Small-Scale Backyard Quail

If you have limited space or noise-sensitive neighbors, consider diminutive, soft-spoken Coturnix quail for your backyard coop.

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Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) are increasingly popular meat and egg sources for modern, city-dwelling homesteaders. Quail are especially well-suited for urban settings, as they flourish in small spaces and go largely unnoticed by neighbors. Their call is similar to a red-winged blackbird, and blends in well with the neighborhood soundscape. Quail are colorful birds, efficient eaters, and dependable layers. Your friends and neighbors will soon be asking if you have any quail eggs to spare!

Poultry with Pizzazz

Japanese quail are just one species within the Coturnix genus. From an aesthetic perspective, Coturnix quail come in a wide range of beautiful colors and patterns, from white to speckled brown, golden, silver, and more. These color variations have many names, such as Tibetan, Italian, Roux, Manchurian, Red Golden, Tuxedo, and Platinum.  But keep in mind that, despite the surface variations, Coturnix quail are all of the same genus.

Different species of Coturnix quail can range in weight from a few ounces to nearly a pound. They’re much smaller than chickens and extremely efficient considering the space, food, and water they require. For instance, quail need only 1 square foot per bird, while chickens need 2 to 3 square feet apiece. Quail live happily together in large colonies, but it’s important to keep them at a ratio of four or five females to one male. More males can lead to aggressive behavior and should be avoided for the health and well-being of all the birds.

Quail Accommodations

Coturnix quail can be kept either on wire, on the ground, or in solid-floored coops. While quail aren’t typically broody, they do occasionally hatch their young when provided with a solid-floored coop or a coop on the ground, since it emulates their wild habitat as ground birds.

As helpful as they are for eating unwanted garden insects, quail aren’t the best candidates for poultry tractors. Unlike chickens, their small size and surprising speed make moving an open-bottomed tractor without squashing or releasing birds extremely difficult, and your birds would be vulnerable to natural predators, such as raccoons and opossums. It’s best to keep quail in a permanent, enclosed coop and run. They also shouldn’t be allowed to free-range in the yard or the garden like chickens, because they can escape through tiny openings in fences and fly quickly over tall barriers, and they’re extremely adept at hiding. Their coloring, while pretty to look at, will camouflage them perfectly in brush and foliage, and make them difficult to find.

Feed, Scraps, and Pest Disposal

Quail require a high-protein diet, and adults do well with a 22 percent protein feed for meat or game birds, commonly available at local farm supply stores. Chicks, too, will need a higher-protein starter feed than chicken starter feed, but only for the six weeks between hatching and maturation. Each adult quail will consume about 18 grams of feed per day, and if they have an efficient, low-waste feeder, a 40-pound bag will last 20 birds approximately two months. A small plastic box or bucket can be turned into an effective feeder by cutting small holes a couple of inches from the bottom, only large enough for the quail to stick their heads into. Cover the cut edges with duct tape to protect your quail. They like to scratch and “forage” in their pellets, and, if allowed, they’ll quickly spread their food everywhere. Scratching is the main source of potential food waste, and can result in a foul-smelling coop when high-protein food comes into contact with water. A box feeder will let them eat as much food as they want without scattering their feed; you’ll appreciate the cleaner coop and the cost savings.

From melon rinds and innards to stale chunks of bread, quail are happy to eat vegetables, fruits, and bread scraps. Their own eggshells can be dried in the oven at a low temperature, ground up, and added back into their food as a calcium supplement. You can collect cabbage worms, grubs, larvae, and other unwanted bugs from your backyard to provide a varied smorgasbord for your quail and keep such pests out of the garden.

Quail eggshells can also be crushed and added to your garden as slug and snail deterrents, while quail droppings can be added to your compost pile. Like chicken manure, quail dung shouldn’t be added directly to your garden, where it might “burn” your plants, but should instead be allowed to decompose before application.

Water for Drinking, Dust for Bathing

Quail need their water changed daily. A single gallon waterer is enough to supply 20 birds or more, but they’ll often dirty their water by the end of the day. Like the feeder, placing the waterer above ground level (on a paver stone or something similar) will prevent your quail from scratching dirt, coop debris, or droppings into their water. You should get into the habit of scrubbing out the waterers every other day with a brush and dish soap. In freezing temperatures, have a constant source of unfrozen water for the birds. You can invest in a heated waterer, or rotate waterers around the coop (from cooler to warmer areas) to keep the water from freezing.

Quail will be more excited about a fresh dust bath than fancy snacks. A shallow dish or aluminum pie pan works well for making a dust bath, with a combination of equal parts fine sand, dry topsoil, and wood ash. Diatomaceous earth may also be added in very small amounts, although it isn’t crucial, and some quail keepers refrain from using it for fear of damaging the birds’ lungs. Fill the dish with 1/2 inch to 1 inch of your bath mixture, and the quail will flock to it.

