Quail are a fantastic bird to keep as a hobby. They grow and mature incredibly quickly, reaching sexual maturity at 7 weeks and butchering age at 8 weeks. When given sufficient amounts of natural or incandescent light, a single hen will lay more than 300 eggs per year. They also have relatively small space requirements - when keeping a colony of quail together, one can provide as little as 1/2 square foot of floor space per bird. This sounds like not very much, but the bigger your cage is the more use they make of the space. More space is better, but when kept in an appropriate ratio of males to females (1 male per 3-5 females) and given outlets to practise their normal behaviour, I have had very little problems keeping them at this density.
If you do a search on Google for quail cages, pens, and hutches, you will see that no two cages are alike and everyone has a different preference regarding what constitutes the perfect cage. Here are some qualities I try to implement when building a quail cage:
- Safe for the quail
- Sanitary for the quail
- Safe for the human caretakers
- Easy to clean
- Durable and sturdy
- Light enough for two people to carry if necessary
- Provides shelter from rain, snow, and wind
- Meets the quails' psychological needs
Battery Cage system for egg producing quail
So what do those 9 parameters mean?
Safe for the quail - most if not all of the wiring should be external so the birds do not scratch themselves. If the ceiling is more than about 10 inches high, a springy or soft sub-ceiling should be added. When quail are startled, they flush upwards with tremendous force and can break their necks on a hard roof. Doors to the cage should be big enough to allow access to the cage but not so big that they allow the birds to escape. Any screws or nails protruding through the lumber into the cage should be ground down with a Dremel tool.
Sanitary for the quail - in a cage system, especially one that is stocked heavily, sanitation is very important. Cage systems are most sanitary if they have a wire mesh floor to allow droppings to pass through. Quail are notorious for eating their own feces in cages, though I have not seen this in floor pens that provide the birds with a lot of space a mental stimulation. Outdoors, a quail cage should be lifted well above the ground so that the manure can be shovelled out regularly. On hot days the smell of a buildup of manure is overpowering, and I have seen infestations of maggots under quail cages that have not been kept clean enough in the summer. Indoors, the ammonia let off by the manure can cause respiratory distress for both the quail and the caretakers.
Safe for Humans - all jagged wire edges should be hammered down flat or covered with 1x2 lumber or pine lath. The cage should be raised to an appropriate height so that the caretaker does not have to bend or stoop uncomfortably to get access to the cage. The cage should be easy enough for two people to carry without straining themselves, or, if it is a big cage, built in sections that can be carried from where it was built - a garage or wood shop - to where it is going to be set up. (I once built a huge palace of a cage in the garage and then realised it weighed about 400 pounds. It was fun trying to get that into the backyard and even funner to get it in the truck when we moved.)
A simple, small quail or bantam cage - tractor style
Easy to clean - wire bottomed cages are the easiest to clean, but solid floor cages can be made using wood shavings as litter. These cages MUST be either indoors or under good cover from the weather since if the litter gets wet, the birds can get sick. They also must be cleaned very frequently as even when given lots of space, feces will build up on the birds' feet which can lead to sloughing of the toes. Cages with wire bottoms can be stacked on top of each other with pull-out trays to catch the feces (again, this only really works indoors or in a shed/lean-to) but these trays have to be cleaned frequently - daily if the density of birds in high. Keeping a wire-bottomed cage about 3-4 feet off the ground, putting a layer of shavings underneath, and shovelling out the manure once or twice a week seemed to be the perfect balance between cleanliness and easy maintenance. Cages can also be made mobile so they can be moved to a different spot as needed - this is called a chicken tractor, or in our case, a quail tractor. They can have raised wire bottoms or open bottoms to give the birds access to grass. Can you think of any problems that might occur with this system?
