Updated December 3, 2011

Introduction

First of all, what is a Button Quail? Buttons are the smallest of the "true" quails, about four inches long, and are native to Australia, Southeast Asia, India, etc. Click here for a map of the distribution of the Button Quail. In addition to the normal "wild type", they come in silver, white, browns and various combinations and shades of these colors, also known as "mutations". Unfortunately, our buttons do not have a very long lifespan; females' can be as short as 18 months, but if they are given proper care and nutrition (see below), you can expect your button hen to live three to four years or even more. Males average four to five years (again, depending on care and nutrition), but I have heard of at least a few male buttons who lived to be as old as nine!

There are actually several different species of birds sharing the name "Button Quail", and they are all not necessarily related. The Button you will see pictured on my pages is commonly referred to as the "Chinese Painted Quail", and is a member of the order Galliformes, family phasianidae. The other birds that we call "buttonquails" are of the order Gruiformes, family turnicidae. These "buttonquails" are not commonly kept in aviculture, are quite difficult to breed, and in fact, there are only a couple of them in captivity in the U.S. at this time! On a separate page, I've compiled a list of some button species as well as some amusing translations from around the world.


Meet Baby Spaz
I've been really lucky to have some wonderful tame button quails in my life; first Baby Spaz, then Bunny, Hercules, PeeWee and Praddle. There's nothing more adorable than having a little button follow you around the house, or come running when you call to them. But I realize that it takes a lot of patience and attention to get this sort of bird to accept us as one of their own. It's not something you can force on them, so don't be mad at your Button if he prefers the company of other quails. Of course, a Button Quail who is not tame should have at least one other quail for company, so if you think you'd like to go quail shopping, look for pairs or trios that have been housed together; don't break up that happy quail family! The rest of this page is devoted to information I have found useful in caring for my quails, past and present, and I hope you'll be able to find something in it that will help make your quail experience truly fabulous!

Unique Birds, Adorable Pets.

Buttons are small, neat, and relatively quiet, (although they do have a fairly extensive "vocabulary" that you will come to understand if you take the time!). Their antics are always amusing, and they are very active, always searching the ground for seeds and other finds. Button quails can become very tame, especially if raised by hand, and if you are patient enough, may be willing to eat from your hand or even let you scratch under their chin!

Housing your Button Quail

Many people keep button quails in the bottom of their aviary, for variety as well as to help clean up spilled seed. This is fine, as long as the other birds' droppings are cleaned out often and the quails are not overcrowded. Because their feet are not made for perching, but rather for walking, their floor must not be wire, instead use cedar or pine shavings. Newspaper is not a good idea, as the droppings will just lay on the surface and your quails will be left walking around in you know what! Traditional bird cages are an option, as long as the floor space is sufficient (minimum of four square feet for one or two) and the inner top of the cage is padded to protect against the "Boink Factor" (see below). This can be done quite easily by wiring an inexpensive piece of foam, 1" or thicker, to the inner top of the cage.

Food and water must be accessible to the quail on the floor of their home. Make sure the food dish is not something their little toes will get caught in! The best thing I have found for a waterer is a hanging dispenser that only allows a bit of water to come out at a time, with a larger amount in the reservoir. This keeps the water fresh and clean, whereas a bowl of water would quickly become dirty as the quail would be walking through it all the time and tracking stuff into it.

Left: A couple of Button Quail homes with "Boink-Proof-Roofs". The one in the back is made from an old coffee table, turned upside down, with fiberglass window screening staple-gunned inside the legs of the table.

If you want to keep button quails simply because they are so cool, and not for an aviary, keep in mind that they are not like other birds in that they are ground dwellers and cannot perch. This means that floor space is key but vertical space is not (except for the "boink" factor, which I will talk about later). If they are to be housed by themselves or in pairs, a large glass fishtank, 4' long by 1' wide, is ideal. Usually these are 55 gal. capacity, but you can have your pet store order one that is not as deep (and less expensive!) that is known as a "30 gal. long".

Button quails can be very shy, and are easily startled. They are much happier if they have places to hide, so you should add some "extra options" to their cage or aquarium. Baby Spaz has three such hiding places: a bundle of millet sprays tied by the stems and suspended from the side of the tank, an upside-down rectangular box with two doors cut in it (shoebox size), and a cardboard cylinder about 3" diameter by 6" long, with (get this) a silk shoulder pad cut out of a blouse in it to sleep on. (Okay, so he's spoiled!). Real plants are wonderful, but they must be of a sort that are not toxic to birds. Plastic or silk plants also make nice hiding places, and are much easier to maintain.

