Cathleen Nichols has found a few fine-feathered friends -- about 3,000 of them.

Nichols tends UBC's flock of Japanese quail at the Quail Genetic Resource Centre, the largest breeding stock centre of its kind in the world.

And the flock earns its keep. Sale of quail eggs for food brings in $14,000 annually for the centre which is part of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences.

The funds support the raising of the birds which are used by researchers at UBC and around the world to investigate diseases with a genetic component such as glaucoma and artery diseases.

Nichols, a senior technician at the centre, feeds the chicks quail kibble, better known as turkey starter diet. There are about 2,000 hens in the flock and they start to lay eggs when six to eight weeks old.

Each day Nichols and her co-workers hand-collect about 700 white, blue or brown speckled eggs, which are about one-third the size of a chicken egg. Packed into 24-egg cartons -- some bearing the UBC name -- the eggs are sold exclusively through distributors for prices ranging from $3 to $4 in nearby Richmond and Vancouver's Chinatown.

The eggs taste like chicken eggs because of the standard poultry diet and are most often used in soups or added to sushi.

"Kids seem to love eating quail eggs because they're tiny," says Nichols. "It takes about 11 eggs to make an omelette."

Some children with an allergy to chicken eggs are able to eat quail eggs, she adds.

The tiny shells are also used for Ukrainian egg painting. The craft of eggery uses the shell as a display case for an ornament.

The centre also sells hatching eggs. Some go to local daycare facilities and schools where centre staff work with teachers to help children learn about raising poultry.