Coturnix Quail: Livestock for Small Space Self-Reliance

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by Jeanne Salt Worthen

In 2020 when the pandemic began, I was concerned about grocery shortages. Being an experienced prepper, I had a good supply of flour, sugar, and so forth already in my pantry. I did have a small supply of purchased powdered eggs, but I’d already done some cooking and baking with them and wasn’t overly impressed with the results. As an avid home baker and an egg aficionado, I wanted to ensure a ready supply of fresh eggs for my family.

But I own a tiny piece of property, too small to keep chickens or ducks. While watching a series of homesteading videos one day, I saw the cutest little birds in one and started searching out more about them. I soon learned that keeping Coturnix quail just might be a great option!

What are Coturnix quail?

Coturnix quail, also called Japanese quail, have been domesticated in Asia for a thousand years. Raised for meat and eggs, they have been selectively bred for egg production for about the last century. As ground-dwelling birds, they prefer living in groups undercover, and therefore are easily and very happily kept in small cages.

Unlike standard chickens, which need at least 3-4 square feet of space each, Coturnix quail are very healthy and content in much smaller areas. The rule of thumb is 1-3 adult quail in each square foot of space, but growing chicks need even less space; 10 chicks in each square foot is acceptable for the first two weeks of life, and five chicks per square foot from 2 weeks of age to maturity (around seven weeks).

They also don’t need roosts or nesting boxes!

While quail kept in aviaries may occasionally get broody, it’s uncommon. Typical quail cages for egg layers are built with a slightly slanted wire bottom with a lip in front to allow eggs to roll to the front for collection, while their waste drops through the wire to trays or the ground below. The cages I keep my quail in have a PVC coated welded wire floor for the health of their feet and easy cleaning, and a galvanized tray below to catch their waste, easily removed for cleaning every day or two.

Get ready to have eggs in just weeks!

The best part about Coturnix quail is how fast they mature and start producing eggs!

While chickens typically begin laying at 6-8 months of age, Coturnix quail start laying at 6-8 weeks. In fact, most of the hens I’ve raised started laying by six weeks old! Obviously, if you’re not interested in fertilized eggs, you don’t even need to keep any males. But the Coturnix roosters’ crows are reasonably quiet and really kind of adorable. So it’s not nearly as bothersome as having chicken roosters.

As long as the hens have at least 14 hours of light daily, they’ll continue to lay eggs year-round. It doesn’t need to be a lot of light, either! My quails live in a stacked cage right outside my back door, and now that it’s autumn and they get less than 12 hours of sunlight, the only supplemental light they get is a regular 60-watt porch light. I turn it on just before sunset and turn it off before I go to bed.

Of course, the eggs are smaller. Quail eggs are typically 10-15 grams in weight, which means it takes around 4 or 5 to equal a typical chicken egg. According to the US Department of Agriculture, quail eggs are slightly higher in calories than chicken eggs (158 calories in 100 grams of quail eggs vs. 143 calories in 100 grams of chicken eggs). But the same volume of quail eggs has twice the iron, riboflavin, and 1.5 times the B12 as chicken eggs.

Quail eggs have a slightly higher yolk to white ratio than chicken eggs. However, I find that only makes scrambled quail eggs taste creamier and richer! And quail eggs boil up in only 4 minutes!

For those who want to raise quail for meat:

If a quail keeper wants to raise Coturnix quail for meat and eggs, the birds are full-grown at 6-8 weeks and ready for the freezer at 8-10 weeks. At maturity, a typical bird weighs around 10 ounces (280 grams) and will produce about 4-5 ounces (110-140 grams) of finished meat. However, a breed called “Jumbo Coturnix” typically weighs 12-15 ounces (340-425 grams). 

How did I get started with Coturnix quail?

In April 2021, I searched Craigslist for chicks and bought ten, week-old chicks. The standard coloration pattern, often called “wild” or “brown,” is sex-linked. So, you can tell the boys from the girls by 5-6 weeks old. Females have speckled breasts, while males lack the speckled breast feathers and have plain cream, tan, or light red ones.

However, thanks to Coturnix quail breeders, there are dozens of different colors and patterns. Some of which are sex-linked and some which aren’t. If you don’t have sex-linked patterned birds, you can determine whether you have hens or roos by vent-sexing after the birds have reached sexual maturity.

Out of my first ten chicks, I only got three females. So, I decided to get an incubator and order eggs through the mail to increase my flock. My first batch of incubator chicks only had a 47% hatch rate. A 50-60% hatch rate is typical of shipped eggs. My second batch of incubator eggs, from eggs I collected from my hens, had a 74% hatch rate — and that’s considered quite respectable. 

Tips on incubating Coturnix quail eggs

Incubating quail eggs only takes an average of 18 days (the normal range is 16 to 20 days, but the majority will hatch on Day 18). They need to be turned, either by a mechanical turner in the incubator or by manually turning twice a day. (Some quail farmers don’t bother turning and still claim to have over 50% hatch rates, but I haven’t tried that.)

The incubator temperature is comparable to incubating chickens, about 100-102F (about 38C). Humidity should be in the range of 30-50% for the first two weeks, then raised to 60-70% for the last three days of the “lockdown” period — which is Day 15, when you stop turning the eggs and remove the mechanical turner if you used one. 

It can be so tempting to take the newly-hatched chicks out right away, but that’s a big mistake!

They need to be fully dry before moving them to a brooder. No worries, they have all they need from their yolk sac to survive the first 72 hours without food or water. It’s best to leave them alone for 60-72 hours after the first chick hatches. The humidity will rise naturally during the hatching period. But, if the humidity in the incubator increases to more than 80%, it can “drown” the still-unhatched chicks in the egg.

