Help! My quail aren’t laying eggs!
Sometimes getting your hen to lay her first egg is the biggest challenge when raising quail. You buy the birds or eggs, and raise them to maturity. You carefully plan out and set up their aviary, cage, or coop, and wait for the eggs you’ve anticipated for weeks or months. Then you wait…wait…and wait. You feed and nurture your birds every day, but where are the eggs? Southwest Gamebirds is here to help explore some of the common reasons your birds may be withholding those precious little eggs, and what can be done to make them the happy, productive, rewarding birds that they can be.
Getting back to your roots: Coturnix ancestry and Mother Nature
To better understand what makes quail lay eggs, it’s important to start with their ancestral roots. Domestic quail originate primarily from Japanese quail, which still thrive in the wild today. Wild Japanese quail are a migratory bird endemic to western Russia and Asia. They are not known for strong flying abilities, but are capable of migrating over 500 miles. They are ground birds, and excellent mothers.
During the spring, when they finish their migration, they will normally raise 2-3 clutches of eggs, with anywhere from 5-15 eggs per clutch. They will normally lay their eggs in a well hidden nest in shrubs or tall grass where they feel safe. The baby quail will hatch after an incubation period of 16-17 days, and immediately imprint on the mother and begin foraging, chirping loudly to communicate. This makes it essential for the nest to be in a well-hidden location, away from predators. Within 24 hours of the first chick hatching, the mother will leave her nest and abandon any unhatched eggs, taking the healthiest chicks with her to produce the next generation of quail.
Domestic quail have lost most of these instincts, but, similar to domestic chickens and other domestic poultry, their ability to lay an egg day after day to make a clutch can be beneficial for egg production, and a properly kept hen can do this far in excess of the 5-15 eggs her ancestors would lay in the wild. The mechanisms are the same, however, and so are some of the required conditions, stimuli, and triggers.
The role of Calcium in Egg Laying
Before your quail can produce eggs, she will need the proper building blocks necessary for egg production. Quail mature quickly, but this means they also need a lot of nutrients. Some of the most important nutrients are essential amino acids, small molecules that the quail cannot produce themselves from other food they eat. The food needs to have these molecules pre-made for the quail to use them. A high quality game bird starter with the right levels of protein and other vitamins and minerals will help your quail develop.
Then…after it has developed, you can back off the protein a bit and add lots of Calcium. Calcium is essential for the hen to produce an eggshell, but it is also needed for LH secretion (discussed below) and contractions. That’s right, Calcium is needed for much more than just the eggshell. It’s a necessary component in the initial hormone release that gets the process started, and it’s a necessary component in the final stages of muscular contraction to lay the egg. In fact, Calcium is so important that if a hen is egg-bound, the first thing a veterinarian will usually do is give the bird calcium to help her lay.
The Role of Light in Egg Laying
Egg production is driven primarily by hormones, specifically follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). A healthy hen’s brain detects light in the hypothalamus near the eye, which stimulates the production of FSH and LH through the secretion of another hormone called GnRH in the pituitary gland. A similar process even causes a testosterone spike in males. To simplify this, quail know it’s spring by the duration of light they see, and they begin producing all kinds of hormones. In a captive environment, spring can be imitated with artificial lighting, as far as a quail’s hypothalamus is concerned. We’ve found that around 16 hours of light works best. We recommend red, green, or white light for laying hens, but red should be avoided between the ages of 4-6 weeks, as it may cause early sexual development and early egg production to the detriment of the bird’s health. If you’re keeping birds outdoors during the winter, or indoors anytime of year, setting lights on a timer is an ideal first step for egg production.
When the conditions are right and the hormones FSH and LH begin flowing, in combination with other hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, it takes a quail about 10 days to fully form its first egg yolk. A quail will begin producing a new egg yolk approximately each day, so a quail will always have several yolks forming at a time. The hormones mentioned above are crucial during this period. FSH will stimulate the production of progesterone, a crucial hormone needed later during eggshell formation. Progesterone also causes a positive feedback loop between the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, leading to a spike in LH, which is needed for the yolk to be released into the ovary to form the egg white, and eventually the egg shell.
