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Wildlife Camera » Quail is fast-breeding superstar

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Quail is fast-breeding superstar

14 November 2009


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Japanese quail

There is a lot of good news and two bits of  not-so-wonderful news about the Japanese quail. The good news is that this little gamebird is the most super-productive of all domestic birds, laying from the age of just six or seven weeks, with table birds ready for market at 50 days.

 The bad news for the sportsman is that the quail is a complete failure as a wild gamebird, and the problem for the backyard poultry keeper is that the British market for quail meat and eggs is described as “saturated”.

For many years, shooting men in search of a quick fix for declining game numbers have spotted the potential of these coturnix quail. They have noted that before the quail hen is nine weeks old, some of the next generation of her chicks will already be hatching. By the time she reaches 18 weeks, her grandchildren are themselves breaking out of their shells.

The theory is exciting: you could have three generations of birds in one summer and be up to your knees in quail before you could whistle wet-my-lips (which the wild quail do all the time).

Sadly for the game-shooter, it just doesn’t work out like that. The domestic quail is no more suited to life in the wild than a battery hen, with the added difficulty that its ancestors were highly migratory, so the hoped-for hordes of little mini-partridges would be thinking of heading south by the middle of August.

Some genetic engineer is no doubt working somewhere on a mega-prolific, home-loving gamebird created by genetically modifying quail and partridges. But until that wonderbird comes along, the domestic Japanese quail should be treated as the brilliant result of traditional breeding skills, unequalled in its ability to produce meat and eggs for the table to a short timetable and thriving under intensive management.

These little birds can be kept in a garden aviary, fed on seed and treated like mini-pheasants, but even under these protected conditions they will incubate few of their own eggs and the laying season will be confined to May-August. It is not their preferred habitat. If you take them indoors, give them a diet of starter crumbs with almost constant light and a friendly temperature, they become superstars, enthusiastically breeding and laying all year round.

At six weeks of age both sexes are similar in size — about 7 inches long — and also in weight. Beyond that age the males become sexually active and gain little weight, while the hens continue to grow to their maximum of around 6oz, about 20 per cent heavier than the cocks.

A breeding unit of these quail can give the backyarder a steady supply of both eggs and meat. These are familiar items in the delicatessen trade and it’s a great pleasure to produce your own from a few pens in the barn. Quail have the added “plus” that they do actually turn up on the home menu, unlike the “meat” rabbits and “meat” geese which acquire names and become farmyard pets, never getting as far as the dinner table.

Japanese quail come in several “colourways” — Manchurian Golden, American Range, Fawn, Tuxedo and Dark-eyed White. The Range variety is rather similar in colour to a melanistic hen pheasant and the neatly-named Tuxedo is similar but with a white face and underparts, the Golden is paler than the normal form and the Fawn paler still. All these colours are equally prolific, and in addition there are also selected laying strains and the Jumbo or Giant quail, which may be twice as heavy at 6 weeks.

The names given to the domestic quail are extraordinarily confusing. There are half a dozen species in the genus Coturnix, ranging across most of the Old World and Australia. However, the “coturnix” on its own has become an alternative name for the domestic form of the Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica), a bird which has nearly 100 other labels — Pharaoh quail, Holy Land quail and Bible quail among them — and including some which are correctly applied to other species entirely, such as King quail and Button quail.

One of the reasons for the mishmash of names is that the Japanese quail has never been an exhibition bird: it arrived in Britain too late to be part of the Victorian poultry mania which put standardised breeds on the show bench (as well as improving their meat and laying qualities). One minor side effect of the craze for showing breeds was an agreement on what each variety was called, a bonus which did not extend to the Japanese-Pharoah-Nile-King’s-German-or-whatever quail. Even today no one is quite sure where the domestic quail fits in the livestock scene, with stock for sale in the classified ads just as likely to turn up under the heading “Poultry and Game” as under “Cage and Aviary Birds”.

Even when kept under ideal conditions out of doors, Japanese quail are unreliable parents. They lay all summer, but rarely sit. I have hatched and reared them under very small silkie bantams in outdoor pens — the result was very beautifully feathered birds — but usually they are hatched in incubators and reared in brooders. The chicks, which hatch after 16-17 days, are tiny — four to the ounce — and full of energy. They are best kept on paper floors and fed on game or turkey starter crumbs (about 28 per cent protein), which also form the best diet for adults.

At quite an early age, Japanese quail are easy to sex. Apart from the distinctive brick-red throat of the male, he can be distinguished when in breeding condition by his secretion from a swollen vent gland of a white discharge from the kidneys which looks like shaving-cream foam, a unique feature of the species.

For the production of hatching eggs, a cock bird will usually be housed with two or three hens in a wire-floored cage about 20-24in. square and 12in. high. Wire mesh of 7mm (0.28in.) is recommended for the flooring. Quail can also be kept in groups on deep litter under a 60 watt bulb, lit for 16-18 hours (or even 24 hours) a day, housing one male with every three females and allowing 20 square inches per bird, although many eggs may be buried and lost when using this “easycare” system.

One warning about housing quail on the floor: there is something about the smell or sound of these birds which seems to attract rats with an almost Pied Piper intensity – they arrive from miles around. Make certain that the building housing your quail is 100 per cent rat proof.

The migratory quail of Europe and Asia (Coturnix coturnix) is still around as a wild bird in Britain, although much rarer than it once was. I have heard its “QUICK, quick-ic” (wet-my-lips) call in many places in this country, from Salisbury Plain to Kincardineshire clifftops, but it’s an uncommon event, always worth noting in the diary.

Once it was a familiar sound of the countryside, and quail were so abundant on migration that they could be scooped up with nets in the streets of Egyptian villages or decoyed into traps by the bucketful on Italian hillsides. The average harvest on the little island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples, exceeded 160,000 birds a year, and ships were said to have foundered in the Mediterranean under the weight of quails when they dropped exhausted on deck.

The quail is the only bird whose numbers in Europe were ever described in terms equivalent to the vast flocks of passenger pigeons in North America. The migrants in autumn, flying south to Africa, were numbered in millions, and Asian birds wintering on the plains of India were described as “abounding in such degree that shooting them is mere slaughter. A tolerably good shot will bag 50-60 brace in about three hours.” And that was in the days of muzzle-loading shotguns.

This little gamebird was never super-abundant in the British Isles, although quite familiar on the summer table in medieval times. It declined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and crashed in the mid-1800s. Every now and again there are good quail years, when warm southerly winds in spring encourage migrants to overshoot their Continental strongholds, but today it is an uncommon bird with us, even on its preferred habitat of dry chalk uplands. Maybe climate change will bring it back, although warmer summers also seem to bring torrential rain, which does not suit quail chicks at all.

Although illustrations in bird books depict it as a miniature partridge, the quail looks very different on the wing. The body is cigar-like rather than dumpy and the wings are long, narrow and noticeably sickle-shaped. As might be expected from a long-distance migrant, it can fly far and fast, but when flushed on its breeding grounds it usually flutters down, with a rather lark-like descent, within 100 yards of the place where it rose.
Adapted from the original chapter in “Hobby Farm” (published by Souvenir Press — £9 on Amazon.com). Copyright Willy Newlands. Photo: iStockphoto.


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