Quail, the Quieter Back-Yard Egg Option
On a hot Saturday morning in the waning days of summer, I joined a handful of people for a participatory quail slaughter at Pettibone Urban Game, a three-quarter-acre farm in Clinton Township, a neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. “Would you like to scald or would you like to take the skin off?” our instructor, Jerah Pettibone, asked me. I was unprepared for this question, distracted by the immediate task before me, which was to decapitate a quail by snipping its tiny neck with shiny, sharp kitchen shears. After making the fatal cut, I dropped the headless body into a bucket lined with a plastic grocery bag. Later, I decided against scalding, and peeled off the skin in feathery strips.
Pettibone began organizing quail culls as a way to connect her customers—a small group of local restaurant chefs and foodies—to the cycle of her farm’s quail production. Death, she told me, “is a connection to food I don’t want to forget about.” Pettibone, who works as a substitute teacher, started raising quail three years ago, and opened Pettibone Urban Game in early 2015, on a quiet residential street, where she bought two adjoining homes with oversized lots that she jokingly refers to as “my compound.” She sells quail eggs on the honor system from her unlocked front porch. Inside a detached garage, there’s a mobile poultry-slaughter unit, which she rents to customers, and a small-scale hatchery: dozens of tiny quail scurry under bright lights on a bed of pine shavings.
Chickens may have evolved into the mascot of the local foodie movement, ushering in an era of loosened zoning in many big cities, but the proliferation of chicken coops in residential areas has also resulted in a backlash against back-yard chickens: neighbors suing neighbors, codes limiting chicken flocks to four birds, and even crackdowns on residents, some of whom have been forced to get rid of their chickens entirely. Many municipalities still limit or outlaw back-yard poultry. But few have anything on the books against quail, which are sometimes licensed as wildlife. For example, Pettibone maintains a license with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources; the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offers a fifty-dollar license for residents who want to raise game birds. In this regulatory gap, a largely unnoticed quail movement has begun.
My husband and I found ourselves slaughtering these tiny birds thanks to a friend who moved out of state and couldn’t take her quail with her. The solitary bird arrived with a cage and everything that avian livestock needs: dried mealworms, woods shavings, feed, and a soap bottle retrofitted with a metal water nozzle. We live in a nineteen-fifties ranch in an inner-ring suburb, and we cleared a space near the shed and compost pile on our quarter-acre lot. We decided that the bird needed company, so we made our first visit to Pettibone’s farm a few days later and paid five dollars each for two three-week-old quail.
In our second week of quail ownership, my husband came in from the back yard with the news that Chicken Little, the runt, was dead, his head half-eaten. We discussed culprits—opossum, raccoons, skunk, turkey vultures, a red-tailed hawk—but when we called Pettibone she suggested another possibility: another quail. Quail are just jerks sometimes, turning into cannibals if they get overheated or are not fed enough protein. Pecking order isn’t an idiom for no reason. We adjusted the protein in our feed, and things improved.
On a good day, our tiny flock drops about three eggs, and one day we even got four. We’ve mostly stopped buying chicken eggs. Quail eggs have fewer calories (only fourteen, compared to seventy-eight per chicken egg), and with their higher protein ratio two or three can make for a surprisingly hearty breakfast. We connect with other back-yard quail owners on the Facebook group Backyard Quail, which has nearly thirty-seven hundred members, where owners sometimes relate their quail gore: “One of the other females went on a murder spree. Tried to peck the males eye out.”
In her book, “The Coturnix Revolution,” Alexandra Douglas makes a convincing case for quail’s superiority over chickens: they are less expensive, take up less space, and convert feed into edible protein more efficiently. Not only is a quail cage quieter than a coop of squawking chickens, it can be small; a square foot is plenty of room for a single quail. Douglas operates a farm called Stellar Gamebirds, Poultry, and Waterfowl, and one of her fastest-growing lines is quail hatching eggs, which she packs and ships overnight to customers nationwide. Last year, she filled five hundred orders from hobbyists and back-yard farmers. Quail are prolific egg producers. A healthy quail that is fed and cared for properly might lay as many as three hundred eggs a year. It’s impossible to know, however, how many quail eggs are produced; the market is so small that the U.S.D.A. ignores quail-egg production altogether.
Commercially raised quail and quail eggs were not even available in the United States until about forty years ago. Even today, there are only four large-scale commercial quail farms. Manchester Farms, the first quail farm in the U.S., was opened by Bill and Janet Odom outside Columbia, South Carolina, in the early nineteen-seventies. Bill Odom was the flock manager for the Campbell Soup Company, supervising chicken farmers in South Carolina, and started raising quail in his back yard to train his hunting dogs. His daughter, Brittney Miller, now owns and operates the four-hundred-and-fifty-acre operation, which produces about four million quail a year and logs sales of ten million dollars. It serves both the high and low end of the market; white-tablecloth restaurants to catfish shacks, fried-chicken houses, and barbecue joints. In a bid to take quail mainstream and compete directly against chicken, Miller distributes in mainstream grocers, including Kroger, Piggly Wiggly, and Publix, and has doubled the company’s distribution footprint to four thousand stores.
International Quail, opened in 1983 in Greensboro, Georgia, sells sixteen million quail a year, mainly through specialty grocers serving Asian and Hispanic shoppers. “Country boys in the South would be our third-biggest market,” Arnold Cardarelli, Jr., the marketing director at the company, told me. Since joining International Quail, in 1997, Cardarelli has run countless in-store tastings and consumer surveys trying to crack the mainstream market. Taste isn’t the problem, he said; it’s the tiny bones of the bird.
The day we returned home from Pettibone’s, we carried a Ziploc bag full of ice and four quail. I had no appetite, and we didn’t cook the birds right away. The next day, preparing Sunday’s dinner, I placed the dressed quail in a marinade of buttermilk and hot sauce. Each time I opened the fridge, I saw the tiny appendages sunk in white. I felt duty-bound to cook them well. I seared them in a smoking cast-iron skillet, smeared in butter and olive oil. The slightly sweet fragrance of game filled the kitchen. Lifting the birds out with tongs, I plated them with roasted sweet potatoes. Our ten-year-old son ate his corn, but didn’t touch the quail. We heated up leftover pizza for him, and my husband and I stared across the table in obligation, knowing that we had to eat this offering between the two of us. It didn’t taste like chicken. It had a sweet, almost almond-like flavor I couldn’t quite name. Later, when I talked to Cardarelli, he called it “meat with a personality.” This feels like an adequate description, if not an appetizing one.