Some years ago, Jeremy Hobson bought half a dozen live quail from a French market stall – ever since, he has been fascinated
European quail (Coturnix coturnix) could, at one time, be found wild in certain parts of the English countryside – especially in the Eastern counties. However, such a sighting today would, unfortunately, be a rare event. Here in France we still see them running across a farm track on occasions, but it is more often their call that attracts us to their presence; especially when the male and females ‘duet’ with one another in the spring.Some are actually migratory and make their way into parts of France from Spain, a fact that never ceases to astound me when one is lucky enough to see their less than aerodynamic profile at close quarters. Almost every poultry market stall has a crate or two of quail for sale, and, judging from the amount of people we see buying them, very popular they are too. One day – and despite always advocating others never to buy any form of livestock in such a way – we succumbed to temptation and bought some on a whim. Ours were not destined for the pot, and instead spent their lives happily dusting in the silver sand at the bottom of our aviary (and laying so many eggs that we ran out of culinary ideas and ended up feeding most to the dogs!) They gave us hours of pleasure and certainly added a totally different dimension to the colours and antics of the aviary birds that flew over their heads.In the wild, they might lay two or three clutches a season; given the right indoor conditions, quail can be induced to lay continually for the best part of the year and one female may produce over 200 eggs. They also mature quickly and create a tasty dish for the table, and, as if that were not enough, require very little in the way of space – all of which makes them an interesting proposition for some people.In fact, in the past, several ‘get-rich-quick merchants’ have erroneously thought that because of the rapid ‘turnover’ potential – seventeen days to incubate, six weeks to mature, eggs being laid at six weeks and a carcass ready for the table at around nine – they would make their fortune. Unfortunately, they also tended to over-estimate the market because, although their eggs are becoming more often seen on the supermarket shelves, there is, in the UK (unlike parts of Europe where they can be found in every poultry chiller section), but a limited interest in quail bred for the table. There is, though, no reason why they should not be considered by those who might be interested in a small-scale poultry-related hobby. Housing and keeping For the hobbyist, large rabbit hutches can provide ideal housing for quail, but if it is intended to give them access to an outdoor run, it is as well to remember that they are shy, flighty birds and so any netting covering the pen should be of nylon rather than wire so that, if startled, they do not hurt themselves. Because of their size, quail are susceptible to attacks from rats – it is therefore absolutely essential that the housing and runs are built in such a way as to preclude access by vermin. Being ground-hugging birds, perches are not needed; neither are nest boxes. As we noticed when we had quail at the bottom of our aviary, they do not generally bother about scraping out any sort of nest, but instead tend to lay anywhere in the floor litter – and that despite the fact we had created several secluded hideaways.Most commercial quail breeders keep their birds in a caged ‘tier’ system, but the shed in which they are kept must have good ventilation as their droppings are particularly high in ammonia. For continued laying, there should be some form of lighting regime – especially during the winter months. Conversely, for meat production, lighting should be reduced during the summer months: apparently, if the birds have only eight hours a day, their sexual maturity will be delayed and they will eat less, but grow faster and fatter because of not wasting their energies on fighting or mating. FeedingIt is possible, but not always easy, to source proprietary quail food. If a standard ration for either growing or breeding quail is not available commercially, good quality, fresh, turkey or game bird diets are an acceptable substitute, preferably fed as crumbs in order to minimise wastage.Breeding quail are best fed a game bird breeder’s ration based on a 19-20% protein level. Laying diets should contain about 24% protein. Chicks should be fed a diet containing approximately 25% protein – a good quality commercial starter ration for game birds or turkeys contains about 25%–28% protein – if this is not available, a chicken starter ration (20%–22% protein) can be used. Interestingly, growing birds do much better on small crumbs than they do on mash.From personal experience, it seems that small stocks of quail kept more as ‘pets’ than anything else, will do well enough on a staple diet of mixed canary seed, millet and chick crumbs, with a green supplement that might include the likes of fresh, shredded lettuce. As with all types of poultry-keeping, clean, fresh water should be provided at all times: nipple drinkers and automatically-fed cups are especially suitable for adult quail. One nipple or cup should be provided for every five birds, but a small jam-jar-type water dish with some pebbles placed in the bottom opening is a useful way of preventing young quail chicks from drowning in the early stages. BreedingTraditionally, breeding quail are kept in trios or quartets. Commercial breeding stock are kept in a warm environment of between 15.5-21ºC (60-70ºF) and it has been found that wire-floored cages containing one cock and three or four hens make the best breeding units. Dimensions should be around, but certainly no less than, 60cm (2ft) square and 30cm (1ft) high. ‘Flock’ mating of larger numbers is possible, but, in that situation, it is obviously advisable to reduce the amount of males in order to lessen the risk of fighting – a ratio of one male to four or five females is ideal, according to most quail aficionados. Fertility decreases the longer the females have been laying, so it is important to bear this fact in mind were one ever to be considering a serious breeding programme.Male quail are quite easy to sex and, apart from the attractive deep orange/red throat, a cock bird can be identified at breeding time by a secretion of a white ‘foam ball’; which is a urinary product looking not unlike shaving foam, and is thought to indicate fertility. Hatching and rearingQuail very rarely go broody in artificial surroundings and it will be necessary to hatch and rear them under small broody bantams or in an incubator – by far the most commonly used method. In an ideal world, a small bantam hen would successfully incubate, hatch and brood all the fertile eggs placed under her, but realistically, the eggs and chicks being so tiny, there are almost always bound to be accidents and disasters. Hatched by means of an incubator, once the chicks are dry, they can be placed in a strong cardboard box with a 60 watt red electric light bulb hung overhead in order to provide heat. Whatever heat source is used, the lamp must be adjustable in order to provide the correct brooding temperature (the chicks will huddle together if they are cold or will move to the corners, if too hot). Corrugated cardboard is useful to place on the floor to prevent the chicks slipping – it is best not to use newspaper as this can induce ‘splayed’ legs in such tiny birds. Remember that quail chicks can soon fly after they hatch, so cover the brooder with fine netting to prevent escapees. A few days after hatching, the chicks should be moved into a more permanent heated cage. As the chicks grow, the heat can be reduced each week, until at around four weeks they will be fully feathered and not require warmth.Once the young quail have matured, it will be necessary to keep a close watch over them, as the males will start to fight over the females and feather pecking could occur. Taking the cocks away from the hens will obviously help in reducing potential conflict. Select the best birds for breeding and/or egg laying and consider keeping the surplus to mature as table birds. Quail for the table Being tiny, at least two birds per person would be required for a meal and there is the chore of several minutes plucking for a few seconds eating. They are, nevertheless, well worth the effort and, in my opinion, quail meat is, like revenge, a dish best served cold and makes a perfect accompaniment to a summer salad or picnic! Apart from using quail eggs for hard boiling as a picnic treat or aperitif accompaniment, another possibility is to hard boil them and then place them in aspic or pickle them in vinegar and salt. They can even be smoked. Hand-peeling hard-boiled quail’s eggs can be quite fiddly and time-consuming, but someone mentioned quite recently that the shell will dissolve completely if the boiled egg is placed intact into a bowl of commercial vinegar for 12 hours – as yet it is an experiment still to try!