I’ve had a bit of interest over the last few weeks regarding quail as a backyard meat source. I thought I’d dust off the topic and put another article together covering the ins and outs of raising Coturnix quail, particularly in an urban setting. It is a rather long article, but still not as detailed as I’d like. I may expand on the topic in an eBook… And finally, this is dedicated to Mr. Mike in Rio and Justin in Alabama.
Chickens are the go-to for the homesteader when you initially think of adding in livestock. And while there are many other options for the rural homesteader that work just as well as (and sometimes even better than) chickens (like goats, pigs, Muscovy ducks or Guinea fowl), trying to raise your own animal protein in an urban environment starts to limit your options.
Due to their size, pigs, cows, and goats are out of the question. You need something small, quiet and still a good producer.
Rabbits fit the bill, and while I raise them for meat myself, there is a stigma regarding rabbits as food in this country.
Guinea pigs also fit the bill, and there is a growing “guinea pigs for meat” movement here in the United States, believe it or not. However, Guinea pigs have an even worse aversion in this country.
Fish are also a possibility, but come with their own problems and pitfalls.
Meal worms are a possibility, I suppose, but try getting the brother-in-law over for dinner. (Wait, I see a selling point…)
The only other reasonable option I can think of is some sort of bird.
I have found that if you are looking for a self-sustaining population of birds for both eggs and meat, yet are limited due to zoning (no “livestock”), noise (no roosters), space (no free range), or simply wanting to fly under the local radar (pun intended) for OPSEC reasons, then you may want to look into raising Coturnix quail.
Their Latin name is Coturnix japonica, but they have various common names, “Coturnix quail”, “Pharaoh quail”, “Jumbo Brown“, and “Japanese quail“. Their natural color is a mottled brown, but their are roughly a dozen color mutations recognized. The other recognized color variants that I am aware of are Texas A&M, Manchurian, Tibetan, English White, Golden Range, Red Range, Italian, Rosetta, Scarlett, Golden Tuxedo, and Roux Dilute. Much like guppies, with a little selective breeding, and the time, you could easily develop your own color scheme in a year or two.
I prefer to stick with the browns for ease of determining sex, since they are sexually dimorphic. At around three weeks, as they start to feather out fully, you’ll notice the males have a rust-covered upper breast. The females are simple mottled black or brown and cream.
Coturnix quail are much smaller than chickens, weighing in around 12 -16 ounces live weight, with males usually smaller than females. They do well in cold or warm climates, as long as they have protection from direct sun for hot climates, and protection from drafts for colder areas. They have been domesticated for centuries, with records of them in captivity as far back as the 11th century in Japan (thus one of their names). Since they have been domesticated for so long, protection from predation is a must. While they are cute, the are rather dumb, with virtually no survival instincts. Everything finds them tasty. I’ve had my share of issues with predators over the years, as the picture here shows.
What draws me to them is the production numbers they can achieve vs the amount of inputs needed when compared to the baseline of all homesteaders, the chicken:
|From hatch to harvest weight:
|From hatch to harvest weight:
6-7 weeks in commercially-raised Cornish X, 9-20 weeks on most other breeds.
|From hatch to egg laying:
5-6 weeks, with some reports of eggs as early as 4 1/2 weeks.
|From hatch to egg laying:
|Feed to egg conversion:
2 pounds of feed to produce a pound of eggs, 300+ eggs per year
|Feed to egg conversion:
Chickens require 3 pounds of feed to produce a pound of eggs, 180-300 eggs per year
|Space requirements per bird:
Quail need 16-25 square INCHES, though many people say 1 square foot. I house up to 20 birds in a 2×3 foot wire cage with no apparent ill affects.
|Space requirements per bird:
Chickens need 3-4 square feet inside, plus a run or free ranging, or 10 sq. ft. if coop kept.
Simply put, Quail produce more in less time and less space, with fewer inputs than chickens.
To compare it another way, look at these packages of seeds for time to harvest from planting date:
For Coturnix quail, you have 17 days in the incubator, 21 days to feather out, and then another 21 days to reach full size. 17+21+21=59 days to harvest.
