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Wildlife Camera » Classic gamebirds from backyard pens

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Classic gamebirds from backyard pens

22 November 2009


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Bobwhite quail

Two birds which have been trying to find their way on to the British shooting list for many years without success, are now finding a place in the niche market for exotic game. The Bobwhite quail and the Chukar partridge are easy to keep and breed, and they are famously good on the table.

The Bobwhite, when considered as exotic table game, fits into a gap between the Coturnix quail – the usual supermarket quail – and the partridge. It weighs about half a pound, say 200-250gm. And the Chukar and its hybrids, weighing about three-quarters of a pound (350gm), have found a market as the supply of wild Grey partridges from the shooting field has faded away.

The fast-breeding, fast-maturing Coturnix quail can outpace either of them, with four generations achieved before the Bobwhite even lays its first egg. However, the chunkier bird makes excellent eating and when you want to impress American hunter friends, the pot-roasted Bobwhite is a welcome surprise dish. If they hail from the South, the “ah-bob-white” call from the birds in your pens is likely to bring tears to their eyes, because no other sound is quite so evocative of plantation shooting days in Dixie.

Millions of these quail are reared every year in the eastern United States, many of them released on put-and-take shooting preserves, others for the table. They are among the most highly prized of upland gamebirds – they are simply “The Bird” in the South – and the explosive  “bouquet” burst of a covey from under the pointer’s nose, with birds swerving off in all directions, is heart-stoppingly dramatic.

Despite this apparent wildness, the Bobwhite has an inclination to become tame under aviary conditions. Unlike the pheasant, which is by temperament always nervous and ready to flush madly into the roof netting, the quail recognises the benefits of life in a pen and settles down to the domesticated routine, which is one of the reasons they are popular as backyard pets as well as food producers.

The Chukar will be found for sale in “Shooting Times”, among the gamefarm pheasants and partridges, but the Bobwhite is more likely to be in “Cage and Aviary Birds” with the canaries and parakeets. In our local free ads paper, the Chukar (and its hybrids with the almost-native Redleg) have always turned up under “Poultry and Game”. The Bobwhite appears beside the tiny Chinese Painted quail in the “Pet Birds for Sale” section. Either way, Defra confirms they are both legal as home-raised game, and they can be marketed at the farm gate, although you can’t release them into the wild.

The Bobwhite is a very solidly built bird, measuring about 9-10 inches (approx 25-27cm) in length, mainly streaky brown in colour, with a broad white eyebrow and white chin. The markings of the female are duller than those of the male, with buff replacing white on the face. The beak is quite short, giving the bird a rather finch-like profile, and this feature together with the large dark eyes, leads to its almost universal description by admirers as “real cute”.

For the smallholder with plenty of space and clean grass, Bobwhites will breed satisfactorily in planted aviaries and they will perch in a bush or shelter at night. However, there are many other projects around the smallholding that will probably have priority for grass-floored pens on clean ground, so it is quite likely that the quail will be kept on wire floors, on which they do very well, avoiding soil-borne disease.

The handsome Chukar, like the Bobwhite, is bred by the million on American gamefarms. It is a gamebird of arid uplands, found in most bits of semi-desert in a wide swathe from Cyprus to China. It has adapted splendidly to life in the American West, and in many states it is now the principal upland quarry. The name comes from its call: chuk-chuk chukurrr, similar to the call of the Redlegged partridge.

As a wild gamebird, the Chukar is regarded as sporting and elusive. It tends to run rather than sit tight, which makes it difficult to hunt over pointing dogs, but it is a challenging bird in its tough landscape. As a pen-reared partridge, its character is more like the Bobwhite than the pheasant – it domesticates very quickly, becoming confident and tame.

Under British conditions, most Chukars are kept as pairs in individual pens of similar design to the Bobwhite pen but somewhat larger, perhaps 6ft x 3ft in area, and treated as fully domesticated birds.

For the smallholder who wants to try something exotic, slightly beyond the range of everyday poultry, the Bobwhite and Chukar offer interesting challenges – easy to keep, good to eat, interesting to market.
Text copyright Willy Newlands. Photo of bobwhite quail from iStockphoto.
   

    


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