Wild populations of quail have been shrinking in the U.S. for decades, to the concern of bird conservationists. However, in recent years, several different species of quail have become popular birds with homesteaders and backyard bird enthusiasts. They are small, easy to maintain, and in most states they aren’t considered livestock. This means that you can raise quail either on a large plot of land or on a rooftop apartment. No matter where you live, raising quail is absolutely doable and a realistic way to enjoy both the birds and their eggs.
The appeal of quail is simple: they can offer you nutrient dense eggs and meat. While you can raise them for one or the other, most homesteaders and backyard farmers raise quail as both a source of meat and eggs. The best part is that quail are ready to process for the table within 8 weeks and they’re easier to dress than rabbits or chickens.
Unlike other large fowl, quail begin laying eggs at 8 to 10 weeks depending on the season and sunlight available to them. In my experience, this is another bonus; with chickens and other poultry you have to wait at least 6 months before you get those glorious eggs! Quail eggs and meat are also much more nutrient rich than most other poultry that you can raise. Quail meat is higher than chicken meat in the good polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is also a significant source of phosphorous, iron and copper, and provides reasonable amounts of zinc and selenium. Quail meat is also high in niacin (vitamin B3) and pyridoxine (vitamin B6). Quail eggs average 84 mg of Omega 3 fatty acids (compare with 3.2 grams in a 3 oz. serving of salmon) while chicken eggs contain 66 mg of Omega 3. One study even found that quail eggs help with food allergies!
While all of this sounds amazing, how on earth do you get started raising quail? Let’s walk through some important basic steps.
Selecting Your Quail
Believe it or not, there are a lot of different species and breeds of quail. Some you’ll need a permit for. I live in Virginia and you need permits to raise the northern bobwhite quail, but not the Japanese coturnix quail. Check your county restrictions before raising any type of quail on your property. Even if you need a permit, they are generally inexpensive to acquire.
Quail names might be a bit confusing as some refer to species, some to breeds, and some to feather patterns within a species. There are six species of quail native to North America: northern bobwhite quail, California quail, mountain quail, Gambels’s quail, scaled quail, and Montezuma quail, none of which are of the genus Coturnix. Coturnix quail are more commonly raised by homesteaders and backyard bird owners (particularly the Japanese quail), and are often referred to simply as “Coturnix”. The six species from the genus Coturnix are: rain quail, harlequin quail, common quail, Japanese quail, stubble quail, and brown quail. Each species has subspecies with different plumage patterns so feel free to mix and match if you’d like.
Decide if you’ll be using your quail just for eggs or as a dual-purpose bird. You’ll have more breed options if you’re just raising them for the eggs, but most people raise Coturnix quail for both eggs and meat. Even if you’re just raising them for eggs, they are quite efficient egg layers. If you are specifically interested in meat birds, the Texas A&M quail was bred from the Japanese quail to be larger and have more breast meat. These beautiful birds are typically white and have lighter meat than other Coturnix quail.
Finding Quail or Hatching Eggs
As with any livestock, it can be hard to find quality animals when getting started. Make sure you do your research. Ask friends and family where they get their quail. Connect with farmers and homesteaders to find reputable local livestock suppliers. And when all else fails, look abroad. Keep in mind that quail are prey animals, and they are extremely fragile. One bad group of quail—whether because of health issues or lack of good genetics—can ruin the entire experience for you. Take the time to do your research on the market around you.
We tend to stay away from websites like eBay, and from poultry auctions as you never really know what you’re going to get. It’s best to find someone local where you can go and look at the birds. The birds should be alert, meaty, bright-eyed, and active.
If you can’t find someone local, I would suggest searching online quail enthusiast communities. We highly recommend AJ Farms in Strasburg, Virginia. They ship across the United States every week.
Set up Your Quail Housing
Whether you’re going to hatch your quail or buy them as adults, be sure housing for the new birds is set up before they arrive. Quail housing is probably the most complicated part of the entire quail experience, but if you can master the housing, you can master the quail.
Because Coturnix quail have a fight-or-flight mentality they will literally jump and fly straight into the air like little rockets if startled. I like to call them my little feathered ninjas. People laugh at me when I say that, until they have their own little feathered ninjas! You will want to have cages with low ceilings, 12 to 18 inches is more than tall enough. If the ceiling it too tall, they gain a lot of speed before they fly straight into the ceiling and break their necks. Talk about dramatic!
