Pheasants and quail - a guide for beginnersGary Robbins
This is a basic guide for those who wish to start keeping pheasants and quail, covering all aspects of their welfare, from housing, diets, breeding and rearing. Before you consider buying your birds, it is important to work out the type of accommodation required and the facilities you have available to make a start. You must also consider your neighbours, some species of gamebirds can start calling at 4am in the morning during the breeding season, so you will not be too popular awaking people so early in the day. A further aspect when talking about neighbours, any livestock does encourage vermin, so great care must be taken to prevent access to where food is fed or stored. Finally should you consider erecting a new building or aviary, check with your local authority, to see your proposals are within the local planning and byelaws.
To keep these interesting and colourful birds, you will need an aviary of some kind as, unlike some ground birds which are pinioned at birth and are unable to fly very far gamebirds, as we refer to pheasants and quail, are normally left full-winged and will fly away should they not be housed in an aviary. Under the current Wildlife and Countryside laws, one has to be licensed to release non native birds into the wild and you can be liable to a fine should you do so, therefore your aviary must be secure to prevent escapees.
You may consider that all the above is so difficult and is it really not worth the hassle. Yes, it really is worth it, having spent most of my life keeping these birds, they still give a great deal of enjoyment, and the achievement of getting them to breed is always something to look forward to each year.
The way pheasants are kept is different to the requirements of quail; this guide will be split into two sections dealing with both families separately.
There are several beautiful species of pheasants, which are suitable for the beginner to start to keep which do not require special treatment or food to stay healthy and breed. Perhaps the Golden pheasant is the most popular, followed by the various Silver pheasants and the Lady Amherst's pheasants renowned for the male's long tail feathers. There are also various species of Junglefowl, again the most popular is the Red Junglefowl, but just one word of caution, the males do crow similar to the domestic chicken, otherwise both are most colourful birds.
Once the above species have been mastered, one can move onto slightly more difficult birds that may well be endangered in the wild, yet are still readily available in captivity. These could include the white eared and blue eared-pheasants, Himalayan Monal, Cheer, Edward's, Reeves and grey peacock-pheasants, all these species are hardy and do not require heated quarters during the winter and eat standard rations.
Purchase of stock
It is always a good thing to buy unrelated stock, that means a male from one source and the female from another, or ask the breeder from whom you are to purchase your birds, can they guarantee the birds are unrelated. Most pheasants today are purchased from private breeders and not dealers, who have gone into decline in recent years. Another point when buying your first stock, find out how old the birds are and when were they hatched. Bear in mind not all pheasants will breed in their first adult year or will produce fertile eggs in the first year. Ornamental pheasant's eggs or day old chicks are not normally sold, as is the case with game pheasants produced commercially for shoots.
Remember in most cases, pheasants are kept in pairs, or some time in trio's, (two females and one male) as normally if there is more than one male in an aviary, they will fight for the possession of the female, especially during the breeding season.
Aviary size is important to most species if they are to breed successfully, In the case of the smaller species, such as the golden pheasant, a minimum size of 3m long by 2m wide, plus a shelter 1m deep by 2m wide, will satisfy one pair and for the larger species, the minimum should be double that size. The Aviary should be at least 2m high to allow a person to walk around, the sides preferably, should be covered in galvanised wire of 25mm mesh, to keep out sparrows and other vermin, with at least 15cm sunk into the ground and a further 30cm coming out flat at right angles underground. This prevents rats and other mammals digging under the netting.
Should you be building a number of aviaries side by side it is worth boarding the sides in addition to the mesh to prevent the cocks seeing one another or birds being frightened by cats walking by. The roof can be covered in a similar mesh size of Nylon or Fish netting, but should you have squirrels or farm rats nearby that will climb, you are advised to use galvanised netting. The main advantage of soft netting is when the birds fly-up after having been frightened the do not scalp their heads.
The shelter attached to the aviary should be constructed, being warm and draught-proof with as much light as possible, and have a small full length opening into the aviary. Perches of 50 x 50mm timber should be placed quite high up on the shelter for your birds to roost at night. All pheasant species will normally roost as high as possible off the ground at night, so try not to have any perches in the aviary lower than those in the shelter.
The aviary floor is something else to be considered. Should the area already be grass, it will only be necessary to put a small strip of sand about 50mm deep by 30cm wide around the edges of the aviary next to the wire, this prevents the birds creating a muddy strip as they wander up and down against the wire. Also plant a few shrubs around to give cover against the weather or seclusion during the nesting season. The floor of the shelter can be covered with sand, which will provide easy collection of droppings. Finally, have one door if possible into your aviary, opening into one corner with the hinges fixed to the door's edge furthest from the corner to prevent your birds from flying out.