You’d think opening the incubator to release humidity would solve this. It can, but a sudden temperature drop from opening the incubator too soon can also cause still-unhatched chicks to become “shrink-wrapped.” This means the chicks will suffocate in the egg membrane. Aim for humidity of 60-70% during the lockdown and leave the incubator closed until the chicks fully hatch and are fluffy-dry.

Out of the incubator, into the brooder!

Quail need to be kept in a brooder for the first 3-4 weeks. At hatching, they need temperatures of 95-100F (35-37C). Then the brooder temperature can be dropped by around 5F (3C) every four days or so until they are at “room temperature” of 70F (21C) (Around 3.5-4 weeks old when the quail are fully feathered.) At that point, they’re fine to be outdoors, even if it’s cooler, as long as they have protection from the elements.

Quails are very cold-hardy and do fine at temperatures as low as -20F (-29C) as long as they are well-sheltered from wind and precipitation. They aren’t quite as happy in extremely hot weather but should manage fine as long as they have plenty of water, shade from the sun, and good airflow in their habitats. Some quail keepers put frozen water bottles in the cages during the worst of the heat. The quail huddle next to the bottles to stay cool. 

What do Coturnix quail eat?

Coturnix quail require a higher protein feed than chickens, but luckily game bird feed is easily obtainable. My chicks get game bird starter feed, 30% protein, 2.5% fat, and 6.5% fiber. At 6-8 weeks of age, hens should transition to a game bird layer feed with 20% protein, 2.5% fat, and 7% fiber, with added calcium for egg production. Birds raised for meat can be fed any game bird feed with a range of 19-30% protein.

But most important is 24/7 access to clean water! Coturnix quail drink even more than they eat (and they eat a lot, for their size).

They also enjoy fresh vegetables such as cucumber, squash, pumpkin, and leafy greens (including comfrey). Don’t feed them vegetables from the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, or peppers. Most non-citrus fruits should be fine in moderation, as well as most seeds that birds typically eat. But their favorite treat is mealworms (mealworm beetle larvae) or boonworms (black soldier fly larvae). If you want to tame down a skittish quail, a still and patient hand, holding dried mealworms or boonworms is the way to entice them.

Where do you house your quail?

There are many housing options for quail and dozens of free “how-to” videos on building quail cages online. I decided American-made was important to me, even if it was a little more expensive. So I purchased Wynola Ranch cages specifically made for Coturnix quail. But any habitat which provides shelter from wind and rain or snow, doesn’t allow their waste to build up, and is secure from predators will work fine.

Most cages designed for quail have no more than a 16-inch (40cm) vertical space since they do like to pop straight up and can injure themselves if they have too much headspace. If you intend to build your own, the best height is at least 3-4 feet (1-1.3 meters) off the ground to allow easy access for cleaning and general care of the birds.

I’ve found that if you use poop trays, it helps to keep the smell and the flies down by placing a 1/2-inch (1cm) layer of sawdust or wood micro-shavings on the tray every time you clean it. My birds’ waste goes straight into a large compost bin, including the sawdust. Still, quail manure is very “hot” (high in nitrogen, similar to chicken manure), so it needs to be composted for 6-9 months before you can use it for fertilizing your garden.

How do you safely breed Coturnix quail?

Breeding Coturnix quail is simply a matter of putting in a boy with the girls. But keep the ratio no more than one rooster for every four hens. One rooster for every 6-8 hens will still give a high fertility rate in the eggs and help prevent over-mating. Too many roosters and not enough hens, and the boys will beat the daylights out of each other.

The roosters will also pull all the feathers out of the hens’ backs by over-mating. Quail can be vicious little birds toward one another. It’s not uncommon for an aggressive rooster to scalp or even kill other quail (which is why quail farmers generally select the least aggressive roosters when choosing which to breed and which to cull).

If you add unfamiliar birds into an established habitat, there may be some injuries as well, until they all sort out the “pecking order.” I’ve found the best way to introduce unfamiliar birds to one another is to put them all in a dust bathing container. Let them be distracted by enjoying their dust bath for 30-60 minutes. Then put them all into their cage, with little to no problem after that.

What do you do if a quail is injured? 

I spray the wound once or twice a day with Vetrycin animal wound care spray for treating injuries. Quail heal exceptionally quickly, so a wound that might seem drastically bad can often completely heal by the following week.

But what if you have an injury (or birth defect) that leaves the bird suffering needlessly? Any responsible animal keeper knows they may face euthanizing an animal, even if they never intend to harvest the meat. The fastest, kindest way to dispatch a quail is decapitation with a pair of very sharp, sturdy scissors. Since Coturnix quail are small enough to be held securely in one hand, it’s the least traumatic method for both bird and keeper. 

Would you consider Coturnix quail?

Even though I’ve only been raising Coturnix quail for six months, I’ve learned a lot and had so much fun with them! They are charming and endearing, easy to care for, and enjoyable to have. I still get a little giddy every day when I collect the eggs. My husband, who doesn’t eat eggs at all, is happy that I take such delight in having quail. He also enjoys trying out tasty recipes for the barbeque. And I’m certainly not worried about lacking fresh eggs anymore. 

Have you thought of raising birds for eggs or meat? Are you currently raising chickens, ducks, or quail? Do you have any questions or suggestions? Let’s talk about it in the comments section.

Coturnix Quail: Livestock for Small Space Self-Reliance
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