Chickens can make a great addition to your farm or homestead. In How to Raise Poultry (Voyageur Press, 2011), Christine Heinrichs provides all of the information you need to know to successfully raise a flock of birds.This excerpt, which provides information on raising guinea fowl on a farm or homestead, is from Chapter 6, “Guinea Fowl.”
Raising Guinea Fowl
Guinea fowl are African birds that are still common, in many species and subspecies, in the wild. The diversity of African climates has influenced development of varied guinea fowl.
Many people keep them as insect-control birds. They eat all kinds of pests, including deer ticks, an important point for those who live in areas threatened by Lyme disease. They happily consume Japanese beetles, wasps, and other pests but, unlike chickens, don’t scratch and dig up the garden.
Guinea fowl are credited with killing and eating small snakes and rodents. Sharon Wilson of Texas witnessed them killing a six-foot snake at a guinea fowl farm. Their screeching alone is said to discourage rodents. Jeannette S. Ferguson has written an entire book called Gardening with Guineas.
Then again, their screeching may discourage you and annoy your neighbors. My husband finds them unbearably annoying. R. H. Hastings describes their constant chatter as “A running commentary on the nature of the food” that “will fetch other guineas from many yards away to share the delicacy.” The positive side of this characteristic is that they serve as excellent watchdogs and will warn you of any unusual occurrence on your farm.
Guinea fowl like their own reflections, so if they are settling in places you don’t want them, try hanging a mirror where you want them to nest. They will find it and move.
History and Culture of Guinea Fowl
Fossilized remains of guinea fowl date back 2.5 million years, in what is now the Czech Republic, where they roamed the landscape with prehistoric elephants and lions. Indian and Burmese people may have kept guinea fowl since Neolithic times, as early as 7000 BC. They were domesticated at least 4,000 years ago, showing up in an Egyptian pyramid mural of 2400 BC. The nobles of that period, the Fifth Dynasty, enjoyed maintaining aviaries. Some guinea fowl were indigenous to the area, and others were imported from further south in Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
With the arrival of early domesticated chickens by 1475 BC, poultry husbandry increased. Egyptian incubators of the time could accommodate up to 90,000 eggs, both guinea fowl and chicken eggs together. Guinea fowl even appeared in hieroglyphics.
Whether Greek farmers acquired guinea fowl from Egypt or elsewhere, the birds were being raised on Greek farms by 400 BC. Guinea fowl are among the birds associated with the Greek goddess Artemis. In one tale, the sisters of the hero Meleager wept themselves to death after Meleager died. Artemis rescued them from Hades and turned them into guinea fowl. The spots on their feathers represent the sisters’ tears. Whether this myth accounts for the scientific name for Helmeted guinea fowl, Numida meleagris, or the name is a corruption of melanargis, meaning black and white, remains unresolved. Domestic guinea fowl were developed from the Helmeted species.
Roman writers like Horace, 23 BC, and Pliny in his natural history, AD 77, mention eating both the meat and eggs of guinea fowl. Romans likely distributed the birds across Europe with the spread of their empire. As the Middle Ages advanced, guinea fowl disappeared from the menu. Portuguese traders reintroduced guinea fowl in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Turkeys were arriving from the New World at the same time, resulting in some confusion as to what they were. That confusion was reflected in their names, with turkeys eventually being designated Meleagris gallipavo. Pavo is the Latin and Spanish word for peacock, so the Spaniards who brought turkeys back to Europe initially called them pavo de las Indies, the “peacock of the Indies.” The popular name turkey already meant guinea fowl in Europe. The American bird soon won that name, but the confusion lingered.
Turkeys and guinea fowl aren’t related, except in the sense of both being fowl. They both just looked weird to Europeans.
Guinea fowl traveled to America with the slave trade, where feral flocks were established in the Caribbean islands during the 1700s. In China, they became known as Pearl Fowl and were quickly adopted. By the eighteenth century, they were widely cultivated.
Victorian England raised the guinea fowl to the status of one of its most popular table birds, a luxury item with prices at record highs. Production has declined since then, but interest in gourmet, alternative, and local food could open new markets. Modern breeding practices and selection have developed guinea fowl varieties that mature more quickly and extend the laying season to provide eggs and chicks for production almost year-round.