If you hope to encourage them to breed, I always recommend at least 4 square feet of floor space for a pair, because they run about so much, anything less will seem confining to them, and may lead to them picking on one another. To encourage them to breed, the hen needs a place to "get away" from her mate, so not only floor space, but also "hidey places" as mentioned above (even silk plants) are especially important, and will help to make them feel secure. If you have the space in your home and the resources to build it, an even bigger pen than this is fine. There will never be a problem with having too much space, only too little.

THE BOINK FACTOR

This is very important, so read carefully! When startled, a button quail's first instinct is to fly straight up to get the heck out of there. They're not going to remember if their roof is something hard until it's too late. Boinking into something unyielding can cause serious injury, permanent disability, health problems later in life, and yes, even death. The answer? BOINK-PROOF THE ROOF! It's easy to do, and will save your quail (and you) a lot of headaches later on.

Here's how to set it up if your quail lives in a 4' x 1' aquarium:

1. Buy a piece of fine mesh nylon netting (very inexpensive at fabric stores) about 4" longer and 4" wider than your quail's home.

2. Buy two spring tension curtain rods that will expand to at least an inch longer than the aquarium.

3. Hem the long sides of the nylon about 1 1/2 inches so that you have two long "pockets" to thread the curtain rods through.

4. Put the rods into the hems and extend the rods to at least half an inch longer than the aquarium.

5. Put the whole contraption inside the aquarium (easier to do if Button isn't inside) and tuck the curtain rods up under the top edges of the aquarium.

6. Stretch out the netting so it goes from one end of the aquarium to the other. The result should cover the entire opening, but have enough slack so that if your quail boinks UP he'll boink right back DOWN, none the worse for wear.

Feeding Your Button Quail

So, what do they eat? Button Quails are truly omnivorous, requiring animal, vegetable and mineral to be healthy. Their primary need is a diet high in protein, and the staple of their diet should really be "gamebird crumble", which is over 20% protein. If it's too big when you buy it, you can grind it in a coffee grinder or food processor. Small seeds, such as millet, rape and hemp, are fine, and Button will also enjoy fresh vegetables such as tomato and cucumber slices, tiny sprouts, and broccoli (watch the way your quail tosses the broccoli around to get the little buds off, it's too cute!) In addition, you'll want to make sure that Button gets live food as well. Mealworms are a perennial favorite, but you can also serve up some crickets and fly larvae (yes, maggots). All of these are commercially available online or at your local pet store, and are fairly inexpensive (Many online retailers sell mealworms for under $10.00 for 1,000 worms, and if you're really ambitious you can raise your own). Don't feed indoor quails any outdoor bugs. These have been exposed to pesticides, pollution and other atrocities that no health-conscious Button Quail wants in his system. One thing about mealworms, though, is that they are very high in fat content. Too many mealworms are bad for your quail. A safe number to feed an individual button is six per day. If you're interested in nutritional analysis of various forms of live food, click here. For a similar analysis of seeds, click here.

Handy food dish and waterer ideas: Cut holes in plastic lids and put over food dishes (above) to keep feed from being spilled everywhere. For waterers (right), bend up wire coat-hangers to make the waterer easy to hang from the side of the tank.

What about the mineral thing? If you've ever owned birds, you already know that they require grit to help them with digestion. This is also true of Button Quails. In addition to its nutritional value, grit is also important in quail hygeine. Give them access to grit in a shallow bowl big enough for them to sit in, and your button will get in and ruffle, ruffle, ruffle; puffing his feathers up and getting the sand right down to his skin. It must be soothing to the feather follicles, and quails seem to love it. You'll also see them "dust-bathing" in their seeds, wood shavings at the bottom of their home, a bit of fabric on the floor, even a shallow saucer of water!


Button will probably find your houseplants very attractive. Don't let him chew on them, as many of these plants are toxic to animals.

Let's Clear the Air!

You'd be amazed at how many things we have floating around our homes that really aren't good for us, and things that are bad for us can be lethal for a tiny bird. Common sense tells us to be careful not to use solvents, varnishes, bug sprays and cleaning agents anywhere near our birds, but what about teflon pans? Scented candles?! There are many avian health concerns that wouldn't occur to us without some access to specialized information, so I've collected links to several sites devoted to Keeping Your Birds Healthy.