Diet for pheasants
During the winter the basic diet can be a 50/50 mixture of corn and pellets fed either ad-lib in a dish placed in a covered area, or fed twice a day on the ground, with the birds taking as much as they can eat during each session. Then, just prior to the breeding season (Feb-Mar) start changing over to breeders pellets and continue until the birds have stopped laying (June-July).
Wheat is high in energy but low in protein and tends to make birds fat. The modern poultry diet has been formulated to give a balanced diet for each season it is being fed. Most Corn Merchants will supply grower or breeder pellets for chicken, but some will have pellets especially for game pheasants. Lime stone and flint grit should always be available to assist digestion.
Clean water must always be available. Titbits of peanuts or sultanas can be given in limited numbers to tame your birds down. A little fruit, such as halved apple and pear can be given from time to time.
Ornamental pheasants are unlike chicken which lay their eggs all the year around, and usually only lay during the season of their own country which in general starts in February with some species going through to April with others. To encourage nesting, put a box approx 40 x 40 x 20cm high in the shelter, with a little soil in the bottom covered with a layer of straw, not hay.
There is always a possibility they will nest and lay in the box, on the other hand the hen might select a position under a shrub to nest and lay. When the first egg is laid, do not touch it, but record the date, a hen will usually lay once every other day. Most of the species mentioned
above, will lay a number of eggs, in some cases up to 20-25 in a clutch (exception Grey Peacock Pheasant only 2 eggs) Try and leave the hen to sit her own nest, however if she is disturbed or you touch the eggs she will desert the nest and not sit on the eggs.
In the event, the hen does not sit her own eggs; you have two options in the way they can be incubated. Firstly by using a broody hen and the second by using an electric Incubator.
The incubation time for pheasants varies greatly, incubation times:
Goldens = 22, Silvers = 25-26,Lady Amherst = 22, Junglefowl = 19-21, Whit e & Blue eared = 24-28, Monal = 28, Cheer =26, Edwards' = 22, Reeves =25, Grey PP = 22 days.
Once the first egg is laid, you will need to search for a broody hen from a local farmer, or find out where you can borrow or buy an incubator. The farmer will advise you on how to set the eggs etc, under the broody and what to do when the chicks hatch. Most modern incubators are straightforward to use. Read the manufactures instructions or advice from the person it belongs to. In general, most pheasant eggs will incubate at a temperature of 37.5°C and at a relative humidity of 55%RH.
Once the chicks hatch, in the case of a broody hen, she will look after them, ensuring they feed and do not become too cold. Things are a little different if you use an incubator once the eggs start to pip, that is when the chicks beak breaks the outer shell. Ideally, they should be placed in to a hatcher, which is set at a slightly higher in humidity, but about a degree lower in temperature. Should you not have a hatcher, your eggs must hatch in the incubator along side the others, which might be partially incubated.
After a few hours in a modern air assisted incubator, the chicks will be fluffy and ready for transfer to a brooder. Again with brooders, you have two options, the first bring an infra-red lamp hung above the chicks. The temperature can be adjusted by raising or lowering the lamp over the chicks, usually if the chicks huddle together they are to cold, then lower the lamp, conversely, should the chicks be in the corners of the brooder box, higher the lamp.
The brooder can be made from a cardboard box with a lamp hung in it about 15cm from the floor. The other option is to use an electric hen. This is a heat pad on adjustable legs; which the chicks can go under to brood by pushing up on a heated pad. Both options can be purchased from a good incubator supplier.
Rearing pheasant chicks
Place a tray of chick crumbs on the floor of the box, plus a small water dish or fountain. Remember chicks live on their yolk-sac for the first 12-24 hours and therefore will not eat much. Chick crumbs are obtainable from your local corn merchant. After a day or so, the chicks will begin to fly, so place a piece of netting over the brooder box and then prepare to move them, including the lamp or electric hen in to a larger pen. Raise the heat source about 25mm every week, until you see the chicks are roosting outside in the brooder.
Continue feeding chick crumbs and with a little lettuce each day, plus fresh water. Should you have difficulty in getting your chicks to eat after the first day, try a small mealworm or two to create interest.
At about four weeks of age, most responsible breeders today, closed ring their chicks, so that they can be identified in the future and as being captive bred and not taken from the wild.
At around six weeks of age the chicks should be able to be put outside in a low covered pen on grass, with a suitable heated shelter. Once the chicks have settled, the heat can be turned off.
The next stage of their feeding is around 6-7 weeks, when grower pellets can be added to their daily diet and by 8 weeks, the chick crumbs can be completely phased out.
Some males will start to show their coloured feathers at about 24 weeks, and should be in full plumage after a year, there are however, certain exceptions, suggest you refer to a book for more details on the individual species.
