Selectively Breeding Coturnix Quail

Selectively Breeding Coturnix Quail

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Alexandra Douglas has been raising and breeding Coturnix quail for over a decade. She began, like many of us do, by just getting a bird and going from there. Read about her early adventures and deepening understanding of how to selectively breed quail.

Beginning with Stella

I never knew I would be breeding Coturnix quail. I hadn’t even heard of them until 2007, when I took an avian embryology class in college. The course ended with me taking home a day-old standard Coturnix quail. I named him Stella, after a short scene from Gilmore Girls. Knowing absolutely nothing about the species, I bought a fish tank, reptile lamp, and shavings, and treated Stella as though he were a hamster. His growth was fascinating, and I documented everything, including the first crow indicating he was a male.

Stella and Terra. Photo by author.

Stella was a sweet, spoiled boy who needed a mate. I bought Terra from a woman who said she’d had problems with aggressive males, but I didn’t have that problem with Stella.

Early Breeding Lessons

The two bred successfully, and I ended up with a lot of male chicks. That’s when I learned about “scalding.” When you put too many male quail together, they peck each other’s heads, which can sometimes result in major injuries and even death. Luckily, I found out that Coturnix heal fast, and with a little Neosporin they were good as new. I tried hatching more eggs from Stella and Terra, but continued to get males who wanted to kill each other. As I didn’t want aggressive birds, so I started to cull the most aggressive ones. There was a lot of trial and error on my part, but gradually I began to learn more about “selective breeding.”

Stella next to offspring. Photo by author.

What is Selective Breeding?

Selective breeding can be done with any poultry species. You begin with a parent pair who have traits you’re interested in passing on to their offspring. This might be certain feather color patterns, heights, or bill sizes. The choices are endless. Offspring with the desired trait (feather pattern, size, disposition) are kept for future breeding; the chicks without those traits are culled.

There are two overall ways to breed for specific traits: line breeding and new stock breeding. In line breeding, you breed sons with their mothers or fathers to their daughters, thus continuing a specific genetic line. If you want to add new blood (new stock breeding) into the line (which is considered a good practice), you introduce new birds with the desired traits into your breeding program. My Jumbo Pharaoh line is in its 43rd generation of selective breeding, and I add new blood every few generations to avoid issues with undesirable genetic mutations.

Selectively breeding for egg types. Photo by author.

Our Coturnix

Coturnix quail come in a lot of different varieties. They’re all from the same genus (Coturnix) but there are many species within that genus. The pharaoh quail (Phasianidae), also known as “Japanese quail” or “Coturnix japonica,” come from Old World families. Stella and Terra were standard pharaoh Coturnix, and so I added some new Coturnix with different feather patterns to my covey: Red Range and English White.

English White breed. Adding new stock. Photo by author.

At first, I was just breeding for disposition. I wanted calm birds and a peaceful covey, so I kept the most docile males and bred them with docile females. The offspring made wonderful pets, and that was my primary goal. Stella passed on at the very old age of seven (an average life span is 3 to 4 years). A decade of breeding later, my goals have changed. Currently I’m interested in homesteading and self-sufficiency, using Coturnix quail as a food source rather than breeding pets.

Evolving Breeding Goals

I enjoyed having pets when I started, and Stella was the foundation of my current stock. However, the more I have successfully bred birds for specific traits, the more interested I’ve become in growing larger birds to create a dual-purpose (meat and egg) covey. While I breed many quail for different reasons, my prime focuses are body size, egg size, color, and growth rate. My covey had already been selectively bred for an easy disposition, which made breeding for additional traits easier. We currently sell quail chicks and hatching eggs, and our Stellar Jumbo Pharaohs are a very popular breed with our customers.

Our breed of Stellar Jumbo Pharaoh. Hen on a scale. Photo by author.

Maintaining Size

I absolutely love the varieties of quail feathers, so I’m selectively breeding our Coturnix quail for certain colors and patterns. We have over 33 color varieties in our Coturnix, including well-known meat birds such as the Texas A&M and Jumbo Recessive White. I breed carefully with the Jumbo Pharaoh line I created to add in color variation but maintain the size I’ve worked hard for.

This is a Jumbo (bred to be large) Pharaoh quail hen. These birds are bred as meat birds and are almost twice the size of Japanese Coturnix quail. Photo by author.

