post by deninmi
What is the size of a softball, can live in a space a foot square, lays an egg a day for about two-thirds of the year, starts to reproduce at five weeks old, comes in several dozen different colors, and is a delicious source of meat? Well, if you said “Japanese Quail,” you’d be right. I started experimenting with these micro-birds last year, and they have quickly become a favorite of mine. They are about as low-maintenance as you can get in the world of game birds and poultry. Just give them a clean living space, adequate food and water, and a dish of sand for their daily sand bath, and they’ll be perfectly at home.
The Japanese quail, as the name suggests, is the East Asian subspecies of the common Eurasian, or Pharaoh, Quail, which is native across the entire Eurasian continent from Ireland and Britain to Siberia, and south to China, Japan, India, the Middle East, and North Africa. In the wild, these birds are migratory, breeding in the northern latitudes and migrating to the tropics or subtropics for the winter, but they have proven to be fully hardy outdoors in even harsh climates like Alaska or Minnesota as long as they have a clean, dry, draft-free cage with an inner hutch or box for group huddle on cold nights.
The female Japanese quail begins to lay eggs at 5 to 6 weeks old! Quite an amazing feat for something that was a bumblebee-sized hatchling a few weeks back. The quail egg is relatively large in proportion to the body size, and is roughly a quarter to a fifth by volume of the size of a large chicken egg. The eggs are an attractive off-white color, splotched with either brown, green, or blue speckles (the color of the splotches and speckles depends on both genetics and environment, and can change over time or with diet). Most people cannot tell the difference in flavor between quail and chicken eggs, but obviously, it will take more of them to make a dish due to their small size. Another plus with quail eggs – many people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat quail eggs without a problem, although conversely, a handful of people have allergies to quail eggs, too.
One minor downside on raising Japanese quail – over the course of many hundreds of generations of domestication, they have almost totally lost the ability to nest and hatch their own eggs – generally, the hens tend to almost totally ignore their eggs after they lay them, and they are prone to dropping eggs at random throughout the run, although feed dishes and sandboxes tend to be favorite spots. So, in order to raise your own (which I would suggest, as the chicks are hard to obtain), you will need some kind of incubator, preferably one that automatically turns the eggs and adjusts the humidity as needed.
Housing and husbandry are simple – the birds do best in a cage with half-inch hardware cloth bottoms, so that the droppings can fall through. Allow about a square foot per adult bird, and plan on a ratio of roughly one rooster per 5 to 6 hens for breeding purposes. The birds do require a relatively high protein diet, at least 24%, although up to 30% is good, and usually are fed a special game bird crumble or pellet, along with fresh water and treats like greens, grass clippings, birdseed, mashed boiled eggs, fruit, or pretty much anything you would feed to a chicken, perhaps just cut up a bit finer for these small birds. Unlike most other game birds, Japanese quail can be kept in colonies, since the birds rarely fight with each other. Unlike chickens, the birds have no “homing instinct,” so don’t plan on “free ranging” these birds –they’ll be gone in a matter of minutes, chasing the first juicy insect or interesting looking patch of green on the horizon, and they won’t look back. The temperament of Japanese Quail can only be described as mellow – other than the “no free ranging” thing, I have found them remarkably similar to chickens in terms of behavior and handling. Mine are sweet little birds that come running every time they see me, to find out what treats I’m bringing them. If I want to capture one, that’s not very challenging, either, since I can generally just reach down and pick them up at will (obviously, if they do get out into the wild, they won’t survive long, since they are unafraid of pretty much everything). Finally, be aware that the quail roosters do crow, but it’s very quiet, and sounds about like a cricket or katydid chirping, and they crow around the clock during the peak-breeding season, from about late March through August when the days are long. Too many roosters in the mix, and you will have nightly crow-offs, but luckily, its pretty easy to tell the gender by one of several methods that are described on many websites, and you can always use extra roosters as a source of delicious meat – Japanese quail generally dress out at 5 to 7 ounces, and the meat is mild flavored but is all dark meat, even the breast meat. The birds are fully mature at 8 to 10 weeks, but even 5 to 6 week old birds are large enough to harvest for meat.
Japanese Quail were kept for several hundred years in Japan, China, and Korea both for their meat and eggs and as pets. As with Koi, goldfish, and other animals, they have been bred into a pretty wide range of colors and patterns, and some people keep, breed, and even show them, and collectors are always on the lookout for new and unique colors and feather patterns. These birds were actually brought to this country to use in biological research labs, since they are inexpensive to raise and breed quickly.
One final note: some states may require a permit to keep these birds, or may have restrictions on numbers kept or other restrictions, since these are considered “game birds,” so always be sure to check out the regulations in your state (generally with the fish and game department) prior to committing to keeping these fun little birds.