by Linda Matthews
You may have heard the loud chatter of guinea fowl or maybe you’ve seen the strange-looking, chicken-like creature with a tiny head and big body. Some people think that guineas are small turkeys, while others think they are domesticated vultures. Even though guineas are subject to many questions and speculation, one thing is clear: guinea fowl can be an entertaining, hard-working addition to the homestead.
In addition to vital pest control, guinea fowl produce seasonal eggs, are a great protein source, and announce visitors (both welcome and unwelcome) to the homestead. They come in a variety of colors, are low maintenance, and provide hours of entertainment with their silly antics.
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What is a Guinea Fowl and How Did it Get Here?
To state that guinea fowl are unique may be an understatement. There are up to ten species of guinea fowl that are native to West Africa. The most common domesticated species is the helmeted guinea fowl (Numida meleagris) and all species are part of the same scientific family that also includes pheasants, turkeys, chickens, and grouse.
It is still uncertain how guinea fowl, commonly known as guineas or guinea hens, made their way from their native West Africa to the United States. Some believe that they came over with Spanish explorers, while others believe they found their way over on slave ships. However they made it here, they have developed into a hardy, domesticated breed that is valued for their barnyard protection and insect control as well as their flavorful meat.
What Does a Guinea Fowl Look Like?
Guinea fowl have their own unique appearance and certainly look different than chickens. They have a large, curved body with a long skinny neck. Their head is small and featherless, and they have a crest on their head, a small beak, and long eyelashes. Most guinea fowl, as we know them today as domesticated poultry have gray feathers with white spots that make it look a little like they are wearing a tweed coat. They do come in other colors as well, including:
Guinea fowl are strong fliers. Unlike chickens, who propel themselves up in the air for a few seconds, guinea fowl become strong fliers at an early age and are soon able to fly 400 to 500 feet at a time. They love to roost in trees, will fly over fences, and may even sit on top of your house. And don’t let their funny round bodies fool you! They are fast runners but unlike chickens, you never want to grab a guinea by the legs or feet because they abruptly twist around and their legs could be easily broken.
How Can You Tell the Sex of Guinea Fowl?
Baby guinea fowl, known as keets, are impossible to sex. In fact, the only way you can tell if the keet is a guinea hen (female) or a guinea cock (male) is through a blood test. As the birds mature, there are some differences, though subtle, that can give you a clue as to the sex of the guinea.
- Listen! As you get more accustomed to guineas, you will become more familiar with their chatter. Guinea hens tend to make a two-syllable noise that is specific to females only. Kind of sounds like ka-trak, ka-trak, or buckwheat, buckwheat. Both sexes will emit one-syllable calls, but the hens are the only ones that can make the calls with two.
- Waddles. You may have to look closely to get a good comparison, but the guinea cock has larger waddles, as well as larger helmets than the hens.
Since we are discussing sexing of guinea fowl, it is a great opportunity to bring up that guineas can be cross-bred with some other species. When breeders cross them with a chicken, the hybrid is called a guinea-hen, and when crossed with a peafowl, it is then called a pea-guinea. The offspring, though, will be sterile and unable to reproduce.
Guinea Fowl Eggs and Meat
Guinea eggs are different from chicken eggs in several ways. Though they taste somewhat the same and can be used interchangeably, they are richer in flavor and creamier than chicken or duck eggs. Even though they are about 25% smaller than the average chicken egg, they are packed with protein, healthy fats, and vitamins. They are light brown in color and have a hard shell and pointed end. Once you crack them open, you are in for a surprise: the yolk content is higher than the white content and the yolks are usually a deeper shade of orange.
Guinea hens are seasonal layers, laying primarily from March to October, with the average hen producing between 140 to 150 eggs annually. She will start laying once she is six or seven months old and will continue for the next five years or so. They normally lay in the late morning or sometimes in the early afternoon. If your hens free-range, you will need to spend some time looking for eggs. Free-range hens develop a communal nest in a secluded area on the ground and the guinea cock will usually be in charge of guarding the nest. Even if your guinea hens are confined to a coop they will not normally lay in a nesting box but prefer to lay on the floor.
Guinea meat tastes a lot like chicken, but with a richer, more-flavorful gamier taste similar to pheasant. It is very lean, rich in amino acids, and pairs well with most herbs and seasonings. It can be eaten fried, roasted, or braised with butter or duck fat. The dark meat is tender and can be prepared on the grill, in the oven, or on the stove but because it is so lean, additional fat normally needs to be used.
Guinea fowl are not known for their intelligence, which is probably one of the reasons that they are so skittish and easily alarmed. They tend to focus on one thing at a time and have been known to run across the yard chasing a bee or fly that flew by their head. If they are with other guinea fowl, they are highly social and tight-knit. They can exist with other poultry as long as they have their space to get away if needed. They seldom get broody and tend to be highly monogamous creatures.
