Quail are a terrific alternative or addition to your homestead. They are small, relatively quiet, prolific egg producers, and require little feed or space. This makes them a great source of eggs if your location does not permit chickens or ducks.
There are generally few laws and regulations regarding keeping quail for personal consumption, and if you can have a pet bird in your home or apartment, you can probably raise a few quail in a spare room (just make sure you check your local laws first).
Better yet, quail are not typically subject to the typical diseases that chickens can acquire, and are not known to carry salmonella. They are a hardy, sustainable source of meat and eggs. The easiest way to add quail to your homestead is to hatch and raise your own.
After hatching a few hundred quail eggs, I learned a few ways to increase my hatch rate and improve the health of my quail chicks. First, consider your egg source.
You’ll need to purchase fertilized hatching eggs from a reputable source. You could order them online from any number of prominent hatcheries. You can be assured that these eggs will be treated carefully and shipped well. However, the hatchery does not have any control over what happens to the quail eggs during shipping.
Extreme temperatures, rough handling, or other shipping issues can cause visible and indivisible damage to your eggs, which will cause a higher probability of a low hatch rate. You could search Craigslist for quail eggs and hope that you have a reputable source. Your best bet is to find a local and reputable quail breeder to purchase your hatching eggs.
Once you receive your eggs, unwrap them and place them point down in an egg carton. Allow them to rest for a full day before placing them in the incubator. This will hopefully allow time for any damaged air cells to settle and repair themselves.
Begin incubating your quail eggs by the time they are seven days old. Eggs older than seven days may not hatch may hatch weak chicks. It is very rare for domestic quail to become broody, or be willing to sit on eggs.
If you are lucky, you will have a great broody hen (silkies or bantams work great) who can do the work of hatching your quail eggs for you. If not, you will need to incubate them.
When you set up your eggs to rest, get your incubator ready for your quail eggs. I had great results with the Farm Innovators Digital Circulated Air Incubator with optional quail egg turners. Standard chicken size rails will be too large to hold the quail eggs.
The air circulating fan will help keep the air moving, and many other incubators on the market also have them. Digital thermometers will also help you keep track of the temp easier. I recommend having an additional thermometer in the incubator to help keep track of the temperature in case the built in thermometer is not working correctly.
Make sure your thermometer has been calibrated, especially if you have had it shipped to you.
Your incubator should be at between 99 Degrees Fahrenheit and 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit consistently. Temperatures that are too low can stunt the chicks’ growth, while temperatures that too high can kill them.
As the chicks grow inside the eggs, the air temperature in the incubator may increase. For best results, check the temperature in your incubator daily. Digitally controlled incubators will automatically adjust the temperature for you.
While people typically candle their chicken and duck eggs to watch for signs of growth, quail eggs are very difficult to candle. The mottled, thick shell prevents makes it difficult to see if veins are growing or the chick is continuing to progress.
Rotating the Eggs
Your quail eggs will need to be rotated at least three times a day until day fifteen. Incubators with automatic turners will make the job easy for you so you don’t have to worry about it. If you do not have an automatic turner in your incubator, you will need to do it yourself.
One way to make sure the eggs get turned properly is to use the x and o method. Mark one side of each egg with an “x” and the other side with an “o.” With the palm of your hand, carefully roll the eggs to x one time, then later in the day, roll them to the o position. Continue to do this at least three times per day.
In my experience, a ‘dry hatch’ works best for hatching quail eggs. This means that there is no additional humidity added to the incubator for the first fifteen days.
If you live in a very dry location, you may want to consider adding humidity. if you do add humidity, you will want to keep the humidity around 45% for the first fifteen days. You can do this by adding water to the channels in your incubator, adding a damp sponge to your incubator, or by purchasing a stand-alone humidity unit from places such as the Incubator Warehouse.
Increase the humidity to 65% percent for the last three days of hatching. If the humidity gets too high in the incubator, the chicks can drown in their eggs before they hatch. If it is too low, they may have trouble breaking through the membrane or the shell.
When you add water to the incubator, especially for the last three days, use distilled water to avoid the growth of bacteria or pathogens in the incubator. Warm your water up until it feels warm, but not hot to the touch. This will prevent any dramatic shifts in temperature during the hatch. Try not to open the incubator any more than necessary to keep temperatures and humidity stable.