There are currently no agreed-on standards among Coturnix breeders and societies. U.S. and European breeders have different opinions on what those standards should be for identifying domestic birds, though. I’m hopeful that sometime soon we can agree on breed standards for domestic quail, similar to the standards used to determine chicken and other poultry breeds. In the meantime, I’ll share on what I look for in my Jumbo Pharaoh Coturnix.

Foundations Matter

When I started, jumbo-sized quail were fairly new among domestic quail breeders. There were myths of these one-pound quail, but no consistent breeding lines or documentation.

Stella was a measly 5-ounce bird, but I loved him. By breeding him to larger females, I was able to increase offspring size over several generations and still keep his blood in my stock. I kept males from larger eggs that weighed 12 ounces or more, and females that weighed 13 ounces or more. The larger size of both genders was important, but somewhat lighter-weight males breed more easily than really heavy ones. Current generations now are a good 14 to 15 ounces in both genders.

Anyone can start with a small covey like I did and breed for larger birds. It’s easier now, because large or “jumbo” quail chicks and hatching eggs are more readily available for purchase to add into or to start your covey. If you’re interested in more of the genetic details, or deeper explanations of the specifics of my selective breeding process, you can find a lot of information in my book Coturnix Revolution, published in 2013.

What Are Your Goals?

When working on a line and selectively breeding towards certain traits, make sure you know the lineage of your foundation quail stock. Decide on your breeding goals. Do you want larger birds? More eggs in each hatching? Certain plumage colors? Write down your goal; what do you want to achieve in a certain pairing?

Record Keeping

Begin your breeding program by banding your birds with colored zip ties to keep track of parenting pairs and their offspring. Then keep careful records, as that will help you track your breeding program. Record every breeding attempt as well as rates of fertility and hatching. Each of our generations have a different color zip tie to identify their lineage, generation, and traits we like in them. Zip ties work as a great form of identification. They are easy to attach and change, if needed. Tagging your birds also helps prevent inbreeding, especially when trying to selectively breed. You want to keep the original bloodlines intact, but breeding birds that are too closely related will ultimately result in genetic mutations that you don’t want and can’t predict.

An Example

My research and personal breeding experience show that egg and chick sizes are directly related: Larger eggs mean larger chicks. We’re currently looking for these specific weights to keep our Jumbo Pharaoh line intact:

  • 21-day-old chicks (3 weeks) should weigh 120 grams (approximately 4 ounces).
  • 28-day-old chicks (4 weeks) should weigh 200 grams (approximately 7 ounces).
  • 42-day-old chicks (6 weeks) should weigh 275 grams (approximately 8 ounces).
  • 63-day-old chicks (9 weeks) and up should weigh 340+ grams (approximately 11 ounces).

By having a standard, we can carefully cull underweight birds and track our breeding effectiveness. Based on my experience, this is a stable growth rate for producing a larger bird. Most of my eggs are 14 grams or more for the Jumbo Pharaohs. I have some birds that lay slightly smaller eggs, but they may have traits that will better another group breeding or color variety. You can find more information on egg grading in my book.

Stellar Jumbo Quail hens hanging out in the grass. Photo by author.

Any breeding project will take time, however with dedication and a goal, it’s well worth it. Compared to other fowl, the bonus of breeding and raising Coturnix quail is that they have a very fast maturity rate. Selective breeding to your goals can take half the time compared to breeding a chicken to the Standard of Perfection. Quail are delightful birds, and you’ll enjoy both the projects and the possibilities of breeding them.

Alexandra Douglas was born in Chicago, Illinois. At age nine, she began raising psittacines (parrots). When she moved to Oregon for college in 2005, she majored in Animal Sciences at Oregon State University with an emphasis in pre-veterinarian medicine and poultry. Alexandra was hooked on quail as soon as she was handed a day-old pharaoh Coturnix. Currently, she owns Stellar Game Birds, Poultry, Waterfowl LLC, a poultry farm that sells chicks, hatching eggs, eating eggs, and meat. She has been featured in Aviculture Europe and honored by the Heritage Poultry Breeder Association of America for her research on quail. Her book on Japanese Quail, Coturnix Revolution, is a comprehensive guide to raising and understanding these domesticated fowl. Visit her website or follow her on Facebook.

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