Our quail cage sits in the back of the pet zoo, behind the duck pond, hidden behind the tall bamboo surrounding the pond. The quail are so small and quiet and hide so well, that many people don’t even know they are there. Coturnix or Japanese quail are small, ground-dwelling birds that lay delicious, nutritious little eggs, that look like speckled chocolate easter eggs.
Those eggs are the reason that quail are extensively farmed and have been for thousands of years. During this time, they have been bred to lay as many eggs as possible, as early as possible, and not to brood. As a result, Coturnix quail start laying as early as six weeks of age, live only for a year or two and and practically never brood and hatch their own eggs. To breed more quail, people use artificial incubators.
I got my quail as a present from my husband’s uncle when I started the pet zoo. I was immediately charmed by their cute, round little bodies, the male’s trilling call and their lovely eggs. I don’t let anyone go into the quail cage, they are strictly for watching. And it is very enjoyable to watch them going around their daily business – eating, scratching and pecking, dustbathing, laying eggs… I played around with the cage decoration, trying to find out how to maximise quail happiness, and found out that they love hiding in brush and greenery, dustbathing in sand and burrowing in straw. So I sacrificed a couple of porch plants to provide them with hiding spaces and greenery, put in some boxes and planters filled with straw, put sand on the dirt floor – and there we have it: the Quail Paradise! They seemed happy as can be, burrowing, flitting around and singing.
I was told that they would never hatch their own chicks, so I tried putting some of the little eggs in a home incubator. Quail eggs take a very short time to hatch, and only 17 days later, five tiny quail chicks hatched from the eggs. They were some of the most adorable creatures I have ever seen! My children loved playing with them and watching them grow, which they did very quickly. A small problem was that our house cats also loved watching them and kept trying to break into the cage. So after a few weeks, when the chicks had more or less feathered out, we decided to introduce them to the Quail Paradise. I was surprised to see the older quail immediately accepted the babies and seemed to adopt them as their own. The little ones followed the adults around and learned how to peck, scratch and dustbathe – a very touching sight.
The quail seemed happier than ever. There was lots of singing, mating and egg laying. Soon, the young ones started laying eggs as well and I had more than I knew what to do with. At some point, I noticed they started laying their eggs in a nest instead of scattered around the cage, so I decided to leave them and see what would happen.
And to my utter surprise, two of the females decided to sit on the eggs and brood! They were sitting on something that resembled a carpet of eggs; all the others kept laying more in the nest and they tried to cover them all. Sometimes one of the males joined them and helped keep the eggs warm. I held my breath for 17 days. And yes! Right on time, the eggs started hatching and we had a total number of 14 extra little chicks! I was stunned. People had told me not to bother trying, that the urge to brood had been bred out of them over the years. But look what happened here right under my nose!
The little quail grew up just as quickly as the others, but this time under the watchful eye of their parents in the Quail Paradise. Unfortunately, we lost two of them after they climbed out through the holes in the fence and the chickens ate them, probably thinking they were mice… After that, we covered the lower part of the fence with mesh and they stayed in. When they grew up, the more pressing problem was what to do with the overpopulation in the Quail Paradise! I gave six of them away to a friend, but sadly his cage wasn’t secure enough and the little birds were killed, probably by cats.
Now, the winter has passed, the quail have started laying an abundance of eggs again and I have started leaving the ones they lay in the nest. And lo and behold, history repeats itself. Right now, one of my little hens is brooding on a new carpet of eggs, sometimes aided by a male. I can’t tell if these are the same birds or different ones, but it is clear to me that something interesting is going on here.
My theory is that the more natural the environment is, the happier the quail are and the more likely they are to revert to their original behaviour. If they have space and enrichment, like greenery, hiding spaces and sand to bathe in, they are happy. If they feel safe and get the chance to lay eggs in a nest and brood totally undisturbed, they can still take care of their own procreation. It is beautiful to see how nature wins out in the end! I’m holding my breath again for another 17 days!!