A Quail’s Tale

This is a story of many failed attempts to hatch and raise button quail chicks.  This is a story of death and sadness, and trying again.  This is a story of not doing the research.

A couple summers back I inherited a pair of button quail, also known as Chinese painted quail, from a friend who was relocating.  Quail do not fly, they occasionally jump straight up. and have been known to scalp or brain damage themselves when startled.  They are often kept in aviaries because they clean up dropped seed and don’t bother the other birds in the space.

I put these two, christened Amelia and Earhardt, in my aviary and waited for the quail eggs to appear.  And waited.  Still waited.  Did a bit of research, and decided to add two more females to the group.  Specky and Becky joined the covey and were well received by Earhardt, not so much by Amelia.  But soon there were quail eggs everywhere.

After a time, Amelia gathered all the eggs she could reach into a corner in the aviary and sat on them.  She sat and sat and sat.  We were into fall weather in San Diego county, misty cool mornings and days into the 70s.  I was overjoyed to find a bunch of little chicks following mom around the aviary, and trying to burrow under any bird that sat still long enough.

The chicks were so small they could walk right through the wire on the aviary.  When Mike went in to feed the cockatiels, the chicks would follow him out.  Luckily our cats were old, blind, and not that interested in the birds.  The next morning,  I found most of the chicks stretched out cold and lifeless on the floor of the aviary.  The overnight temperatures had been too low for them.  I was heartbroken, and rushed the two chicks that still seemed alive inside.  I warmed them up through contact with my skin, and fed them hand-feeding formula.  Only one responded to this treatment.

This lone survivor was a dark chick, and he went on to survive being put back out in the aviary.  He grew into a beautiful picture-perfect painted quail male.  We called him Frodo.  Alas, two males in a small space will not work.  One morning we found Frodo and his mother Amelia dead from injuries.   Soon after, we lost Specky as well.

Earhardt and Becky seemed happy to have the aviary to themselves, but Becky was not inclined to lay any eggs.  Once again, I decided to introduce two more hens.  Snowflake was pure white, Tennessee was called a tuxedo coloring by the keeper who sold her to us.  Again, happy Earhardt, not so happy Becky.  But Snowflake didn’t take much from any of the other quails.  She soon became the pinnacle of their pecking order.

This time, I read the manual.  That is, I researched on line on caring for button quail chicks.  Apparently most breeders put the eggs into an incubator, then transfer the chicks to a brooder.  I wanted the quail to do the incubating, but I set up a brooder.  I used a plastic bin, a small dish of food, a small dish of water with lots of stones in it so the chicks can drink around them, but not get wet and die of hypothermia or drown.  And I set up a heat lamp over the bin.  I was ready.

Meanwhile, Mike attached a metal mesh around the bottom three inches of the aviary, so the chicks couldn’t get out.  We now had a younger, healthier cat, and felt we needed this protection.  Tennessee gathered a pile of eggs and started to sit tight.  Anticipation mounted.

But I had yet to realize where the real dangers to the chicks lay.  One morning we found the clutch of eggs scattered, one chick that had hatched dead on the ground, several other eggs with fully developed chicks all destroyed before the chick could hatch.  So, one of the other quail had destroyed the eggs, I thought.

We cleared out the destroyed eggs, and set up a cage that Earhardt could be put into as soon as Tennessee began to sit again.  It didn’t take long.  She’s an excellent and determined mother, as much as quail ever are.  The eggs were laid, and she began to sit tight.  I pulled Earhardt and Becky out of the aviary and put them in a cushy new cage.  Snowflake and Tennessee seemed happy enough with the arrangement, and while Tennessee did all of the incubating, Snowflake would sit next to her at night.

One morning I got a text from Mike, saying the eggs were hatching.  I wanted him to take the chicks in to the brooder right away, but he thought it was warm enough outside for them as it was 80 degrees.  The next text said he had to take our male dove, Storm, out of the aviary!  Storm had seen the quail chicks as a threat to his own nest and dove in, as it were, to try to do away with the chicks and the remaining eggs.  When I got home, we went to get what we still needed for the brooder, and moved the three little chicks into it.

Button quail chicks are about as cute and loveable as you can get in a bird.  They make a sweet soft twee sound and look around constantly if not asleep.  We had one black chick and two yellows.  And I am happy to say that on Day 3 they are surviving.

According to the instructions I found on-line, we will keep them in the brooder for 5 weeks.  I also tried to use hay as a liner for the brooder, but it’s really hard for the chicks to maneuver in.  I am going to change it out for paper towels.  It’s hard for the chicks to get in and out of the shallow dish I have the food in, so once the paper towels are in place, the food can be placed right on the floor.

I don’t exactly feel like Edison, trying and trying until I got the desired results, because as far as I know Thomas Edison never caused the death, directly or indirectly, of baby quail.  But I do feel that I reinvented the wheel, and came up with the same results as others who have gone before me.  And maybe now, I will do more research, even when told the bird is super easy to raise, before I get to the dead baby stage.

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