Peas, beans, and tomatoes take 70 or more days to harvest!
Quail go from an egg placed in an incubator to a full grown bird in 59 days. And if it is a female, you’ll get as many as a dozen eggs from the bird before it reaches harvest size in that same 59 days. Craziness.
And if you plant the same listed veggies on the same day that you put the Coturnix eggs into the incubator, you’ll have to wait more than a week after your quail harvest for your peas, beans and tomatoes to be ready.
The one downfall I’ve found with them is the fact that like most production birds, quail have poor mothering skills, and rarely go broody. This means a surrogate is needed to hatch the eggs. I have used both a frizzle bantam hen and a home-built incubator, and have had great success with both. (Watching the minuture hen running around with even smaller baby quail was hilarious.) Since I no longer have the chickens, I now rely solely on my incubator.
As I mentioned above, once hatched, they need to be kept in a brooder until feathered out, roughly 3 1/2 to 4 weeks. Here in Florida, I normally move them at 21 days. A brooder is simply a ventilated, but draft-free container with a heat source, a constant supply of clean water, and a never-ending supply of quality feed. I prefer one with a screened bottom to allow much of the waste to be easily removed. My design has coroplast sides, a 1/2 by 1/2 screen mesh for the bottom, and a screened top. For my next batch, I will be replacing the screening on top for something with a smaller opening in the mess to prevent the picture above from happening again.
Once feathered, they require a little more space. I move mine to a grow out pen that still offers shelter from breezes and wet weather. This is basically just another one of my converted rabbit cages. They stay here until harvest size, where I graduate the extra males to “Freezer Camp”. The lucky males and the females all get moved to a larger pen set up for egg production.
For fertilized eggs, I like a ratio of 1 male to every 4-6 females. This works for me, though I’ve seen ranges of 1:3 up to 1:10 suggested.
The health comparison of quail eggs vs chicken eggs:
- contain 13 percent protein, versus 11 percent in chicken eggs,
- almost three times of the vitamin B1 found in chicken eggs,
- twice as much vitamin A and B2,
- provide five times as much iron and potassium,
- have not been shown to cause all of the same allergies as chicken eggs, and may help to fight allergy symptoms due to the type protein they contain.***(See comments below!!!)
- twice as much vitamin A and B2.
- and richer in phosphorus and calcium than a chicken egg.
Quail eggs are simply a healthier option versus chicken eggs.
If you are raising Coturnix quail for eggs, I suggest a sloped bottom cage with a small gap at the bottom of the front and a catch tray, to allow the eggs to roll though and make collecting them easier. It keeps the eggs cleaner, and makes for easier egg collection. This is the setup I use, and its worked very well for me, saving me time, and eliminating the need to stick my arm into the birds’ cage and disrupt their lives.
The quail eggs themselves taste, well, like eggs. Since they are smaller, any recipe calling for a chicken egg will require 3-5 quail eggs to substitute per chicken egg.
The only other difference we’ve found from years of consuming them is that the membranes of the quail egg is MUCH tougher than any chicken egg I”ve ever cracked open. This membrane is located just beneath the shell to provide a layer of defense against bacterial invasion, and is so tough that cracking the egg like you would a chicken egg just works poorly. The shell is held together no matter how much you try to crack the small eggs. After several frustrating weeks while we were starting to incorporate quail eggs into our diet, we found a handy device to open them, a trick used at sushi bars – a quail egg cutter.
A cross between a pair of scissors and a cigar cutter, it simply shears off the very top of the egg, allowing you to pour out the contents.
See it here in action as we prepare to make an omelet:
If you decide to start to consume them daily like we do, you’ll be opening a bunch of quail eggs. And since it takes multiple quail eggs to equate to a chicken egg, it is worth owning one of these .