Despite centuries of domestication, guinea fowl retain a lot of wildness. They prefer to range free, and they fly well. Most owners allow them liberty and occasionally find them roosting on the barn or house roof and in trees. One owner describes the experience of having guineas as comparable to “an eccentric but wealthy relative who has come for an extended visit—tolerated, even welcomed, in the unspoken hope that one day their benefits will outweigh their inconvenient behaviors.”
When raising guinea fowl, it’s best to start with babies, which are called keets. That gives you the opportunity to tame them and give them the basics of training.
You can purchase keets from a breeder or hatch eggs. Chickens make good foster mothers, if you are already established with chickens. A large-breed chicken may be able to cover as many as forty guinea eggs. Chicken eggs have an incubation period of twenty-one days, whereas guinea eggs require twenty-six to twenty-eight days to hatch, but a broody hen will not mind the week longer. Artificial incubators are also successful. Guineas also like to nest and raise their own keets. Guinea hens can be very secretive about making nests for themselves, but unfortunately, they may not choose locations safe from predators. Jeannette Ferguson recounts in her book Gardening with Guineas the experience of one guinea who succeeded by building a nest under a pile of barbed wire. That’s the exception to the rule, however. When a hen doesn’t come back to the house at night, follow the rooster who is guarding her. Guineas are mostly monogamous, and he will be protecting the hen on the nest.
The eggs are smaller than chicken eggs, weighing 1.4 ounces to the 2-ounce large chicken egg. They have thick shells that make them difficult to candle. Use a bright light source on the tenth day of incubation to check for development.
The keets are very tiny and must be managed carefully. A foster chicken mother may do a better job than a guinea mother and father. Domestic guinea fowl are often not very good parents, although both participate in raising the keets. Because their origins are on dry grasslands, they don’t manage moist conditions like dewy wet grass well. Keets may die from getting wet and chilled. A guinea mother may leave the nest before all the keets are hatched. Confining the family in a pen on bare ground or short grass until the keets are fully feathered, around six to eight weeks old, improves the parents’ chances of raising their family successfully.
Keets should be kept on cloth or plastic with a rough texture so that they can get traction without falling through. Their legs are weaker than chickens’, and early leg injuries will persist throughout life.
Training Guinea Fowl
Guinea fowl have their own view of the world and their place in it. They retain an independent nature, although training makes them more manageable. Jeannette Ferguson recommends white millet as a special treat to give some measure of influence over guineas. Associate yourself with food treats, and they will learn to come when called.
Guinea fowl do best with people if they are raised with a lot of gentle handling. Spend time with them and handle them daily. Otherwise, they may be so skittish you will have difficulty approaching them.
Feeding Guinea Fowl
Keets do well on turkey starter or game-bird feed, which have 24 to 26 percent protein, until they are fully feathered and can be set outdoors. Medicated feeds are not recommended, since they are not formulated with keets in mind, and the birds may ingest an overdose when they go through growth spurts and eat more.
On sufficient range, keets will eat enough bugs and seeds to satisfy the nutrition needs of their entire diet. If they don’t have enough to eat, supplement them with chicken layer crumbles or game-bird feed with higher protein content. They need grass. If they are confined or grass is limited, give them alfalfa hay.
They are willing consumers of all kinds of kitchen trimmings. Avoid giving them anything that you don’t want them to help themselves to later in the garden. They like fruit and berries but don’t usually bother vegetables much. Chopped garlic and onions reduce worms and may help birds resist respiratory problems and coccidiosis. Edible seaweeds, such as kelp, are welcome sources of minerals.
Keets will also eat bees, so keep hives and guineas separate if you are raising honeybees at the same time.
Housing for Guinea Fowl
Guineas raised for meat and egg production can be confined as other poultry are. Small-flock owners usually let them range. Their love of tasty food can be used to train them to come when called. Although they prefer to roam free, they are vulnerable to predators and should be secured in a protective shelter at night and during harsh weather. Although they fly well, they generally try to escape from predators by running, often unsuccessfully. Left alone, they will roost at night in trees, where they are vulnerable to owls and hawks.
One Texas breeder uses an old-fashioned buggy whip to herd his birds into their house for the night. He scatters grain on the ground and then uses the whip as an extension of his arm to guide them toward the house.
