Hen teaches quail chicks to forage and how we free-range them. Hatching & Raising Quail Organically Part 3

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.

Organic Hen and quail chick free-ranging

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.

Organic quail

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.

Organic bantam and quail foraging

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.

Quail chick free-ranging and foraging

Phase Three - Out in the Open Fields

Organic Ardenner and quailPolly 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

Strategy for free-ranging organic quail chicksOne 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!

Set up for free-ranging organic quail chicks

I'm sure this quail is smiling

free-range quail chick with mother hen

.... 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!

Quail in the greenhouse

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.

Thanks for dropping by and if you have enjoyed this piece and found it useful think about sharing it and also may be about joining this blog. Please also feel free to ask questions or make comments in the section below.

All the very best,


Organic quail chick and mother henWhy and how? Getting started.

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

Organic quail chicks with mother Ardenner bantam

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

A comprehensive guide into the history & use of quail eggs in medicine: Part 1

How we cured Andy's hay fever and eczema with a dip into Ancient Egypt and 60's France...read more

A comprehensive guide into the history & use of quail eggs in medicine: Part 2

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

Tips and strategies for raising natural organic quail chicks

I hadn't really intended that 'Snow Kitten' should raise quail but she was broody and I'm always wanting to spread the word on cage-free quail. In fact it caused quite a stir and eve...read more

Encouraging Pair-bonding, Nesting and Broodiness in Coturnix Quail

I'm sharing the setting up of a safe quail breeding area. Andy and I created this last year but the broody quail beat us to it...read more

© Holistic Hen 2012


  1. love this! I am making a pen out of my old green house for my little quail and I have a broodie Banty hen that I am going to use to hatch out some babies
    thankyou for sharing

    1. Hi Laura, Thanks! I'm so happy that you are doing this. Let me know how you get on and if you have any questions do not hesitate to ask. All the very best, Sue

  2. While your work is interesting, as a very new/green quail owner/manager, I ask: "What is your goal." I have taken on quail as an additional food source as well as a potential income. Are you attempting to retrain them to a prior level of self sufficiency? To free range by day and return to the safety of the house at night as many folks do with chickens?

    1. Hi, My goal is to breed healthy, happy quail, who, as near as possible, will be able to find a major part of their daily diet. I also hope one day to get my quail to raise their own chicks. If you are thinking of raising quail for potential income, why not raise quality, organic eggs, which can be bought by customers for medical and/or nutritional use. Even my local organic shop can not get either certified organic eggs or birds and if you google organically raised quail you will probably find mostly my quail amongst the results and not much else. There is a market out there and you will be making a lot of quail very happy which, in the sense of achievement, counts for even more. All the best Sue

  3. Hi Sue,
    I love your blog and videos.
    Do you think you will ever suceed in breeding the mothering instinct back into your quail?
    Have lots of varieties of bantams, so thanks for the tips....you have gentle voice.....so lovely!
    My indian runner has just started to sit on eggs for the 3rd year running, so fingers crossed.
    I have just started with polish bantams...such personalities!
    Thanks again,

    1. Hi Steph, Thanks so much for your kind remarks, they are much appreciated. I am just getting a new quail breeding area organised - it is an add-on to the greenhouse, where they will be able have the feeling of being out in the open, even at night - so I am hoping this will enable them to sit, whilst still being secure. My great problem has always been predators, mainly hawks and rats - so double threat from above and along the ground. Luckily the rat problem seems to have been sorted by a near neighbour stopping fattening up hens with excessive amounts of grain. However, I am still going to dig down and put in place a barrier to stop anything digging underneath to get to the quail - just in case. In the past I have created contained areas for them to lay and be safe at night but I think that has been too limiting - I have found, like chicken they are very choosy as to where they lay when they intend to lay a clutch. I also believe, like chickens the male has a very important role in nesting, so I need to make sure the males I have are well bonded to a single female. At the moment they are going through the 'wild oats' stage! Good luck with your runner duck - they are fabulous creatures - I hope one day to get some. Polish Bantams are great, they are such fun - I am just about to edit a film of some of mine in the compost heap - getting a good ration of B12. All the very best and thanks again for your feedback, Sue

    2. As root barrier I have been able to utilize the side and roof panels of old garden sheds discarded by neighbours who allowed me to rescue this sheet metal. While I also use rescued house-siding (sadly, in recent years these more often vinyl than aluminum) the garden-shed panels are wider.