You have several different options when it comes to quail housing. Keep them in wire cages, much like meat rabbits, or in a rabbit hutch. Or you can even raise them in a large chicken run, but make sure it has a low roof and small mesh wire on the sides. Quail can fit through the tiniest of holes! There are even quail keepers who raise their quail in “tractors” (movable coops with low ceilings). This allows keepers to move them around in the pasture while keeping them on the ground.
Whatever you decide, let me make your life easier: Should you decide to raise quail off the ground, make sure their housing has wire flooring. You can use hardware cloth (wire with ¼- to ½-inch square mesh) for this which will make a world of difference in keeping them clean and happy. Their feces will fall right to the ground. Otherwise, as they poop all the time, you will need to clean their cage daily.
Quail Housing Amenities
Quail need basic food and water, which we’ll talk about shortly. But they like other amenities in their housing area that people don’t generally think about. Quail are much like chickens; they like to lay their eggs in confined spaces. Because of this, we place branches (especially pine branches) in their hutch so that they have places to hide and lay eggs. They like their privacy, don’t we all!?
If you don’t want to place branches in your hutch or run, try offering them little boxes full of straw for nesting. If the birds are comfortable and feel safe, you’ll see a difference in their egg-laying efficiency.
Quail also enjoy taking dust baths. I like to offer a dust bath in a large rubber livestock feed bowl. I’ll place dirt, sand, and wood ash or food-grade diatomaceous earth in the bowl and mix them up. You can replenish the bowl every few days, or once a week as needed. The birds will take a dust bath almost every day if it’s available to them!
Choosing Quail Feed
There are a lot of options when it comes to feeding your quail. You’ll want to look for a wild game bird feed that has at least 20 percent protein. We like giving at least 25 percent protein to our quail since we raise them for meat and eggs. Currently, we are using a 30 percent protein feed that seems to be working quite well. The extra protein helps them to grow a little more quickly. You can find feed in different forms: mash, pellets, or whole grains. We prefer the mash or whole grains as they’re easier for quail to digest. Quail are such small creatures that they will waste the pellets simply because they can’t eat them efficiently. Nutrients from pellets also aren’t easily absorbed into the quail’s digestive tract. If we’re being honest, pellets aren’t really that great for other poultry either. This is why we opt for a mash or whole grains for all of our poultry.
You can find different types of feed at your local farm store or at different grain mills. Try them out before you decide on your favorite feed. Your quail will let you know what they like and don’t like. If you can’t find wild game bird feed, a turkey starter/grower feed works just as well.
Pairing Out Breeding Groups
Most homesteaders breed their quail. Unfortunately, Coturnix quail aren’t especially good at brooding their own babies, but we combat this by incubating them ourselves!
The average laying span of a quail is around 1 to 2 years. Ideally, you should be rotating your quail stock every 12 to 15 months. This means that you’ll need to keep your quail in breeding groups on a regular basis, which will also cut down on quail fighting. Trust me, they will fight if not properly placed in breeding groups.
You’ll need at least 3 to 5 quail hens to one quail rooster. We like to do a 1 to 5 ratio in our breeding groups, and we keep three breeding groups on hand at all times. Quail can be vicious little creatures, so make sure your quail are well acquainted with each other before throwing new stock into a breeding group.
Once you have your breeding groups set up and you hatch your first large batch of quail chicks, you’ll need to make sure you have a grow-out pen set up. We have a large grow-out pen set up with wire flooring, and we even brood them with a Prima heat lamp outside so that we don’t have lots of little quail running around inside our house. Our grow-out pen is a large rabbit hutch tucked in one side of our chicken coop. It keeps the quail babies warm and away from drafts.
We like to hatch 30 to 50 quail at a time. This allows us to fill our freezer quickly, and rotate out any stock promptly when necessary.
All in all, quail are easy to raise. With a few of these tips, you should be on your way to becoming a successful quail keeper. While quail aren’t typically cuddly birds, they sure are entertaining, and they’ll run up to you when they recognize you. We’ve gotten lots of laughs out of their antics, and we are in love with their beautiful eggs. The fact that we can also stock a freezer full of meat quickly brings such huge satisfaction to our homestead. There’s nothing better than raising your own food for your family. And doing it in half the time it takes to raise other animals is a major bonus!
I hope you’ll consider these beautiful birds for your homestead!
Amy Fewell is an author, homesteader, and the founder of the Homesteaders of America. She is the author of The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion and The Homesteader’s Natural Chicken Keeping Handbook. She lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, where her and her family holistically and naturally raise their livestock, gardens, and mini-homesteaders! You can follow her doings at The Fewell Homestead.