Backyard Quail

 

May 9, 2015

HomesteadIssue 12: May/June 2015

Icame to quail egg farming from my volunteer work at a wildlife rehabilitation facility. We work with injured hawks, falcons, owls, and even water birds, often entangled in someone’s discarded fishing line. Sometimes we find ourselves with lost or injured domestic birds that can’t be released into the wild—which is how I ended up volunteering to provide a good home for a few domestic quail.

My favorite female Japanese quail came to me this way. She is usually gentle and alert and will eat pill bugs and other treats right out of my hand. I purchased a slightly younger male and they seem to get along fine and have recently produced perfect little speckled eggs. In spring, early summer, and fall, my quail pair produce one egg a day, from which I’ve made potato salads and tasty spicy pickled eggs. Like all birds, quail behave like the tiny dinosaurs they are, sometimes calm and sometimes fierce and explosive. The commercial varieties of quail jump better than they fly, but some can fly fairly well for short bursts.

It’s important to note that local wild Gambel’s, scaled, and Montezuma are all protected native species and cannot be caught or kept. However, other nonnatives can be farmed for meat or for eggs. These include varieties like the small coturnix quail (also called Japanese quail), and the hybridized white Texas A&M quail, developed by Texas A&M University as a calm domestic breed. The much smaller buttonquail could also be easily raised in an urban backyard, but the eggs are very small. Local feed stores carry or can order quail.

Though much smaller and quieter than chickens, coturnix, or Japanese, quail mature and can begin laying at six to seven weeks. For meat production, this early maturation increases their desirability. Compared to chickens, they eat less and take up less space. They are ground dwellers, and don’t need a perch or a night roost. Instead, I use driftwood in an inverted wood box for shelter. Japanese quail will produce small brown speckled eggs like those in the finest Japanese restaurants.

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Pens can be adapted from chicken coop designs, as long as the wire is strong enough to protect from feral cats or from dogs who may jump at them and spook them. Wood shavings or straw make a good ground cover. Most quail are more cold tolerant than chickens, but I keep a heat lamp handy for freezing nights. In southern Arizona, it’s more likely that your birds will be at risk from overheating in the summer. Build their pen in a shady area; run an electric fan during the heat of the day. Chicken or rabbit water dispensers work great for quail. Make sure the water is clean and plentiful, especially in hot weather.

Experts will suggest three females per male, but I prefer one male and one female. Females can produce infertile eggs without a male present, though at least one male in a group may calm the females. Quail have their own personalities and sometimes don’t get along. If you do opt for multiple females, introduce new birds after dark, to ease tensions. They can be fed chicken scratch or a more protein-rich game bird developer when laying. They love additional treats like apples, grated carrots, broccoli florets, earthworms, grubs, and pill bugs. A pan of dirt for a dust bath seems to be about the most fun a quail could imagine.

Eggs can be collected one at a time and kept in the fridge until you have a half dozen or so. They should be slowly boiled, soaked in vinegar for an hour before peeling off the shell and the membrane below, then placed in a pickling solution. I often use leftover liquids from a jar of pickles or Italian peperoncinos, or make my own blend from apple cider vinegar, hot peppers, and herbs. If you’re not sure if an egg is too old to use, place it in a bowl of water; if it floats, it’s probably dried up and unusable.

Even if you don’t make jars of pickled eggs as I have, quail are elegant additions to your backyard. They are just wild enough to keep me fascinated by their quirky behavior. Some days their reptilian bird brains take over and they chase each other and run from each other and hold each other fiercely by their feather top knots. Some days they just sit together and look beautiful—or maybe stand in the corner and lay an egg.

Wayne Blankenship is a licensed bodyworker, bonsai enthusiast, and gardener who has volunteered with local wildlife rehabilitation and education projects.







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