Lock down is the period of time from day fifteen until the chicks have hatched. It is especially important not to open the incubator during lockdown. If you do, the sudden shift in temperature and humidity could cause the membrane inside the egg to shrink wrap the chick, making it difficult if not impossible for it to hatch on its own.
When it is time to put your incubator on lock down, you will need to remove the automatic egg turner assembly from the incubator. Open the incubator, and carefully lift out the entire egg turner assembly if possible. Gently remove the eggs and lay them on their sides in the incubator, one at a time. If you do not remove the egg turner, your chicks could get stuck and become injured or die.
Hatch day is exciting and a little nerve-wracking, even for the most experienced quail hatchers. Your baby quail will hatch any time from day 15 to day 25, although most will hatch between days 16 and 18.
You may hear tiny cheaps coming from the unhatched eggs, this means they have likely pierced the inner membrane and you can watch to see when they will ‘pip,’ or poke a hole in the shell with their beak.
After the egg has pipped, you will see it begin to ‘zip’ – this is when the baby quail begins to create a crack all the way around the shell in preparation of hatching. Most eggs will go from pip to hatch in twenty four hours, although it sometimes can take a little longer without issue.
If you are hatching a large number of quail, you may find yourself with a delicate balancing act. Do you snatch the hatched quail from the incubator while the rest are hatching? Or leave them there until all of the quail have hatched?
Once the baby quail have begun to hatch, you can typically leave them in the incubator for twenty four to thirty hours. However, if you open the incubator and other quail eggs have pipped but not hatched, they may become shrink-wrapped in their eggs and be unable to hatch without assistance.
Some incubators are able to withstand occasional opening without humidity and temperature issues, while other incubators may not. You will have to decide if you want to risk the unhatched eggs by removing the hatchlings, or risk the hatchlings by leaving them in the incubator longer than 30 hours. It may take a few hatches to find out which works best for you and your incubator.
Once a few early quail have hatched, they will start popping out of their eggs like popcorn. It is a fun and exciting thing to watch. After you have reached day 18, the chance of the remaining eggs hatching goes way down, but it is still possible. If you wish, you can do a float test on the remaining eggs to see if they will hatch.
Take a few, or all, of your remaining eggs, and float them in 99 degree water. Eggs that sink are no good, but the ones that bob at the top still have air and likely, a viable chick.
However, if you simply have patience, you can skip the float test and just keep your incubator running with the remaining eggs. Check periodically to see if any have hatched.
Remove the chicks from the incubator after they have dried off and look fluffy and active. Chicks that are wet or lethargic from hatching should stay in the incubator a bit longer to rest and dry off. The next step to raising your baby quail is to move them from the incubator to the brooder.
Brooding Quail Chicks
Every brooder needs to have water, food, heat, and bedding. in the beginning, quail chicks will need very little room to move around. In my experience, a medium-size plastic tote makes a terrific quail brooder. Cover the top with an old window screen to keep the chicks in and any other animals out.
If you are handy, you can carefully cut out a large square in the lid of the tote and glue, staple, or zip tie a piece of screen or mesh over the hole to allow for airflow while keeping the chicks safe inside. When the chicks begin to grow, you will want to give them more room. You can move them to a larger brooder or move some of the chicks to an additional brooder.
For the first few days, a couple layers of paper towels make good bedding for the tiny chicks. This will give them a little bit of traction, make cleaning easy, and allow you to easily spot and remove ailing chicks.
It is normal to lose a few chicks out of a large hatch. Be sure to remove them promptly. After the first few days, you may want to add pine shavings or some other bedding to the brooder as well.
There are several options to keep the chicks warm. Some folks prefer to use an inexpensive and easy to find heat lamp for their baby quail. Caution must be used with a heat lamp because they can shatter or fall and start fires.
If you use a heat lamp, you will need to have a thermometer in the brooder and make sure there is room for the chicks to leave the heated area if they get too warm. Keep the temperature at 100 degrees for the first week, dropping it two or three degrees each week until the quail are fully feathered. Lower the temperature by raising the heat lamp a little bit at a time.