      Thus with the garden-shed panels I am able to install a deeper barrier that nothing goes through. Gaps may occur if I have not left enough overlap where one panel meets another, so this should be carefully set up, and the metal can be bent if needed at corners.

      Where the soil was shallower than the 2-foot width of the metal panels, I was able to get a neighbour who had a metal-cutting device to split them lengthwise. Even half-width is still a 1-foot barrier of metal. So no rodents or other animals can chew it.

      So if you have neighbours doing renovations, you can ask them for these very useful materials that are otherwise going to be discarded. Well, metal can be recycled, but why not just re-purpose the existing sheets?

    3. Stephanie Willets is an ante-deluvian idiot who thinks that nuclear power is preferable to alternative energy sources such as wind farms. She also like to swear at people who have different views to hers!

  4. Didn't see the remarks above.....It is heartwarming to think someone cares enough to revitalise breeding in quail.
    Did you ever read ' Quail Robert' ?

    1. Thanks Steph! ..and for the link to Quail Robert - I started reading it on-line but will get my own copy. Interestingly a couple of Andy's great aunts emigrated to Cape Cod in the 1960s. All the very best, Sue

  5. Hello Sue! Thank you for your passion for poultry leading happy lives, and for your detailed account of the quail project. The one thing I don't understand about your system is how you find and collect the quail eggs. Would you update us? Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Julia, My quail actually do tend to lay in designated nest sites, which they pick out. So in the greenhouse it was usually under a certain rosemary bush. I have had them lay whist out free-ranging. I had one very tame old quail Flopsy, who I could trust to stay under cover so I didn't need to have my eye constantly on her, as I do with my quail, when free-ranging in the garden. My neighbour used to find this quail's eggs in her flower beds, when I used to free-range Flopsy at the front of the house! In the main though, they lay when they are in the greenhouse. I am expanding this area shortly, so am making some special nest boxes, also because my quail went broody this year and I was really unhappy leaving them out in the greenhouse sitting as it was not 100% predator safe. I am making some fake wood piles which will have doors and can be sealed at night if they feel like brooding again. Hope this helps. All the best, Sue

  6. We were wondering what the best temps would be for the quail to be in. If we can find some eggs, we would like to try this next spring. (If my small hen goes broody)

    1. Hi there, As warm as possible would be a quick answer. I usually think around 16 deg C for hen chicks to be out but with quail it should be a little higher. Starting them off in a cardboard box in the house works really well for me, if you can do that. I try to keep them with the mother and feed them in the box for several days. Then we move to the glass greenhouse and then to the open ended one so they get a good dose of vitamin D3. Even when they are in the house I like to have them for some minutes of the day with an open window and the sun coming in. It really will depend on how responsive your hen is. Quail chicks are very vociferous when cold, it is a heart-wrenching sound which hens usually understand and sit down to and let the chicks get warm. It will depend however, on how focussed your hen is on feeding v keeping warm. It is a difficult thing to ask of a hen because quail chicks are very demanding for food but also easily drop in body temperature. Getting cold for a quail is really the worse thing, it can be fatal as they can get into that cold stress spiral very quickly. However, you can do a lot with wind barriers and a good hen and you have time to rig up a polythene or glass window run before Spring if you do not have a greenhouse. Certainly quail will remain in a largish cardboard box for a week with a hen, particularly if she still has eggs which haven't hatched. This also gives the quail time to learn about her feet and how to avoid them! Hope this helps. I do show in one of my films the set up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vFXGMbRa-Q I really need to write these up because there is a whole raft of my films on quail I haven't yet got the blog posts for! Hope this helps. All the very best and do ask if you need more info, Sue