Quail are generally very small birds compared with pheasants, also not so brightly coloured from a distance, close-up they are very attractive, especially the Chinese Painted Quail. With quail there are three distinct groups available to the Aviculturist. The Chinese Painted, with its various colour mutations. The Coturnix which is a domesticated version of the wild Japanese Quail, bred for the table and its egg production, this has resulted in different colours and sizes being produced over many years. Then you have the ornamental quail, such as the Californian, Scaled and Bobwhite Quail that are quite common and very successfully bred in captivity from those originating from the wild.
Purchase of stock
As with pheasants always try and purchased unrelated stock, perhaps by a pair from two different breeders and swap the males when you arrive home. Individual breeders and Pet Shops often advertise quail in papers, such as Cage & Aviary Birds, Bird Keeper, etc. As a matter of practice it is always better to visit the seller and select your requirements wherever possible, that will ensure the birds are well feathered and fit. At the same time most breeders will be only too pleased to talk about their methods of keeping and breeding their birds, which gives you an opportunity to start learning. For the more specialist ornamental species, it is possible to contact WPA or Aviornis for the names of breeders, which might be known to them.
Quail are often purchased to fill up the bottom of a finch or small bird aviary, with the basic idea to clean up the seed wasted from the finch feeders. However, the Ornamental species are normally not run in flocks, only as individual pairs per aviary to restrict fighting. These will also tend to fly up and perch to roost at night. Many people keep their ornamentals in only what can be described as large rabbit hutches, a covered area off the ground, a minimum area of 1.3 x 1.3 meters will house a pair and allow them to breed. Cover the floor with 50mm of sharp sand, with some rocks and logs for them to perch. Place sheets of timber along one or other of the sides so the hens are able to hide and build their nests. Some leaves or clumps of grass also provide suitable cover.
Chinese Painted and Coturnix quail can be housed in similar accommodation. Quail, all have the trait that they are all good flyers, and often fly vertically should they be disturbed, therefore it is important to have a soft netting roof or a padded roof. Unlike pheasants, quail can not stand wind or damp, and if kept on the ground outside, are susceptible to worm infection, thus the reason for keeping them on sand.
Diets for Quail
The basic diet for Chinese Painted Quail is a mixture of mixed millets and chick crumbs, at the ratio of 50/50 in a dish or hopper, which will prevent them from emptying the contents on to the aviary floor. Green food can be given in the form of grounsel or chopped lettuce. Fine grit should be available. A few mini mealworms can be given daily but not too many.
For the larger species a similar diet can be supplied, but with some groats, buckwheat or milo added. Green food is always enjoyed. Fine grit and clean water must be available at all times.
All quail produce large clutches of eggs and if possible allow them to make their own nest and sit their own eggs. However with some of the domesticated species they are inclined to lay their eggs anywhere in the aviary and will not sit on them. In this case, the eggs can be collected and placed under a small broody bantam or placed in a small incubator. An average clutch of eggs laid can be between 10-22 eggs. Incubation times: Chinese Painted =16, Coturnix =18, Californian = 22-23,Scaled = 23, Bobwhite = 22-23 days.
If placed under a small bantam, the hen will normally incubate and successfully hatch all the fertile eggs placed under her, she will help feed the chicks and brood them after they are hatched. A small incubator set at 37.5°C with the humidity at 55%RH will normally be required for most quail eggs. Once the chicks are hatched and dry, they can be placed in a cardboard box to act as a brooder, using a 60 watt red electric light bulb to provide heat, hung approx 100mm above the floor. The lamp must be adjustable up and down to provide the correct brooding temperature. The chicks will huddle together if they are cold or will move to the corners, if too hot. Corrugated cardboard is useful to place on the floor to prevent the chicks slipping, and will hold a some finely ground chick crumbs and maw seed if sprinkled on the floor to persuade the chicks to feed. A water dish with some pebbles is a useful way to prevent day- old chicks from drowning. Remember quail chicks can soon fly after they hatch, so cover the brooder with fine netting to prevent escapes.
After a few days of hatching, the chicks should be moved into a more permanent heated cage. At around 2 weeks normal size chick crumbs can be added mixed with small millets and at 6 weeks they should be on normal diet. (In the case of Coturnix, they are mature at six weeks and can start to breed.) As the chicks grow after hatching, the heat can be reduced each week, until approx 4weeks, when they will be fully feathered and not needing warmth.
Once the young quail have matured, you need to keep a close watch on them, as the males will start to fight over the females, and feather pecking could breakout. So split the males from the females to reduce conflict. Select the best birds for the following years stock, and your surplus can be sold on other interested breeders.
Once you have learned to keep and breed these birds, you will be hooked for life. All success for the future.
Further informationEquipment from: A B Incubators