Quail that are too warm will lay flat, act lethargic, and may even pant. Quail that are too cold will huddle together and cry loudly. Comfortable baby quail will move in and out of the heated area, eating and drinking, and returning to get warm.
My first choice for keeping baby quail warm is a Brinsea EcoGlow. This is essentially a heated ceramic plate on legs. For baby quail, remove one of the legs and put the other leg on the lowest setting. This will give the quail room to move around and find the spot that is just right.
There is a much lower risk of fire with this type of heater, and the size of the chick, not the temperature, determines how high to place the heater. The chicks enjoy going under the heater much like a baby chick would hide under a mother hen.
When you move chicks from the incubator to the set-up brooder, you will need to show them where the food, water, and heat source are. Use a waterer that is specifically made for quail chicks, which will help prevent the baby chicks from drowning in a bowl or saucer or chicken waterer.
You may want to place clean marbles or gravel in the bottom of the water bowl for a week or two so that the chicks can get a drink without falling in or getting wet and cold. Quail water gets dirty quickly, so be sure to change it often.
For the first few days, sprinkle the quail food onto paper towels so it is easy for the tiny birds to find. Commercial game bird food has the correct amount of protein for quail, but you will probably need to grind it with a coffee grinder to make it into smaller crumbs. Even normal size quail crumbles may be too large for their tiny beaks.
As you move the chicks from the incubator to the brooder, pick each one up carefully with two hands. Quail chicks are fast and active, and may easily squirm out of your grasp. Be especially careful not to drop them!
Lightly dip the chick’s beak into the water, and show them the food by scratching it with your finger. Usher them under the heater so they can get warm again. They may cry as they are scared and unsure of where their hatchmates are.
As long as they are warm, fed, and watered, they will soon settle down and sleep. Once a couple of chicks have figured out how to eat and drink on their own, the other chicks will pick it up much more quickly. Baby chicks will sleep a lot of the time during the first several days, only coming out to eat and drink and then hiding under the heater for more naps.
Baby quail grow quickly and may double in size the first day or two. There may be a large difference in size from quail that hatch just a day or two later, but they will quickly catch up and their sizes will even out in just a few days.
Keep a close watch to try to make sure all of the chicks are able to eat and drink. In a few days, the chicks will be large enough that you can switch to regular game bird crumbles in a quail feeder.
Quail are by nature a bit skittish. Once they are a few days old, they enter the ‘popcorn’ stage, where the slightest disturbance startles them and they jump about like popcorn.
Soon, the little chicks will be able to fly and you will have trouble keeping them in the brooder when you open it to feed and water them. It will help to keep the flighty birds in the brooder if you can keep part of the top of the brooder covered while you work.
Keep a close eye out for any escapees so you can track them down before they get into trouble. Change the bedding whenever it becomes dirty or wet.
Don’t be startled if some of your chicks look like they have expired! Baby chicks tire easily, and may stretch out on their sides or fronts to sleep. Even adult birds may occasionally sleep in the “playing dead” position. As long as they are not too warm or sick, there is nothing to worry about.
After three to four weeks, your baby quail should have all their feathers and you can move them to a grow out pen. If the temperatures in your area are very cold, you may want to consider keeping a heat source available for the quail for a couple more weeks.
If you are raising coturnix quail, they will begin to lay eggs by eight to nine weeks. Bobwhit quail will take a little longer, but their tiny white eggs are certainly worth the wait.
By six to eight weeks, you can begin to sex your quail. If you leave too many males per number of females, the roosters will fight or over-mate with your hens. This can cause injury to the hens.
Adult quail cannot be free-ranged like chickens. They will become easily lost or be taken by predators. They will need at least one square foot of cage space per bird, with a low ceiling so they do not hurt their heads on the ceiling if they are startled.
If you are going to breed your quail, keep no more than one male for every two to five hens. This will give you enough fertility to breed more quail without causing injury to your hens. Collect and store your eggs and you can begin the hatching process all over again, or enjoy the delicious fresh quail eggs and meat for yourself.
Hatching quail is a rewarding experience. With a little practice and patience, you will quickly master the practice of hatching quail and be able to grow your own quail for meat and eggs.