by Wendy Bruening, PhD
Quail are medium-sized ground birds, meaning that while they can fly they generally prefer to walk and run instead. When most people think of quail, they picture a bird with a cute plume of feathers sticking out of its head, but only a few species of quail have a plume like that. The most widespread and common species of quail in North America is the bobwhite, which is a very handsome game bird that does not have a head plume. It is extensively hunted for its meat.
The Japanese coturnix quail is a domesticated species of quail. These birds have been kept in Asia for their eggs and meat for thousands of years, and are becoming increasingly popular in other parts of the world as a smaller, easier to keep, and more prolific producer of eggs and meat than chickens. Like chickens, which are commonly kept as a sort of dual pet/egg producer, coturnix quail are a great addition to any home.
Unlike chickens that require a lot of space, large coops, and special enclosures and equipment, coturnix quail do best when they are kept indoors in a fairly small cage. Thus even apartment dwellers can easily keep a few happy quail as pets and enjoy watching their antics, listening to their pleasant cricket-like chirping noises, and enjoy eating fresh quail eggs. They are quiet, odor-free, do not bite, rarely tend to trigger allergies, and require only minimal care.
There are three basic types of coturnix: the regular birds, which come in a truly dazzling array of colors, a strain called Jumbo Browns, and another strain called Texas A&M. Jumbo Browns are extra large birds developed for the meat trade and they only come in a brown and white pattern. Texas A&Ms are all white with a cute little black spot on top of their head. They are the result of a failed attempt by breeders at Texas A&M to produce quail with white breast meat. They are excellent egg layers and tend to be bit more feisty and personable than the other strains of coturnix.
What about those eggs?
Coturnix start laying eggs when they are six to eight weeks old. They generally lay one or two eggs a day until they hit age two years, at which point they gradually slow down to three or so a week and finally stop by around age three, which is nearing the end of their natural lifespan.
The eggs are pretty, covered with brown splotches. They taste exactly like chicken eggs and can be used in any way chicken eggs can be used. Put into recipes for baking, fried, scrambled, boiled, pickled. Boiled and pickled quail eggs are very common offerings by food street vendors in Asia.
I suggest buying a pair of quail egg scissors in order to open the raw eggs without getting shell shards in your eggs. It takes about five quail eggs to equal one chicken egg, so if you have five hens you’ll get the equivalent of one chicken egg per day. Every day.
Their small size also allows you to easily cut down recipes. For example, my favorite pancake recipe calls for one chicken egg and makes 12 pancakes. I want two pancakes. So I cut the recipe down by six and put in one quail egg.
The nitty-gritty of care
A full-grown coturnix quail is about the size of a small guinea pig. They don’t require much space and four to six hens can be happily housed together in a standard rabbit or guinea pig cage that is two or three feet long per side; they are a social species and need company, so always get at least two. I suggest only getting hens. The roosters tend to crow, harass the other birds, and don’t lay eggs.
The most convenient type of cage to select has a wire mesh floor and a tray to collect droppings that can easily be slid out and cleaned. I put a thin layer of cat litter in my cage trays to ease the cleaning process, but you could also line them with newspaper. The droppings are small semi-solid lumps that have no apparent odor. I only clean out my cages once a month, a simple procedure involving emptying the tray into the compost heap, or you can put it in the trash. Do not flush it down the toilet.
You can get by with just using your home’s regular lighting, but the birds will be healthier and lay more eggs if you buy them a full spectrum light with UV in it and attach it to a timer so it goes on regularly for 12 to 14 hours a day. Check your pet supply store for these lights; they sell them for reptiles. I use the Zilla Slimline Tropical lights that are 18” long and have the 25 UVB T8 fluorescent bulb and just lay it on top of the bird cage and plug it into a cheap timer.
Food and water
The birds obviously need access to water at all times. You can buy bottles with a water dispensing tray intended for pet birds at any pet store. They also need access to food at all times. You can feed them out of any type of container, but keep in mind like most ground birds they like to dig and scratch through it. I put my birds’ food container in the middle of a piece of gravel paper so they can engage in this activity and also trim their toenails at the same time. Most pet supply stores sell gravel paper to line bird cages, or you can always just buy a sheet of coarse sandpaper at the hardware store.
As to what to feed, most coturnix owners feed them chicken feed, more specifically, one of the higher protein layer mashes available at farm supply stores. You can also buy gamebird feed specifically designed for quail and pheasants at many farm supply stores. You may be saying to yourself at this point, “but I live in a city. No farm supply stores.” No worries, you can buy gamebird and chicken feeds online and get them delivered anywhere. I replenish my birds’ food once a day, just keeping the container full in case they want to eat some.
You’ll also want to offer them some fresh fruits and vegetables. Mine LOVE being given a watermelon rind with a thin layer of watermelon left on it-they happily spend hours picking the red flesh off the rind. They like any kind of fresh leafy greens like spinach, kale, and lettuce, and they really like raspberries. I once gave mine some raspberries and came back an hour later and thought for a second they had been trying to kill each other—they were stained red from spraying red raspberry juice all over each other.
You need to give them freeze-dried mealworms, too. They love those. You can find them in the wild bird seed section of most stores. You can hand-feed them mealworms so they become tamer about people, or just toss a few into the food bowl once a day.
They also enjoy a good dust bath once a week. I put sand in a plastic container and they all dive in and dust away in great enjoyment. You can get sand in the reptile section of pet stores, or buy cheap child’s play sand at any hardware store. Some people mix diatomaceous earth into their quail’s sand, but I tried this once and they managed to get it everywhere around the cage; there was a white film of the earth on everything near it.
You may be wondering about the possibility of free-range coturnix quail, but this is really not a good idea. These birds are seriously domesticated and haven’t a clue as to how to survive outside a cage. They will walk right into a predator’s mouth and unlike chickens, they don’t seem to understand they are supposed to come back to the coop at night and you will never see them again.
Where to get pet quail
Most people who keep quail eventually end up ordering hatching eggs and hatching out chicks, but that requires specialized equipment like an incubator and a brooder and is a whole other topic. Your best bet is to ask if your local farm store will get you some chicks or you can simply mail-order some young birds. Many breeders and companies you can find online will happily ship you a few live birds of the strain and color of your choosing.