Special Care for Female Buttons

Button hens have a unique nutritional and environmental needs, above and beyond those of the males. The primary reason for this is egg-laying. The production of eggs uses vast amounts of the female's resources, which must be compensated for in diet and lighting.

When compared to the size of the hen that produces it, the Button Quail egg is proportionately one of the largest eggs lain by any bird. (This means, the weight of the egg is a significant percentage of the weight of the hen herself). Like chickens, button quail can lay one egg a day every day, for almost her entire life. Without special attention, this practice can very quickly deplete the female of her bone calcium and other essential nutrients, leading to a very early death. Without proper care, a female button's life may be as short as only 18 months! But if you are able to cut down on her egg laying and provide her with proper nutrition, she can live four years or more. I have been trying very hard to develop a system that will lengthen females' lives by compensating for their tendency to "overlay".

Diet is crucial in preventing nutrient depletion. Most important are calcium and protein.

Calcium

Egg shells are composed largely of calcium. If your hen does not have an extra source of calcium in her diet, every shell she produces will draw essential calcium from her system, progressively weakening her bones and muscles, even to the point where she will not be able to support her own weight! A calcium supplement is absolutely essential! The easiest thing to do is to add crushed oyster shell to her bowl of grit; she will gobble it up greedily! Oyster shell is available at your local pet store in small containers, and is relatively inexpensive. As an alternative, you can crush up a regular "human" calcium supplement and add it to the grit, or you can use "Pet-Cal", which is a "dog and cat" supplement. Bunny and a Magic Standing EggPet-Cal comes in a tablet and has to be crushed up as well, but it also contains a few other useful nutrients, such as phosphorous and vitamin D (which is absolutely essential for your hen to be able to absorb the calcium itself into her system). Cuttlebone is also a great source of calcium, and many breeders swear by it, but I personally have never seen a button touch a cuttlebone. Mine prefer the oyster shell and Pet-Cal by far. A good vitamin supplement is also very important, for those nutrients that they would get in nature, but are often lacking in a caged environment. I use "Vita-Flight" by Mardel Labs, but there are many other good vitamins available also. Whichever you choose, definitely find some way to introduce extra calcium into your female's diet!

Protein

Each egg contains a great deal of protein, which means your button has to be getting the protein from somewhere. The best way to provide protein in the diet is by feeding gamebird layer pellets. These have about a 25% to 28% protein content and can be used as your hen's sole diet if you choose. Of course, who would deprive their button of the mealworms, greens and seeds that they love so much?? Other great sources of protein are: mealworms, insects and insect-based food; algae (buy it at a health food store); spirulina, and hardboiled egg, mashed up fine. My hen Bunny also likes cooked beans (i.e., black or kidney), believe it or not, and these are a great source of protein too.

Lighting Conditions

The egg-laying cycle is related to the number of hours of light the hen gets each day, and does not depend on the presence of a male or whether the eggs have been fertilized. Generally, the hen will lay when her day has 14 or more hours of light, but I have seen hens lay a clutch with 12 or even fewer hours of light. During the summer months, there is not much you can do about this (unless you want to pull the shades down at 6:00 p.m.) but as the days shorten with the approach of winter, you can bring egg-laying to a stop by not giving your birds any artificial light. This means, no lamps, no overhead lights, not even a night-light. When the sun goes down, it's bedtime. Of course, if you work from eight till five as I do, this practice will seriously cut into your quality quail time. I let Bunny out to run around in the mornings before work, and we have our playtime then instead.

Recycling Eggs

Despite your best efforts, your hen is still going to lay plenty of eggs. A clutch will consist of 8 - 12 eggs. A lot of hens will lay many more than this, and never show any interest in building a nest or sitting on the eggs. No one has been able to determine with any certainty why some (if not most) button hens simply have no interest in their eggs, but it seems that a hen who goes "broody" (chooses to build a nest and set the eggs) is the exception rather than the rule.

If your hen is one of those rare birds who will nest, I've developed a little system that will keep her from having to lay a whole clutch each time. My system presumes that your female lives alone or with other females, and will not be laying fertilized eggs. She'll have to lay the first clutch herself, and you probably won't even know she's going to nest until one day you'll go by and see she's piled the eggs all up and built a little fortress around them with her bedding. The key is to leave the eggs where she lays them, even if they are scattered all about the cage. If she's going to nest, she'll do all the work of making a nest and moving the eggs at the last minute. Buttons don't need any "special" materials for building a nest; generally, they will just haul over bits of their bedding. Pine chips or shavings seems to be a good choice. Buttons don't use string or dirt or feathers, because they can't weave or build like many flying birds do. They just sort of make a pile with a depression in the middle for themselves and their eggs.

