t see any incidence of boinking – and can only assume that they feel far happier and more secure). In addition to this, the run was put on concrete blocks giving us the option to use the Deep Litter method. I added places for shelter and some pots of plants and John added some branches for further cover and interest and we moved the quails in. The roof has a plastic cover that can be pulled over in bad weather (and a further bit that can be dropped down over one side to add further protection).
Over the past few weeks we have watched them with interest. They settled and mingled very quickly. Those hens already laying, continued to lay with no break (which might’ve been expected due to potential stress from being moved) and one of the white quail has also since come into lay. Even our invalid hen (who had been mercilessly bullied and has spent most of her life isolated in a temporary sick bay and at one point we didn’t think was going to make it) has been successfully reintroduced and, although she still looks ropey (due to feather loss from a secondary infection caused by her repeatedly scratching her wounds) she happily sun and dust bathes with the others.
Where before, opening their hutch had clearly caused quite some stress for the golden and partridge quail (and one would always desperately try to escape), the reaction to us when we open a door now is completely different. They are more relaxed, no panic. They have plenty of space to move away if they want to, but I’m finding that they don’t always do so and will stay reasonably close and watch what I’m doing (the white quail have always been more calm and we haven’t had the same issues with them).
Whilst there hasn’t been any “boinking” witnessed, I have seen them fly. They have worked out that they can glide from one part to the other through the open door and they do – I assume mostly in reaction to the odd natural bicker, but also even when clearly relaxed they appear to like to have a good old flap whilst standing, They are naturally ground birds, but every-so-often I think they enjoy giving their wings a bit of movement.
A further tray of bolting salad was popped in and they have clearly enjoyed demolishing it, so they will now have a supply of seed trays sown with various tidbits to eat and soil to rip up. The floor of the run has soil, clippings, etc, added to it for them to rootle through and the maintenance of it is so much easier than dealing with woodshavings on newspaper on a solid wood floor! And no smell (seriously!)
Shhhhhh! I think the chickens might be jealous!
For more information on keeping poultry more naturally (and quail – who are not classed as poultry, but are a game bird), you may find the following sites helpful:
If you would like to add your voice to the demand to end the battery farming of quail in the EU (and I hope you do) please visit: Compassion in World Farming for more information.