Durable and sturdy - A cage that blows over in the wind isn't any good. Always attach it to the wall of a shed or barn to keep it from blowing over. A cage made from small lumber will often split when you put screws in it, making the joints unstable. They will also warp and rot after a couple years if exposed to rain and snow. I prefer to make the outer frame from 2x4s and use 2x2s as support for the wire, door frames, etc. A cage CAN be made from 2x2s alone if the holes for the screws are pre-drilled and the cage itself is not that large. the benefit of 2x2s over 2x4s as that the cage is way lighter and easier to carry. My preference is still for 2x4s. I want something that will stand up if I bump it with the lawn tractor or a bear or large dog decides to investigate. I also choose to use 1/2 inch hardware mesh for the sides as well as the floor - chicken wire will keep quail in, but it tears easily and is a pain to work with. Foxes and other small predators have no problem ripping it either. The only thing I use 1 inch chicken wire for is the sub-ceiling, because it has some spring to it.
Light and easy to transport - if you are only planning to keep a few quail (less than 50, say) you want to make sure you and another person can carry the cage you build for them. You can always attach it to an outside building after you build it. A very large cage should either be built in the spot where it is going to sit or built in sections than can be dismantled. A made a 3x10 cage once that was very heavy and awkward to move around. If I were to make a large cage like that again I would make two 6 foot sections and put them together.
A very snappy breeding-trio setup - but would it be appropriate for a climate with high winds and rain?
Shelter from rain, snow, and wind - Take your local climate into account. I am originally from the Northwest coast of British Columbia. Half the time it rained and the other half it snowed. We didn't get much sun, so I used clear corrugated plastic on the roof instead of plywood or tin roofing. It kept the rain off and let the sun in. In places with heavy rain and wind, it would be a good idea to keep three sides of the cage covered and face the open side away from the wind. Cold doesn't bother quail as much as wetness does. In area with heavy snow, a steeply sloped roof is a must. Metal roofing sheds snow easily and will keep the weight of the snow off your cage. Even a foot of snow adds a significant weight and can collapse cages. Finally, secure the cage to an outbuilding. The cage pictured above would never work where I am currently living - the wind blows so hard that it regularly skids the prefab shed across the parking lot at my university campus. A cage like this would likely fly away like a kite. Having an enclosed coop with a small door for the birds to go into will give them the option of shelter from the elements, including the cold. Quail are cold hardy in the most extreme weather, but they need a place to get out of the wind and huddle in the hay. They all collect in a tight pile to keep warm. Additional nesting boxes can be put in the outer pen and can be made from simple cardboard boxes.
Raccoons can reach through chicken wire and grab quail, pulling their heads off
Predator proof - I have always been amazed at the lengths predators will go to get into a quail cage. Common predators that keepers of quail and poultry suffer losses from include:
- Domestic cats and dogs
- foxes and coyotes
- mink and martins
- predatory birds
- occasionally domestic ferrets
Chicken wire is useless against predators. All of them can either rip through it, reach through it, or fit through it. I have had foxes rip through quail cages and kill everything inside. Using 1/2 inch hardware cloth will keep predators out. Make sure your doors are tight and have two latches on them. If your cage has a plywood coop with a plywood floor (which is a good idea) it is best to lock the birds up at night and let them loose into the cage in the morning. I had a fox that came every night for three nights and stood under the cage, nipping at the quails' toes and pulling their entire legs off. A sub-floor made from stucco mesh would be a good idea if you are having this problem. Even though predators might not be able to get in, they can pester your birds to the point of death as well. I was working in the yard one day when a miniature dachshund ran under one of my cages and barked; all the birds erupted in terror and a few of them died from thrashing themselves against the side and top of the cage. I've also had owls sit on the fence near the cages and stare at them.
Quail enjoying a dust bath - one of their favourite activities
Meeting the quails' psychological needs - this is the one that is most overlooked in quail housing. In our efforts to make thing, clean, easy, economical, safe and efficient, it has stripped quail of most of their natural environment. Fortunately for Japanese Quail, we don't need to duplicate their environment to give them plenty of enrichment to make them feel safe and happy. Other types of quail do not thrive in cages and are happiest in an aviary environment. It can be said that psychological needs of any animal can be met if the animal has the freedom to engage in natural behaviour. Some important natural behaviours for quail include:
- seeking cover from overhead predators (real or perceived)
- seeking a private nesting location
- dust bathing
- sex (especially males, go figure!)