Just Lying Around

Coturnix quail have been bred in captivity for quite a while, and the hens have generally lost a lot of their brooding instincts. If you want to mate your birds and hatch those eggs, you’ll most likely need an incubator. Some owners may see this as a disadvantage to owning quail, but most look forward to hatching time. Many commercial incubator companies carry quail egg trays that are compatible with their standard models, and can still be used with automatic turners. Quail eggs require slightly different humidity and temperature levels than chicken eggs, but these parameters are well within the capabilities of a standard incubator. Hatching quail is a uniquely wonderful experience, and they mature quickly from 1-inch fluff balls to adults in six weeks. After hatching, keep the chicks in a warmed brooder. If the weather is warm, the young birds can be moved to an outside coop at 4 to 5 weeks old.

Even though they may lack brooding instincts, quail hens are dependable layers and will start when they’re as young as 6 to 8 weeks old. In warm months, so long as the hens receive proper food and water, they’ll lay every day like clockwork, generally in late afternoon or evening. In colder months, egg production may decrease, but it won’t stop completely. Providing a heat lamp will sustain laying during winter. Check for eggs more often during cold weather, to grab them before they freeze. If the shells crack in the coop, the eggs shouldn’t be eaten.

Compared with chicken eggs, quail eggs are slightly higher in protein and certain vitamins and minerals; the shell is also thinner, but the membrane beneath is thicker. This can cause some frustration when you start using the eggs, but the results are worth it. Quail eggs taste much richer and more buttery than chicken eggs, mainly because of the larger yolk-to-white ratio. They’re delicious additions to green salads, pasta or potato salads, and curries, and they’re divine when pickled. Petite deviled quail eggs will delight fellow partygoers. Selling extra eggs can help offset the cost of quail food, and during high-yield summer months, quail can pay for themselves

Keeping Coturnix quail requires very little time and effort in exchange for the entertainment, gardening services, food, and income they can provide. You’ll need to plan for their living quarters and feeders, but adult quail are self-sufficient and hardy. With a variety of lovely colors to choose from and a steady supply of eggs, they’ve been the poultry of choice for many backyard farmers. Perhaps you, too, will choose to keep quail!

Avail Yourself of Quail Eggs

Even though quail eggs are much smaller than chicken eggs, you can still use them in any recipe that calls for eggs. A 5-1 ratio of quail eggs to chicken eggs is common.

Opening quail eggs requires a different approach than opening chicken eggs: A chicken egg has a hard shell and a thin membrane, while a quail egg has a thin shell and a strong membrane.

I recommend a steak knife or small chopping knife for opening quail eggs. Holding the egg in your left hand, do a gentle “karate chop” widthwise across the egg from an inch above the egg. This won’t be enough to cut the membrane, but it’ll crack the shell in a relatively clean, transverse line. Then, take the tip of the knife and gently cut into the crack, severing the membrane and allowing you to gently pry off the shell and pour the egg into a bowl. The yolk should look plump and round, while the white should be thick and clear. Discard eggs if the yolk or white are discolored, or if they smell off.

Boiled Quail Eggs

Before boiling, wash and clean the eggs. Fill a small pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Place the eggs in a long-handled slotted spoon, and gently set them in the pot. To keep the yolks in the center of the shell (which is particularly useful when making deviled eggs), stir the water gently as the eggs cook. The eggs will reach a soft boil after 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, and a hard boil after 4 to 5 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to lift the eggs into a colander, and then rinse them with cold water. Let them cool completely before attempting to peel. Quail eggs will tolerate slight overboiling, but they’ll be tough and rubbery.

Peel boiled quail eggs by cracking the rounded ends against the sink or counter and pinching open the underlying membrane. Under cool, running water, gently peel the shell and membrane away in a spiral. It’ll take a bit of practice, but the whole thing should come off in one long strip. As with chicken eggs, fresher quail eggs will be trickier to peel.

Pickled Quail Eggs

After you’ve boiled quail eggs, you can turn them into an even more delicious snack by pickling them. A quick and easy way to pickle quail eggs is to use the leftover brine in pickle jars after you’ve eaten the contents. The brine in a store-bought dill pickle jar is more than enough to pickle a whole jar of quail eggs. All the spices from the previous pickled occupants will create a mouthwatering batch of quail eggs.

If you’d rather make brine from scratch, use a 1-1 ratio of vinegar to water, plus 1/4 teaspoon of salt for every cup of liquid, and plenty of herbs and spices of your choosing. I prefer using white vinegar, though some recipes call for apple cider vinegar. Fresh or even dried dill is one of my favorite additions, and I also add peppercorns; fennel seeds; a few fresh, minced garlic cloves; and either a dried cayenne pepper or a fresh jalapeño. Really, any hot pepper will do. Other herbs, such as oregano, parsley, and celery seed, make wonderful additions. Experiment to find your perfect combination.

After the brine is assembled, add the boiled, peeled quail eggs. Store in the fridge and let marinate for about 2 weeks. It’ll be hard not to devour them early, but the longer they soak in the brine flavors, the better.

Kelly Bohling is a lifelong Kansan who works as a classical violinist. Between gigs and lessons, she spends time out in the garden or with her animals, including quail and French Angora rabbits. Bohling’s hand-spun Angora yarn can be found on Etsy and Instagram @ThreeRabbitYarns.