Bunny Nesting So now your hen has made her first nest. She will probably sit on the eggs almost non-stop, leaving them to eat and relieve herself. I have found that she will chatter at you most threateningly if you come near, but also that if you get her off the nest and take her out to play, even for an extended period of time, she will return to the eggs once she is back in her cage (or tank or whatever). Allow her to keep her eggs for 16 to 20 days, which is the normal incubation period. After this time, remove the eggs, and she will go on about her normal business within a few minutes. I have not seen a hen mourn very long over missing eggs.

When you have removed the eggs, save them! Check for damage and throw away any questionable ones, and store the eggs somewhere safe, like in a little basket, with good air circulation. Don't use anything airtight, as I have had eggs go moldy when kept in Tupperware. Under the right conditions, the eggs will not go "bad", they will simply start to dry up inside. I also use a permanent marker to write a little "1" on each egg, so that I can distinguish it from newer eggs later on.

A week or so after you have taken the eggs away, your hen will start to lay again. As soon as you see the first egg, take about seven of the old ones and place them next to the new one. She may lay one or two more, but then she should see the collection as a whole "new" clutch and begin to set them without laying them all over again. Once again, let her keep them for 16 - 21 days, and then take them out. With each clutch, you should end up with two or three new eggs, and you can then pitch the oldest ones from previous clutches.

I hope this information helps your button hen to live a longer, healthier life. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions, and as always, Happy Quails!

Safety Tips for letting your Buttons loose in the House

If you're like me, you like to let your buttons out for a little exercise now and then. Before you do, please read the following "Ten Commandments for Button Safety" and avoid potential hazards that could endanger your birds...

  1. Keep your other pets away from your Quail. No matter how harmless you think Fluffy or Fido might be, you never know when they suddenly might think Button looks like a tasty treat. Never let a bird out in a room where another animal might injure it (or worse)...

  2. Watch out for ceiling fans. Never let your button out while the ceiling fan is on. Even though they spend most of their time on the ground, one unexpected "boink" into a spinning ceiling fan can mean instant death for a quail.

  3. Keep all the doors and windows closed. When a bird gets scared, its first inclination is to fly away. Buttons are the same, and if you have open, screenless windows or doors, your quail could be gone and lost before you know what happened. Similarly, try to keep the shades closed, or at least have a fabric panel across the window. If your button gets a mind to try to escape quickly, it's not going to know there's a hard pane of glass between it and the outdoors. A flying quail can crash hard into a glass window, seriously injuring or even killing itself.

  4. Watch out for anything with a heating element. Keep the stove off, the fireplace well protected, and curling irons or other hot appliances off at all times when your Button is out of its cage.

  5. Beware of water. Keep the toilet lid down, the sink empty and the cover to the fishtank closed. Buttons can't swim!

  6. Avoid all poisons. Don't let your button anywhere where it can get into insect poisons, rat poisons, mouse traps, cleaning solutions, solvents, or anything that is even remotely toxic. Buttons like to taste everything they encounter, so the danger of having poisons about is obvious.

  7. Be aware of what's under your feet at all times. It could be a quail! Tame quails like to be where their humans are, and this means hanging around by our feet. They move quickly and quietly, and even if you think they're in another room, seem to be able to get "underfoot" in no time flat. I've had quails show up by my feet out of virtually nowhere, and only narrowly avoided giving them a kick by always looking down before I move my feet. Button doesn't understand that our feet are dangerous to them, so get into the habit of always knowing where your quail is before taking a step (or rolling your desk chair).

  8. Be careful when opening and closing doors. Make certain your quail isn't anywhere it can get caught in a closing door or hit by an opening door. When closing doors, watch both the swinging side and the hinged side, because a quail can get its head in between a very small space.

  9. Watch out for holes or open spaces where a quail can get lost under the baseboards, kitchen cabinets, walls, floors, or radiators. Keep the door to the basement closed, as well as the doors to any closets that might be unsafe.

  10. Keep the Floors Clean! As mentioned before, Buttons like to taste everything! Keep the carpets vacuumed and the floors washed, so your quail doesn't sample something that's been tracked in from outdoors. Think of your quail as a curious and active human child. Only if it's clean enough for a Baby is it clean enough for a Button!

    More Safe Birdkeeping Tips.

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