Many Biology classes and 4H associations incubate chicken eggs as special projects. This enables young people to see right before their eyes the principles of growth and reproduction actually at work. When the chick hatches, Biology for these students becomes truly a study of life instead of a study of corpses. This healthy fascination can be the first step towards a nature related hobby or career. In addition, an individual who respects life, respects themselves, their neighbors, and the environment. The only problem with our schools undertaking the incubation of chicken eggs, is what to do with the resulting chicken! In most urban and suburban settings it is not practical, perhaps not even legal, to raise poultry. To produce a living chick, only to let it die for want of proper care, is a corruption and desecration of the intent of the enterprise.
The cheerful button quail, Coturnix chinensis, is the answer! This active little bird is very easy and fun to keep. Button quail are happy in both the city and the country. If any of the students have parents that are bird keepers, the button quail can be kept right along with the other birds in the same aviaries or walk in cages as finches or canaries. Button quail can often be housed with parakeets and cockatiels. With these hookbills, some initial supervision is required to make sure that the quail are not bothered. Since lovebirds are very aggressive, don’t place button quail in the same flight.
If the neighborhood has no bird people, a smaller enclosure will be just fine. The miniature button quail can also be kept in fish tanks. (Without the water, of course.) To keep the quail inside, and cats and mice outside, cover the tank with one of the screens sold at every pet shop. A twenty gallon long is just about right for one male and two females. Cover the bottom of the tank with the wood shavings sold as hamster bedding.
No bird is easier to feed. Button Quail eat anything that your local pet shop sells to feed parakeets, canaries, or finches. If you decide to use pellets, no supplements are necessary. If you use a vitamin, mineral, and protein enriched seed, then health grit and nestling food must also be provided. The adult birds need nestling food year round for additional protein. Fresh water is a must.
Button quail can be scrappy among themselves. If there is plenty of room, no harm will come of it. If space is at a premium, don’t put the males together. It is also a good idea to keep several hens with each male. A single hen may be stressed by the male’s constant attention. The male has very distinctive white markings about the head. Button quail are most often seen in the normal brown color. A silver color variety is also raised.
Button quail are very easy to breed. In fact, it is pretty much impossible to stop them from producing eggs. The hen generally lays the eggs anywhere and everywhere, but does not sit on them. I only had one hen that took care of her eggs. Even she would abandon the babies when they hatched.
The best idea is to collect the eggs every day. Put the eggs in a box of dry oatmeal. Note the date on one side of the egg with a marker. Store the eggs at room temperature. Turn the eggs once or twice a day. Every four or five days place the eggs into an incubator. Incubators can be ordered from pet shops. The eggs hatch in about eighteen days.
For the first few weeks, keep the baby button quail in a fish tank with wood shavings on the bottom. Underneath the shavings, at one end of the tank, put a fiberglass reptile heater. By having the heater at one end the chicks can choose the temperature that they need. Change the shavings at least several times each week.
Button quail chicks differ from the babies of most other cage birds. The newly hatched button quail are classified as precocial. This means that they can move around and eat on their own right after they hatch. Baby birds that must be cared for by their parents are called altricial. Though the newly hatched button quail can eat on their own, they do need extra heat. That is the reason for the reptile heater.
The youngsters will quickly grow on any pet bird nestling food. Caution must be taken with the water dish. The little guys are only the size of a bumble bee when they first hatch! They can drown in a water dish that is too deep. As the youngsters start to grow feathers, start to feed them seed and health grit, or pellets, in addition to the nestling food.
As your flock of button quail starts to grow, you may wish to trade them with your friends, or with a pet shop, for other kinds of birds.