Most hobbyists and quail farmers are the first to tell you that raising quail free-range, in any sense of the word, is not a good idea. However, if you have your mind made up, and know nothing would make you, or your quail, happier than allowing them access to the world, read on for some tips to ensure your quail have the best odds of health and survival.
Free-Range vs. On the Ground
When I say free-range, I mean, F.R.E.E.
When quail are free-range, they are not penned in or living in a ground pen; they have the run of the yard, and may or may not return to a pen in the evening, depending on your setup. If you are leaning toward raising your quail outdoors, in a pen on the earth, you are thinking of a ground pen. Hunters, for example may even choose to free-range their game birds so they keep their protection instincts sharp- making it a little more challenging when using the quail for sport.
Ok, now that we are clear on “FREEDOM!” -Mel Gibson, Braveheart, let’s take a look at those tips, shall we?
1. What to Do About Predators
If you were a nervous wreck the first time you let your chickens free-range, imagine these little stinkers leaving the “nest” for the first time. These little birds do a very good job of protecting themselves from predators if you are able to provide the natural protection they need like:
- Bushes and Shrubs: If a hawk is lurking, your quail will need a place to hide…fast! Planting plenty of shrubs and bushes, preferably with yummy seeds and fruits, will allow quail to have a natural place to protect themselves from aerial predators.
- Trees: There are ground predators that can climb, but having trees for your quail to perch in will also help to protect them from these predators. Remember, quail can get some flight-height, much more than chickens, so if they are evading danger on the ground, a nearby tree may just save their lives.
- No Cats Allowed: Barn cats will prey on your quail if they are hungry enough. Try to keep your yard free of feral cats, if possible, and if not, ensure they do not need to hunt for their food.
- Coop: Even if your quail are free-range, it is extremely important to allow them a safe haven in the evenings so they can rest without worry. Nocturnal predators, like owls, are keen to have a delicious quail dinner, so when your quail are vulnerable at night, make sure they have a safe zone in the form of a chicken coop.
- Livestock Guardian Dogs: You can consider raising an LGD with your quail and have a 24/7 babysitter, however, keep in mind that raising a Livestock Guardian Dog this takes time. LGD’s are fantastic with other animals, but they must be trained properly and bonded with the animal they are protecting. You should never simply throw an LGD in with your quail willy nilly, it would be quite devastating.
- Fencing: Fence in your yard to keep predators out, and quail in!
2. Supplement Feed
It can be tempting to think your quail are able to feed themselves as they free-range, but to ensure they have everything they need to be happy and healthy, you should always provide high-quality game bird feed. Typically, these feeds are complete, meaning they have everything a quail needs. Remember, your yard may have many of the things a quail needs to survive and consume, but it may not be enough, so always give them game bird feed in their coop.
3. Teach to Recall
Quail are a bit different than chickens in that they need a little more time to know where their home is, and they must be trained to know to return to it. Chickens are extremely habitual and want to return to their coop in the evenings. Quail, on the other hand, have to be persuaded to come back by other quail.
Teaching quail to recall will ensure that they return to their coop after a day of free-ranging. They can covey-up and rest safely during the night, away from predators.
To train to recall, keep your quail in their designated coop for a few weeks before you allow them to free-range; this helps them become familiar with their home before you release them. The first time you let them out, keep a few hens back in a separate cage, inside the coop. In the evening, the free-ranging quail will hear the hens calling, and will return to their coop to covey-up (nest on the ground together). Feed them when they return, and start a routine.
4. Exposure to Disease
Keeping any kind of poultry free-range can cause exposure to other birds, both wild and domestic, which can raise concerns about illness and death. This is one of those things that you just have to take your chances with.
If you are raising quail and chicken together, disease is important to keep in mind. There are diseases chickens carry that can cause death in quail. So, if your chickens happen to be carriers, they may pass the disease to the quail through contact or feces, and become ill or die.
There are also wild birds that can pass deadly diseases on to quail, and unfortunately, you won’t have control over exposure to wild birds (or their droppings) when you free-range your quail. You can, however, keep an eye on any threatening diseases in your area by joining poultry groups and watching the news. Knowing the health forecast for poultry will allow you to decide whether to continue to free-range your quail or quarantine them inside to protect them until disease passes, if it indeed does.
5. Keeping Young Quail Chicks Safe
If your free-range quail reproduce in the while out-and-about, their chicks will be just as vulnerable, if not more so, than chicken chicks. Chicken chicks are still hunted by predators but quails are well-liked among snakes, cats, hawks, and more. They love little quail nuggets, so you must decide if you will collect eggs to incubate and brood on your own, or if you will allow your hens to raise their chicks.
An important thing to note is that quail chicks learn a lot from their hens, and if you raise chicks in a brooder, they will not learn about foraging, flying, or protecting themselves. These are all behaviors they learn from watching adult quail. So, if you are trying to raise a covey of quail that is savvy in the wild, consider allowing nature to take its course.
6. Winterizing Your Free-Range Quail
Quail are not built for extreme temperatures, and when winter rolls around, you should always consider either processing your quail before freezing temperatures arrive or bringing them into a sheltered area. Throughout the winter, quail should not be allowed to free-range in cold climates.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to worry about when it comes to free-ranging quail, but that’s not to say it can’t be done. Quail are smart, and if you do your part by providing everything they need to survive in a free-range environment, they should do just fine. And don’t worry, because you can always change your mind if you need to, and your quail probably won’t complain too much as long as they have what they need to thrive.