Japanese quail (also known as coturnix quail) are remarkably low-maintenance birds. Even after hatching and brooding several generations of quail, I’m always surprised at how rapidly they grow and adapt to their environment. They’re smaller at hatching size than most fowl, so they do require minor brooding accommodations, but otherwise need few basic amenities. And don’t let those minor brooding differences deter you; they’re all things that can easily be worked into an existing brooder setup, or you can build an inexpensive brooder for small flocks.
Temperature is the first variable to consider. Since quail require a relatively high incubating temperature of about 99 degrees Fahrenheit, the brooder needs to be comparatively warm at 95 degrees for the first week. Have the brooder light or heating element going for a few hours before transferring the chicks from the incubator, and take temperature readings to ensure accuracy and consistency. This way, you’ll avoid temperature shock when moving the chicks from incubator to brooder. Over the following weeks, decrease the temperature by 5 degrees every week. Depending on your brooder, you can achieve this by opening vents in the lid and/or increasing the distance of the heat lamp from the brooder. Aim to accustom the quail to outdoor temperatures a week or so before you move them to their outside location at 6 weeks or older.
If your brooder achieves temperature via a central heating lamp, keep an eye on the chicks’ behavior for the first 15 minutes after you put them in. If they’re all huddled together underneath the light, the temperature is too cool. If they avoid the light completely and stay only along the edges, it’s too warm.
Most brooding bulbs are 250 watts, but depending on how much you can safely draw from your circuit, a 125-watt bulb can also work — just run a temperature check and make sure the brooder can stay warm enough. Also, consider using an infrared bulb instead of a bright-white bulb, as it can reduce aggression when the chicks reach 4 to 5 weeks of age.
I prefer to use a metal clamp light, because the reflector hood helps direct heat and light into the brooder, and the clamp is strong and secure. If you go this route, make sure the surface you clamp the light onto is stable and that the light isn’t too close to the chicks or anything flammable.
Feed and Water
Chicks should have access to fresh water at all times. They can quickly become dehydrated in the warm temperatures of a brooder, which can lead to many issues. For the first couple of days, I give my chicks a jar lid filled with water. A lid has a low rim for the chicks to drink out of easily, and it isn’t deep enough for them to drown in. (Quail chicks can drown in as little as 1 inch of water.) Make sure to check the water level throughout the day. After the chicks are a few days old, I start using just the base of a standard poultry waterer, and I fill it with marbles to negate the risk of drowning.
After two weeks, when the chicks begin going through water at a faster rate, I add the watering jar to the base. After three weeks, I remove the marbles. Waterers and marbles should be cleaned daily. (A sieve works well to wash marbles.)
For food, unmedicated starter crumble works fine, although the protein content needs to be around 24 percent. Starter crumble is often made primarily for chickens, and the crumble size is too large for quail chicks, so use a food processor and grind it to a sand-like consistency. I often use the same game bird feed that I give my adult quail, only I grind it up before feeding it to the chicks. Chicks only need ground food for the first two weeks or so. I also provide their food in a jar lid for the first week, and then start using the base of a standard poultry feeder.
I fit a spare lid over the central opening of the feeder base, where the jar would go, to keep the chicks from getting inside and soiling the food, or becoming trapped. After three weeks, I add a small jar of food to the base. As with water, make sure they don’t run out of food, especially since this can encourage aggressive pecking and bullying behaviors.
Flooring and substrate choices depend on the type of brooder you use. If the brooder has a solid floor, line it with paper towels for the first couple of weeks, and then switch to pine shavings. (Shavings are a bit too difficult for quail chicks to move on at first, so always start with paper towels.) Avoid cedar shavings, because they’re not safe for birds.
If the brooder has a wire floor, the openings are often too large for young quail chick feet. I prefer to line my ½-inch wire floor with paper towels for the first 2 to 3 weeks, depending on the size of the birds. Once the chicks grow a bit, they can be on the wire, and I line the drop pan for easier cleanup.
Young quail chicks are curious and don’t seem to mind me reaching in to change paper towels. At 2 weeks old, however, they begin startling easily. Move slowly and talk to the birds to avoid spooking them, which can result in injuries. Choose a cleaning routine that’s minimally invasive and doesn’t require a substrate that needs to be changed multiple times a day.
Build a Brooder
If you don’t have a brooder, many commercial options are available, although they’re usually designed for large numbers of birds and can be a financial investment. You can save money by building your own brooder, and there are plans and tutorials for a variety of brooder designs made of lumber and hardware cloth. These are excellent choices if you know you’ll be hatching quail regularly and need a brooder that will hold up over time and frequent use.
If you’re not going to hatch quail often, or you’re just getting started and looking for an inexpensive option, a large plastic storage tub works well. When I first began hatching and brooding quail, I wasn’t sure how frequently I would be using a brooder, so I opted to make a couple of my own out of plastic storage totes. These work best for a small number of birds. They may outgrow their space around 5 weeks old, depending on the size of the birds, but you can make additional brooders to split the group at that point, or choose to time the hatch so that the weather is warm and amenable for putting them in an outside enclosure.
Storage totes come in a wide variety of sizes and dimensions, and I recommend finding a tote with the highest sides possible — 18 inches at minimum. Storage totes between 40 to 45 gallons are ideal. While this seems like a lot of space for quail in their first week, they’ll have grown enough by the third week to make the most of it.
If the tote has a lid, all the better. Cut a “window” in the center of the lid, leaving about 6 inches from the edge all the way around. Use duct tape to attach a piece of ½-inch or ¼-inch hardware cloth (uncoated) to the top of the lid on the outside, overlapping the hole by a couple of inches. This will provide adequate ventilation for the chicks, and the heat lamp can be mounted securely above to shine through the screen opening. As the weeks progress and the chicks need cooler temperatures, the lamp can be moved farther above the brooder.
Depending on the ambient temperature of the brooder’s location, you may find it difficult to achieve a warm enough temperature. I’ve had luck covering part of the screen opening with aluminum foil, and even cloaking the lamp dome with foil to prevent heat from escaping. Be sure to keep a close eye on the temperature, though, and change the bedding regularly to prevent ammonia fumes.
If the tote doesn’t have a lid, you can create a lid by framing ½-inch or ¼-inch hardware cloth with lumber. You may find you need to cover most of the open screen with foil in the first week or so to achieve the right temperature. When I was first making my own brooders, I had several squares — left over from storage cube assemblies — that I zip-tied together to make a lid across the whole tote or to cover the opening in a lid. While this setup can work in a pinch, only use it on brooders with high sides, so chicks don’t escape through any gaps in the assembly.
Small Size, Big Reward
All in all, brooding quail is quite a rewarding experience that doesn’t require a large investment. With a little planning and care, it can be fun. You’ll be amazed at how quickly those tiny birds grow with a few basic amenities!
Kelly Bohling is a lifelong Kansan who works as a classical violinist. Between gigs and lessons, she spends time out in the garden or with her animals, including quail and French Angora rabbits. Bohling’s hand-spun Angora yarn can be found on Etsy and Instagram @ThreeRabbitYarns
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