An existing outbuilding can be converted to a guinea house, or you can build one for the purpose. Confined birds should have 3 to 4 square feet per bird.
Surround the house with a fenced yard. Allow 20 square feet per bird in a breeding pen. Natural shrubs and trees inside the enclosure provide guinea fowl with places to perch. Shrubbery and climbing plants planted around the outside can be trained to grow over the fence. A sandy spot in the sun for dust baths helps keep their feathers in good shape. Guineas will happily fly over the fence unless the aviary is completely enclosed. If you allow them free range, accommodate them with 2 x 4s around the top of the fence, to land on as they make their way over.
Guineas prefer to roost as high as they can. “All species of guinea fowl are always eager to see what is going on around them,” writes R. H. Hastings Belshaw in Guinea Fowl of the World. Provide at least 10 inches of roost per bird.
Guinea Fowl Breeds and Varieties
There are six separate species of guinea fowl: White-breasted guinea fowl, Agelastes meleagrides; Black guinea fowl, Agelastes niger; Helmeted guinea fowl, Numida meleagris; Plumed guinea fowl, Guttera plumifera; Crested guinea fowl, Guttera pucherani; and Vulturine guinea fowl, Acryllium vulturinum. The Helmeted guinea fowl gave rise to today’s domestic varieties and is the species most commonly kept, but fanciers also keep Crested and Vulterine guinea fowl. The others are rarely kept in captivity outside of zoos and game parks.
Guinea fowl are raised in many colors: Pearl Gray, White, Lavender, Royal Purple, Coral Blue, Buff Dundotte, Buff, Porcelain, Opaline, Slate, Brown, Powder Blue, Chocolate, Violet, Bronze, Sky Blue, Pewter, Lite Lavender, and Pied. Pearling refers to the white dots on the feathers. Pied birds have white patches in otherwise colored plumage.
Guineas are exhibited at poultry shows. The Standard of Perfection recognizes three colors for exhibition: Pearl, Lavender, and White. Weight is a breed characteristic, and exhibition weights range from 3 to 4 pounds. Underweight and overweight birds are penalized.
Males and females are very similar in appearance. Males develop larger wattles, but that’s a relative quality. Only females make the shrill “come back, come back” call. Some start making this call as early as six weeks old, but others may not start calling until they are older. The male has only a single call, a high-pitched single syllable. Hens can successfully imitate it, so rely on both larger wattles and sound to determine which you have.
Guinea Fowl Products
Guinea fowl are in demand as table birds at gourmet restaurants and retail markets, if you are able to make the connections and develop the niche. They are seasonal egg layers, naturally laying from the end of March through mid-May, with the potential of producing as many as one hundred eggs a year.
Despite being limited by the season, the unusual dark shells and small size of guinea eggs make them eye-catching for specialty retail and restaurant trade. For cooking purposes, two guinea eggs are equivalent to one chicken egg.
Guinea hens, left to their own devices, lay about thirty eggs at the rate of one a day and then go broody. To sell eggs for food, gather them at least once a day. Leave four to six dummy eggs in the nest to attract the hen to return and lay in that nest. Egg-layers may be kept confined each day until afternoon to persuade them to lay in the house or yard. Continually removing eggs extends the laying season, as long as to October.
As meat, guineas raised on broiler diets are large enough to be processed as early as ten weeks of age. Breast meat increases if raised to sixteen to eighteen weeks of age. Smaller birds may be marketed as substitutes for partridge or quail. Live weights of 2-1/4 to 3-1/4 pounds produce dressed weights of 2-1/4 to 2-3/4 pounds, suitable for a meal for four people. Currently, dressed birds weigh 3 to 4 pounds and sell at retail for more than $10 a pound.
The meat is similar to that of other game birds in flavor, according to Worldwide Gourmet. Nutritionally, it is lean and low in sodium. Depending on the guinea’s diet, the meat may also be high in fatty acids. It is low in calories at 134 calories per 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. Comparatively, turkey has 109 calories per 100 grams.
The feathers of guinea fowl are sought both by flower shops and craft and specialty businesses. Lavender, Purple, and Blue colors, and Pearl color varieties with their attractive dots, are especially in demand.
Want to learn more about raising poultry? Read The History of Chickens for more information on raising birds.
This book has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Poultry: Everything You Need to Know, by Christine Heinrichs,and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.