Stress can stop the egg laying cycle
Still no eggs? Take a look at possible sources of stress. Stress causes the release of glucocorticoids, nasty little steroid hormones such as corticosterone, which disturb the entire egg development process. Put enough corticosterone into a developing egg, and studies have shown that the chicks are more likely to fail during development, develop into a smaller chick, or die as a hatchling. The steroids released into the hen’s bloodstream due to stress will block the formation of LH, so the yolks won’t be released while a hen is under stress. Basically, stress disrupts the delicate hormone balance required for a hen to produce eggs, and for good reason. A stressed hen in the wild is probably reacting to something that would kill her chicks or eat her eggs, such as a predator, or an environmental condition such as heat or cold that would stop them from surviving after they hatch. Changes in atmospheric pressure cause birds to be stressed – Mother Nature’s way of telling them not to lay eggs right before a hurricane. Stressed birds don’t lay eggs. If they’re in the middle of a clutch, they’ll abruptly stop laying eggs. If they’re stressed before they begin to lay, they won’t start the process.
In captivity, a quail will often be stressed by anything she perceives to be a predator or a threat. A household dog or cat within eyesight of its cage is a threat. A howling coyote at night is a threat. Worst of all, a well-intentioned human who wants to pet or hold her may be perceived as a threat. Remember, wild quail are prey animals; they’re delicate, and they hide in grasses and shrubs to stay out of sight. Domestic quail would like the same conditions, so when placed in a cage with no top or bottom, or into an aviary where they have nowhere to hide, it may cause enough stress to stop them from laying. You may know your quail is safe, but she doesn’t.
Make your quail feel safe by blocking her view from birds of prey, nighttime predators outside along fence lines or in the yard, and particularly from household pets such as dogs or cats walking under or around their enclosure. You might think your cat would never hurt a fly, and you might be right, but your quail disagrees. Remember, quail aren’t stressed out about their finances. They don’t care if their kids get good grades or make the soccer team. They care about not being eaten. If you see your quail trying to run away from you or your pet, particularly in its enclosure, it’s under high levels of stress and won’t be able to produce the right hormones to produce eggs, even if everything else is perfect. Domestic quail should be generally calm and relaxed. They shouldn’t be jumpy, attempt to fly often, or be constantly fluffed up or trying to hide.
Moving a quail from one location to another will also cause small amounts of stress, and it will take her a few days to get comfortable with her surroundings. Diseases or parasites cause stress as well. Inspect your bird occasionally for mites or poultry lice if kept on the ground, and feel the bird’s body to make sure she is in proper condition to lay eggs. An underweight bird will use her nutrients to put on weight, and an overweight bird will struggle to lay.
Allow Enough Time for the Eggs to Develop
Lastly, remember that your quail has to have the right conditions for long enough to produce an egg from start to finish. That means she has to have the proper nutrition and nutrient reserves, the proper amount of light, and low enough levels of stress to get her hormones in order. After she is ready to lay eggs, she’ll start producing egg yolks, and, assuming the conditions remain ideal for long enough, she’ll release the first yolk and produce an egg white and shell over the next day, and finally lay her egg.
Keep In Mind…
Generally, it takes a mature hen in proper condition about two or three weeks in the right environment to lay her first egg. We don’t see the process happening, so it takes some patience. If you don’t see eggs after two or three weeks, make changes to lower stress, or provide the proper nutrients or lighting. Every time the bird experiences a major change, stress hormones will stop the laying cycle and she will need to begin again, so after any major change, always wait two or three weeks to evaluate whether or not it was effective.
Quail are amazingly productive birds, and quail keepers, armed with the right knowledge, can enjoy the process of raising them and the benefits from their productivity.
Whether you’re producing meat and eggs for market, raising quail in a small homestead or backyard flock, or performing quail egg assays for medical research, Southwest Gamebirds is your Coturnix provider of choice. Shop Hatching Eggs here.
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