Choosing the Right Mother Hen. Hatching and Raising Quail Organically - Part Five

Raising quail with a hen is a three way process, there has to be understanding and adaptability from both mother and chick(s) but there also has to be the same between you and the hen.

There can be problems with quail chicks, when you'll need to intervene and quickly - trust is all.

In this post I will take you through the first two of five case studies of the mother hens I chose to raise our quail. No experience was the same and I learned something new and valuable from all of them. You will see I used two specific breeds and two cross-bred hens but it was their physical and mental characteristics which informed that choice. Therefore, although I would strongly recommend the breeds I used, any hen with the same attributes should do just as fine a job. I made some simple, what I thought of as common sense rules, before I made my final choices but I also modified these with time and experience. In one case I even broke what I believed to be an unequivocal decision, which was never to use a hen, who had no experience of hatching and raising chicks.

Bantam Pekin Hen and quail chicks
The neophyte Cappuccino, I took a chance on her methodical foraging and focussed sitting abilities

My Simple Criteria - choice of mother

As stated above some of these were changed and/or modified with experience but as a general rule of thumb, I found they made a useful starting point.

The hen should be:
- light-weight to accommodate the size and fragility of the eggs and chicks
- fine feathered to avoid hampering the chick, who will burrow into the down
- small-footed to avoid dangers when digging
- tame and trusting - most important because of unavoidable problems
- quick to perceive changes in chicks - cold kills quail
- a good and methodical forager - high metabolic rate = quail chicks eat a lot
- accommodating and unflustered - these are not chicks as she knows them
- experienced as a sitter and raiser of chicks
- aware of and quick to spot danger - quail chicks are so focussed on eating.

En Garde - Polly picks a vantage point on the top of the opened quail run. Out here in the meadow, where we were giving the quail freerange to forage with their mother, there were buzzards in the distance. Polly was always checking the skies, as well as keeping an eye on the chicks. We were only giving her a couple of quail at a time and Andy was presiding over those left in the run but Polly kept coming back to check he was on the ball!

Case One - Chicklette the Ardenner

Ardenners are a rare breed bantam and standard size hen and as the name suggests, from Southern Belgium. The standard size are very difficult to find, the breed like many, having been decimated by two World Wars. They are thought, in their ancient five toed version, to be the stock from which the Dorking was bred and in fact people often mistake Polly, for such in my films. The Ardenner holds a special place in my heart because this was the breed of the first ever chickens I raised here. I was given a pair of young chicks, sisters, in part payment for 'sitting' the neighbouring smallholding/homestead. Chicklette (on the right) had always been the more authoritarian of the pair, even going so far as to start crowing at one point but she had raised two impeccable clutches of foraging chicks as had her sister. However, she was lighter in weight and also had a slight edge on Poulie, in that she seemed to be able to find more protein per square centimetre than any hen I have ever seen before or since. The only problem with her was her slightly domineering personality and crazy nature when broody, in fact together she and Poulie were at opposite ends, with the latter being calm and easy going. In The Complete Encyclopaedia of Chickens the authors, Esther Verhoef and Aad Rijs, state that Ardenners take on the personality and characteristics of the keeper, which is interesting because I am a Gemini.

Pest control - Chicklette clearing aphids from the beans and as they grew taller she would hand them down to the quail!

..and what I learned

The eggs were a big problem for Chicklette, she really didn't like them and made the noise I associate with both dislike and distrust. Later to avoid this problem with Polly, her daughter, I actually put one of her own eggs in with the clutch as well, just to give her a point of reference.

The chicks however, were an even bigger problem at hatch. I had forgotten that one of Chicklette's idiosyncrasies was that she had a mortal fear of mice, unlike Lucky, my second mother who used to hunt them! The day before the eggs were due to hatch, we were invited to dinner but as we were just about to leave I saw a chick come whizzing through the air, Chicklette was systematically ejecting small brown quail chicks from the nest. On further investigation I saw she had already hatched a couple of golden quail who were well-snuggled under her and being an inquisitive bird she had already had a good look at them. The brown quail though with their fine pointed heads and dark beady eyes, peeking through her feathers, did look uncannily like mice and I am sure this was at the root of the problem. So I spent an hour sitting on the kitchen floor in my party frock, fielding little brown chicks as they were expelled from the nest. Each chick was then reintroduced to her, so as she could see the shape of the whole tiny creature and accept it as a bird. Luckily we were invited to friends who were farmers and know the vagaries of this life, so we ended the evening leaving a content Chicklette for an excellent dinner.

Bantam Cochin with quail egg

On the strength of what I learned from Chicklette, I always present the quail egg to the hen. Trusting me helps to diminish any potential fears or worries the hen might have.

Case Two - Lovely Lucky

Sebright cross hen with golden coturnix quail chick
Lucky the Sebright cross was an excellent mother, who had raised an enormous brood for her size (see photo in the 'About' section top right) and kept them constantly and well fed. She was super qualified in both weight and feathering and unlike Sebrights in general, a great sitter and a doting and long-haul mother. Sebrights are reputed only to keep their chicks for four weeks before they leave them, I have actually had this happen. She was tamer than Chicklette and much calmer and I expected to have little or no trouble with her adapting to quail chicks who looked, smelled and spoke differently to her previous brood. In the event, sadly hardly any of her eggs hatched. They came by post from a big commercial hatchery and  those that did hatch were all golden and not strong. The golden quail here come from a very small gene pool and are often much weaker than the rest. Lucky ended up with one chick Pip, whom she adored and the chick so imprinted on her they were almost identical twins.

...and what I learned

that a good mother imprints upon even quail chicks and that as with Chicklette a good forager, like Lucky, makes for a great foraging chick.

and also...
not to count my quail chicks before they hatched and that no hatch is ever the same!

Golden Sebright cross chicken with golden coturnix quail chick be continued

Thanks for dropping by and if you enjoyed this post and found it useful, please feel free to share, comment, ask questions and/or relate your own experience of raising quail with a mother hen.

All the best, Sue

© 2014 Sue Cross


  1. Thank you!
    I agree with you, people treat their animals bad without realizing it.people expect their birds to do well in adverse conditions just because they survived. I to believe the natural brooding is still in my quail...If we accommodate the flock with a natural environment they may act natural....especially if they see what they must do. A good example is we teach a new hatchling to drink from a water bottle, by days end all are using the water bottle and not trying to drown in open water trays with marbles.
    Nature, training, luck whatever you call it...experience is passed from one to another. Thanks again, I really appreciate your post and ideas.
    Joe H.

    1. Hi Joe,
      Thanks for your comments, much appreciated.
      It is so true that it is all there, within the bird, we have to just have to create the milieu to let it emerge. I have recently posted a film on my youtube site showing how one of my quail has actually made a complete nest and laid a small clutch of eggs. Yet conversely I have read so many people commenting on sites and insisting that quail never/can't make nests. Of course they couldn't make anything out of a wire bottomed cage, nor lay clutches, when they are given the wrong diet which forces them to lay continuously. A friend recently had a quail with a bad foot and put it in with some new chicks, the quail naturally, though not broody before, took to these babies and began to gather them under the wing!
      All the very best, Sue

  2. The information you have provided is astonishing Sue. I very much appreciate all the work you have dedicated to the education of raising quails ethically.

    1. Hi Keyanne,

      That is most kind. It has become a sort of quest, in particular because even after all these years I still google 'organically raised quail' and find my own sites and articles. I really would love other people to start sharing what they do, so to encourage all those others, to 'break down the cage door'.

      All the very best,