If you prefer to raise them for meat, quail are easy to harvest, one of the easiest birds I’ve had to clean. The meat is flavorful, and like everything, tastes similar to chicken. If you are raising them only for meat, or if you have excess males, it is fine to simply keep them in the brooder, gradually decreasing the heat each week until they are feathered out, then simply harvest them at 7-8 weeks. No need to have a cage for them to inhabit, simplifying your setup.
Silence is Golden
In raising them in an urban setting, another benefit if trying to maintain a low profile is the fact that they are mostly silent. While the mature males will “crow”, it is nowhere near as disruptive as a male chicken crowing. If you limit the number of males, or keep them out of sight of other pens of quails, I’ve found they rarely have to announce their presence. It seems to be done to try to outdo the other males. The hens will occasionally chirp or purr, but from my experience, it cannot be heard more than a few yards away. And when it is, nobody notices yet another “songbird” in the area.
I prefer wife cages, using the same cage setup that I use for my rabbits. Bottom wire is made from 1 inch by 1/2 inch welded wire to allow dropping to fall through. The only modification I make to rabbit cages is to lower the ceiling to 8 inches to prevent fatalities from birds launching themselves into the ceiling. My typical rabbit cage can house as many as 24 quail with no crowding issues. I also use hanging cages, and like to have a slight incline for the quail cage to allow the eggs to roll to the front of the cage. This makes collecting the eggs much easier.
I have tried several different methods to gets the eggs out of the cage automatically. My favorite method is to have a one inch section at the bottom of the cage to be hinged at the top. With the incline and the weight of the eggs, they simply roll through the hanging “door” into a tray placed right below the opening.
Searching the internet, you can find folks raising Coturnix quail in converted aquariums, Rubbermaid totes, or even large cardboard boxes – ALL INSIDE A HOUSE! Coturnix quail are rather adaptable to growing in a large variety of controlled environments.
The ULTIMATE SECRET to raising quail is this : high protein feed. Protein content of 30% or higher allows for fat growth, and higher egg production. I opt for Gamebird Feed whenever I can, and prefer the 30% or higher, when I can find it. In a pinch, I can get by with 20% protein, but the egg production and speed of growth DOES suffer for it. Do NOT skimp on feed!
You have three options for getting started – adult birds, hatchlings, or fertile eggs to hatch yourself. Both adult Coturnix quail and hatchlings need to be sourced locally, they just don’t ship well, and therefore most sources won’t bother shipping live Coturnix quail.
Craigslist is a good place to start to try to find local options for all three starter options. In addition, many online sources can be found for “hatching eggs”, or fertile eggs recently laid, and ready to be incubated.
Just be sure that it is a smaller framed chicken, the quail hatchlings are small enough to fit a couple of them into a shot glass! I had a silky bantam once that was almost perfect as a surrogate mother. She was only ounces larger than the largest quail I had, and she simply lived to hatch eggs, staying broody far more than not.
Personally, I started with 30 hatching eggs, mailed to me via Priority Mail, from Wisconsin. The eggs arrived in a couple days, I popped them into my homemade incubator for 17 days, and roughly three weeks from the day I ordered the eggs, I had 90% of the eggs hatch out! These 27 birds grew into a flock I maintained for almost two years, providing about a dozen eggs a day.
Since breeding rations are suggested at 1 male for every 3-5 females for optimal egg fertilization, I harvested the smaller males around 8 weeks, and keeping the largest three to service my 14 hens. I would periodically set additional batches of eggs to hatch, replacing hens as I harvested them. I would still have the original line of birds if I hadn’t decided to slow down for various reasons. When perpetuating your own line like this, its a good idea to introduce bloodlines from new stock from time to time to prevent too much inbreeding.
I have since reestablished my flock, starting with only eight birds, knowing that I can easily get up to dozens of birds in a matter of months.
Possibly the Best Urban Option?
Since they offer a quick turnaround for both eggs and meat, take up little space, and do very little to draw attention to themselves, Coturnix quail may be the best option for an urban homesteader, and a no-brainer for anyone wanting to add an initial source of protein, or just add some variety without taking up a lot of space and/or time.
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