Years of selective breeding have not only bred the broodiness out of domesticated quail but also their ability to identify and seek out their own food. They exist now both commercially and in many backyard situations on a purely grain diet, the prime function of which is to put on weight in the males or for the continuous laying of eggs in the case of females.
Polly and quail - free ranging in a Normandie meadow.
Polly puts foraging back on the menu
In addition to poor diet, the close proximity of quail kept in cages and resultant high stress levels in the birds leaves them open to disease, thus many caged quail are given medication directly in their food. One of my major preoccupations therefore, is to return the quail, as far as is possible in captivity, to a natural diet and a free-ranging life-style. The mother hen is thus not just there to hatch the quail and keep them warm but to teach them to forage for plants and also how and where to find insects.
Phase One - In the Warmth of the Glasshouse
For my last three birthdays Andy has made me a greenhouse. The first one he made, from recycled glass and pallet wood, heats up quickly on sunny days even in Winter, so in early Spring it's ideal for the young quail. Here you see two of them working systematically through the greenfly on the stalks and leaves of over-wintered Mibuna. If you watch the film at the bottom of the page you will notice how methodical they are, moving almost in unison across the ground so as not to miss a single insect. This is another reason for my choice of an Ardenner hen because they are meticulous when looking for food for their chicks. Unlike other hens, who can be erratic, particularly when under pressure to find food for their babies, the Ardenner will work really slowly, searching a small piece of ground until she believes she has removed everything edible from it. In this way the Mother hen reinforces behaviours buried within the collective consciousness of the quail and which re-emerge once allowed the mental activity which free-ranging in the green house seems to engender.
Phase Two - Gathering Momentum in the Ability to Forage.
A week later and I move them to the cooler Greenhouse, where they are now on a diet of larger insects, which Polly either digs up or knocks down from the remains of last years borlotti beans. The symbiosis between us follows the pattern of: Polly teaches, quail learn, they both get fed and we get the greenhouse cleared up and ready for planting. At this stage I can also put down a layer of compost and Polly and the quail will remove the woodlice which would otherwise attack plant roots. The bond established earlier between Polly and the quails is now very strong and they rush to her as soon as she calls and although they are very independent follow her around the Greenhouse. You will also see in the film, or rather hear them in constant communication with each other as they fan out across the Greenhouse looking for food. This informs me that they can now move on to the next stage of free-ranging out in the open meadow.
Phase Three - Out in the Open Fields
Polly en garde. Already, early on whilst still in the Greenhouse-stage of development, we take the babies up for a short daily outing in the meadow. This is primarily so they will encounter other types of insects and grubs which live amongst grass roots and also to absorb vitamin D, which is necessary for the absorption of calcium. Furthermore, it is also an important part of their learning process, as the Mother hen trains them to become aware of predators. Polly has already taught them the command signals which she gives when danger approaches from along the ground. Now in taking them up in the meadow, Polly teaches them to be aware of danger from overhead. These new sounds and sights the quail experience up in the meadow, coupled with Polly's example will be of immense benefit to them in the future.
It is true that eventually when they become more adept at flight and less tied to their Mother, the quail will be within a run and thus technically safe from predators. However, there is always a chance they may escape. Unfortunately quail are master escapers and an opportunity to shoot out when the door is open or a moment of forgetfulness by us and they are off. Within our garden, which is walled and fenced with hedges, we have had many escapees but with the sense of self-preservation taught by the Mother hen they have even survived several nights in the garden before returning back to base
One of the provisos I have in free-ranging in the meadow, is not to let all my baby quail out at once with the Mother hen. We take a small portable run out into the field and leave a couple of quail behind in it. This provides a focal point and 'home base' for the other quail and relieves us of the pressure of watching too many free-ranging quail at once. Quail do start to fly within the first weeks of life and you have to keep an eye on them. I was really lucky in that this was a neighbour's meadow, we were cutting for hay and could leave an area of tall grass in the middle. This latter section in which the quail felt safer and thus tended to stay within had a good width of cut grass on all sides. I'd planned this so that it was easy to see the quail if and when they 'broke cover', flew up and landed in the short grass. Quail tend to fly straight up and then land and run and they are very quick, they start running as soon as they hit the ground, be warned!
I'm sure this quail is smiling
.... and the payoff
good healthy quail who are capable of finding their own food and doing us a service at the same time, much to the disgust of the hens, who see it as their job!
Part 4 of Hatching and Raising Quail Organically with a Mother Hen can be found here
...and now if you'd like to, sit back and watch the film.
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I had read that for centuries in Japan and China quail eggs had been used in the treatment of various respiratory diseases and allergies. Finding no organic eggs on the market, I decided to raise them myself...read more
Taking you through the first few days.
Polly and the quail at three days old and already something of a handful! I kept them in the nest for the first three days, letting them gain in strength...read more
How we cured Andy's hay fever and eczema with a dip into Ancient Egypt and 60's France...read more
Now we eat quail eggs for pleasure..here I look in depth at the clinical trials in the 1960s and the posology used then and by us...read more
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