Quail need to not only be safe but feel safe. They may be as safe as can be in a solid wire indoor cage but will feel vulnerable without any cover. In larger cages, propping coniferous branches in the corner to form lean-tos is a good idea. Quail feel safe if they know predators aren't watching them from above. Cardboard boxes with holes in them also work. Try to keep your cage away from very high-traffic areas and do not give predators a chance to sit by the cage staring at them - cats, ravens, and owls are good for this. Any objects moving overhead will frighten quail - large birds, wind socks, tarps that flap, and doors that open from above.
Part of feeling safe, especially for the hens, is having a private place to lay eggs. Some quail lay eggs wherever, but most of them will seek out a corner that has nesting material in it. Cardboard boxes with hay in them do the trick very well.
Foraging is a near-impossible feat in a wire-bottomed cage, but we can improvise to create a means for the quail to seek-and-peck. Japanese quail are not huge fans of grain and seeds like North American quail, but they do relish fresh greens. Hanging a head of lettuce or dandelion leaves from a string or coat-hanger at head-level will keep them pecking for some time. if the birds are in a solid-bottomed cage with shavings as litter, try sprinkling their food on the shavings instead of putting it in a feeder to make them search for their food.
Dust bathing is a very important stress-reliever for quail - and it also helps them manage external parasites! Quail will dust-bathe in almost any kind of substrate - potting soil, sand, fine shavings, their food, and the best stuff there is - diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is produced from microscopic fossilised creatures called diatoms. it is a very light, fine dust made up of the microscopic shards of the diatom's shells. These shards, though harmless to birds and people, scratch the exoskeleton on fleas and lice which dies them out. Quail don't care about this, though. They just do it because it feels good! You can put a cardboard box or two in your cage, cut an entrance hole in it, and put about 2 inches of dusting material into it to keep your quail happy. Diatomaceous earth is very messy and gets everywhere, so for indoor quail I use budgie grit.
Male quail are highly motivated to reproduce. In a colony setting, one male needs several females to keep himself satisfied. If he is only together with one female she will get abused regularly, so having 3-5 females per male is recommended to keep the males busy but still get good fertility in your eggs. Males can also be vicious fighters if they are crowded together and are being forced to share too few females. If you want to keep a high ratio of males to females it is recommended that they be in trios (2 hens and one rooster to a small cage) or have a very large amount of space and plenty of cover to escape one another. Males should not be kept on their own as they will become very frustrated without access to females. They often call relentlessly 24 hours a day and will even attempt to mount each other. Females, on the other hand, are quite content without males in their life. You do not need males present to get them to lay eggs, but a colony of females will often produce a hen or two that assumes the role of a male by attempting to crow and mounting the other females.
Indoor housing is much simpler because there are far less variables. We don't have to worry about weather or predators etc. Quail can be happily kept indoors as house pets in pet rabbit cages (not hamster cages - hamster cages are way too small) or large aquariums (one quail should have at least a 20 gallon; a 30-55 gallon would be ideal for two or three). The rabbit cages should have a sheet of foam tied to the underside of the top door to soften the blow if the quail jumps up and hits its' head. if not, make sure that the top door is never latched so it will give if the quail hits it. The same goes for the top of any aquariums: it should either be soft or have some give - not heavy and solid. The photo above is Brita's cage. It is made from a clear storage Tupperware with the lid cut out and replaced with hardware cloth for maximum ventilation. I never latch the lid on it. If she jumps, the lid will bounce up with her and fall back down. I never leave the lid off anymore, either. The cage is located under my desk with lighting, and one day I left the lid off the cage and Blondie got startled, flushed upwards and crashed into the underside of the desk and subsequently died. A 12 inch high roof is short enough so that the quail don't get enough momentum to do damage when they hit, but 2-3 feet is deadly. Even quail with clipped wings can do this (Blondie's wings were clipped).
In the cage above I have a towel over one end to give Brita some privacy and darkness, and she has a small clear Tupperware that is her sandbox. The yellow string is where I sometimes tie greens, bundles of wool, and other objects to keep her amused. I most often sprinkle her food on the floor so she spends her day scratching for it. Her cage is cleaned twice each week.