We had chickens for six years in Tulsa. We kept them in something called a “chicken tractor,” which is a portable coop that provides all the advantages of free ranging poultry (fresh air, natural surroundings, diverse diet) while also providing all the advantages of a confinement operation (protection from predators, shelter from the elements, ability to keep the birds out of mischief). Joel Salatin, in his book Pastured Poultry Profits — which I highly recommend — calls this portable setup a “tractor” because he can move it into areas he intends to cultivate and let the chickens prepare the soil for him. They are exceptionally good at this. Chickens will gleefully strip away vegetation, loosen the soil, fertilize it, remove weed seeds and kill pests while providing their owners with a steady supply of protein in the form of eggs. Everybody wins.
Chickens are illegal where we live now — as are guineas, peacocks and several other species — but quail aren’t, so I did a bit of research and determined coturnix quail would be an acceptable substitute for the time being.
In late March, I bought a dozen quail chicks from the feed store and embarked on a new experiment. Here are my findings thus far. I’ll post updates as the summer progresses.
Coturnix chicks are ridiculously cute, and their diminutive size makes them easy to handle. They’re also good egg producers — I’m told one hen will produce 300 eggs a year under normal circumstances — which helps make up for the fact that it takes five coturnix eggs to equal one chicken egg in recipes.
Because quail are much smaller than chickens, they also require less space — I’ve seen figures indicating anywhere from 40 square inches to a square foot of floor space per bird — and because they are ground-dwellers, they don’t use perches, so tractor construction is easier. They will, however, scalp themselves while attempting to fly if you make the coop too tall, so I constructed a quail tractor from 2x2s and half-inch hardware cloth. It’s roughly four feet long, two feet wide and 10 inches high, with a hinged lid and an open bottom that allows the birds direct access to the ground. I also enclosed one end with removable styrofoam panels to provide shelter from the weather.
The quail seem to be thriving in this setup, and they seem more confident, adventuresome and opinionated now that they’re outdoors where they belong. I can’t imagine raising them in an indoor confinement operation.
Their small size makes quail chicks a bit more delicate than chooks, and their mortality rate is higher. In the past month, I’ve had to deal with wry neck, leg injuries caused by inappropriate bedding, and issues with the birds maturing at wildly different rates, causing the bigger ones to run over the smaller ones until I set up a second brooder and separated them by size.
The other major drawback is that my quail have been exponentially more prone to random acts of abject stupidity than my chickens were.
Quail stupidity primarily manifests itself in a tendency to drown themselves by lying down in the water dispenser and falling asleep with their heads underwater. After one of mine pulled this stunt, I did a little research and discovered the placement of the water dispenser is important: If it’s directly under the lamp, the water will warm up and feel soooooo good that the babies just can’t resist napping in it. (Yeah, I have no idea how these animals survive in the wild, either.) I also threw some pebbles in the trough around the water dispenser so they wouldn’t bathe in it, which can lead to hypothermia.
Being cute does not prevent an animal from being belligerent. Shortly before I moved the flock out of the brooders and into the tractor, a young rooster attacked two other birds, causing serious enough injuries that I wound up butchering the perpetrator and roasting him with garlic and pecans so he wouldn’t maim anybody else. His victim seems to be recovering nicely, but I doubt that would have been the case if I’d left him in there.
This raises an important point: If you are not prepared to kill an animal you’ve raised, you probably shouldn’t keep livestock. It’s not fun, but sometimes it’s necessary, and if you can’t or won’t do it, your animals will suffer unduly as a result.
Quail chicks are harder to raise than chickens, but once they move outside, the differences are minimal, aside from their size and appearance. Given the choice, I’d still rather have chickens, and if you have the option, I’d recommend you do the same, but thus far, they seem to be a viable alternative in a city whose animal ordinances leave something to be desired.