Though guinea fowl are social and funny, they are not ideal for small, suburban yards. They will fly over fences and roost in trees and hang out on your neighbor’s roof. But even that isn’t the reason that many city ordinances do not allow guinea fowl:
It’s the Noise!
Guinea fowl are noisy! They make noise when they are scared…when they are happy…when there is a visitor or intruder…when they are socializing with members of the flock…or for no reason at all. And it is loud! They have a constant chatter with either one or two-syllable calls that seems never-ending. The noise level seems to get louder when they are disturbed so if you have some cranky neighbors, consider this before purchasing.
Caring for Guinea Fowl
Guinea fowl tend to be one of the most low-maintenance species that you can have on the homestead. Their housing and nutritional requirements make them easy-care, but can also make them difficult to handle, catch, or even locate.
Technically, you do not need a barn or coop for your guinea. They are perfectly content to forage for food, roost in trees, and lay their eggs on the ground. Letting them free range on small acreage may have them visiting neighbors or moving to forested areas of the property. It also makes it difficult to catch them if you need to and makes it hard to locate nests to gather their eggs.
If you choose to keep your guinea fowl in a coop, they can be trained to go in at night and roost inside. It does, however, take patience and perseverance on your part. Keeping them in an enclosed pen or coop for a reasonable length of time is the best way to contain them and teach them that this is their home. If you choose to fence them, remember that their wingspan can be up to six feet, so they are able to take flight easily unless you clip their wings.
Most guinea fowl do well enough with normal poultry diets. If they are allowed to forage for themselves, they actually will do well on their own, getting their protein from mosquitoes, ticks, worms, and other insects. They do consume some amount of greens and tend to be less destructive to young seedlings in gardens than chickens. Though guinea fowl can go for several days without water, they do require access to fresh, clean water to keep them at their healthiest. They also love a little scratch thrown on the ground and the occasional oyster shell or grit.
Even though the guinea fowl is native to West Africa and the hot and humid climate there, they do surprisingly well in other climates too. They can handle cold and rain but tend to find shelter when it snows. Their feathers tend to insulate their bodies, but their lack of feathers on their head and their tiny legs lets heat escape if temperatures dip too low.
Guineas are a pretty hardy species, but as with most poultry, they are more fragile when they are first born. For general good health practices, give them plenty of room, a healthy diet, and clean fresh water.
Guinea fowl do the best in large flocks because of the social aspects. The average lifespan of a guinea hen is approximately 12 years. However, they are susceptible to many predators including wildcats, wolves, dogs, and humans. Bears, weasels, foxes, and hawks prey on guineas. Depending on where you live, they can also be threatened by large snakes, crocodiles, or any other predators that would be a threat to any poultry species.
Pros and Cons of Owning Guinea Fowl
There are many pros and cons to making guinea fowl part of your homestead. It is a personal preference and depends on why you want them, where you live, and the time and money you plan to invest. You can purchase guinea fowl at many farm supply stores, hatcheries, and from local breeders and farmers. Or once you get your own, you can incubate your own eggs and add to your flock.
- No need to call the pest control service if you have a flock of guinea fowl. They are ravenous foragers of everything from insects to snakes and have even been known to take on a rat or two. They will remove the ticks and mosquitos, garden pests, and all the other insects they can find.
- They are great for issuing loud warnings when they spot intruders, human and non-human. You will hear their incessant chatter as long as they are uncomfortable or feel threatened.
- They are low maintenance. They will forage for most of their food and will roost in trees, making their care worry-free.
- They will take the bugs from your garden without totally destroying your plants and vegetables.
- They are disease-resistant and will forage for most of their food, saving you in feed costs and disease treatment.
- They are loud…and can be annoying. It could make it difficult for you to own guinea fowl in urban or suburban locations.
- They are fast! These little four-pounders can fly over your head or can run over 20 miles per hour. This can be good if they are running from predators, but not so great if you are trying to catch them.
- Guinea fowl are known to be bullies. Just like the pecking order found in most chicken coops, guinea fowl will not only bully each other but often your other birds as well.
- Guinea fowl are not smart. Because they cannot think very well, they leave themselves susceptible to predators, even though they could sometimes fly away or outrun the predator.
Raising guinea fowl is not for everyone. It can, however, be a worthy investment, as well as provide entertainment for you and your family. They look funny, they act silly, and they chant and squawk, making the neighbors cringe. But they diminish the tick and mosquito population, keep snakes out of the chicken coop, and let us know if a fox or coyote (or mailman) is nearby. They supply eggs and meat and require little feed or housing. They are not, however, pets, like some chickens and they do not do well in small yards or confined areas. They fly high and run fast, so if not confined, are nearly impossible to catch.
If you are just starting out and wondering which animals to add to your homestead, here’s some food for thought.
Linda Matthews is a freelance writer who lives with her husband, dog, cat, goats, chickens, bees, and yes-Guinea fowl, in the Missouri Ozarks.