Whether in your backyard or on a small farm, poultry can provide you with fresh eggs, meat as well as endless entertainment. In Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry (Storey Publishing, 2012), find extensive breed coverage and complete daily care and feeding instructions from author and expert Glenn Drowns. Learn about raising guinea fowl in this excerpt from chapter 14, “Guineas.”
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry.
Guinea fowl are to the poultry world what cats are to the pet world — you either love them or you hate them. Hailing from the sub-Sahara region of Africa, no other poultry species is quite like these birds, and raising guinea fowl takes some patience. Some days you’ll find them to be the most annoying creatures on the face of the earth. In fact, a great number of people never consider them a relaxing pastime, while others believe guineas are the perfect match for their situation. You’ll either be able to tolerate and appreciate their lifestyle, habits, and mannerisms or you’ll put an ad in the next edition of the local newspaper in an effort to quickly be rid of them. Believe me, there are times when I ask myself why I live with these independent-thinking, strange birds. They have more quirks than any poultry species I’ve ever raised, but they are mostly a joy and a help to us here on Sandhill Farm.
Please don’t get me wrong: I think anyone can appreciate guineas in their farmyard, as they have a number of great qualities. Their noise — sometimes extremely irritating, especially the females with a rabid, low-pitched buckwheat sound — can drive even the sanest person to madness. Lest we forget, the males make a loud noise warning everything in the barnyard every time there’s something new around. But I appreciate them for their watchdog abilities.
Natural Alarm System
I know that when I’m working in the garden or about the farm, if someone drives in the driveway, gets out of their car, and starts walking toward the guineas’ pens, they will set up a fuss. Each situation results in a different noise, noises I can differentiate. I know how the sound of their squabbling is different from their alarm. I walk among them often and have discovered that once they recognize me as their owner they don’t raise a fuss. Visitors often ask how I put up with that noise and I explain that it’s usually only present when there’s something disturbing them or something unfamiliar nearby.
Now that we live only 750 feet away from our poultry yards, I rely on the guineas as an alarm system to nighttime predators. I go to the front door, listen, and know if I need to go to the poultry area and check for problems. Guineas are truly the watchfowl of the barnyard.
Natural Pest Control
Guineas are also very active workers. When given a chance to roam in summer, they exist almost entirely on the insects and seeds that they find. My first summer at Sandhill Preservation farm, I purchased 100 young guineas. The previous two summers were very dry and our sand hill was covered with grasshoppers. I started turning out the guineas when they were about six to seven weeks old to let them range and forage. At the end of each day, I could see how far the guineas had gone by walking through the area where there were no grasshoppers into an area where the population was heavy. The guineas worked with machinelike accuracy through the weeds, grass, and young trees, picking and eating and fattening up as they went.
I’ve turned them loose in my garden at various times and watched them picking insects off the leaves as they go down the rows. They eat insects that no other creature would dare eat. They are the only poultry species I’ve ever seen that would even touch a squash bug. Sure, they also have their favorite fruits and vegetables, and pick up those as well, but they seek out insects predominantly.
Although guinea fowl very carefully pick through foliage looking for tasty treats, never put them in a young garden or it will be devastated. In a full-grown garden, they will do very little damage as long as the numbers are well matched to your open space and garden size. You’d want to have no more than three or four guineas per 1,000 square feet (93 sq m) of garden.
Keep in mind that guinea fowl are not discriminating and will eat ladybugs and other beneficial insects, but their voracious appetite for pests will be a distinct advantage anywhere.
Long before I got my first guineas I had heard that these birds keep snakes, rats, mice, and other predators away from a farmer’s flock, and after my years of experience with these birds I can say that this is true — at least in part. They do not keep mice or rats away from my farm, but snakes do not like them. However, they may not be quite the fierce exterminators you might believe them to be.
I have seen adult guineas capture young mice out of the nest and consume them rapidly; however, I’ve never seen a guinea catch an adult mouse, nor have I ever seen them have anything to do with rats other than a nest full of babies. I can safely say that guineas will not keep rats out of the building. Even with a great flock of guineas in a building, you’ll have rat problems. They don’t seem to be the least bit afraid of guineas.
As a child growing up out west, my family had rattlesnake problems. We had them everywhere, and it was tough gardening or even walking in the yard. I can vouch for the fact that guineas do go after snakes. Many times a day I would look up from the garden and see my guineas on the hillside making a big fuss. Whenever I strode up near them to investigate the cause of the racket, I’d see them surrounding a snake.
Whether snakes are frightened by the raucous birds and exit the area or the guineas kill and eat the snake is a question I can’t answer. But there is no doubt in my mind that a large group of guineas flying and attacking cause enough commotion to deter snakes and adult mice from setting up shop in your area.
The First Few Weeks
Once you’ve made up your mind about raising guinea fowl, it’s best to acquaint yourself with a few of their quirks so that your first encounters with them will be positive experiences. Along with turkey poults, keets (baby guineas) are the most difficult of the babies to raise. For example, unlike other poultry chicks, once their legs go out from under them, guineas never recover to their normal stance and you end up having to dispose of them.
It is always best to start with keets between two and three days old. When you open up the box, you’re going to think you have a bunch of crickets with all the hopping and squirming that’s going on in there. If they have endured a prolonged shipping period, they may be stressed. They may be chilled or display symptoms of lethargy and weakness. If they’re very cold and they’re not moving when you receive them, they need to be warmed up immediately. You can stick them in an incubator for an hour or so or trap heat in their brooder to raise it up to 95°F (35°C), with no drafts, to warm them.
Once you’ve stabilized the birds, it’s time to provide them with a suitable place for brooding.
My favorite brooder choice is the same 110-quart (104 L) plastic tub brooder I use for all my chicks. For bedding, line the bottom of the tub with regular newsprint, not the slick colored advertisements. Be careful not to use sawdust or other bedding made up of small bits that the keets might mistake for food. Though I dearly love guineas, they aren’t the brightest of creatures when they are day-old. If you put a lot of litter in the brooder that looks like or is shaped like food, they will likely eat it and plug themselves up.
After laying down the newsprint, I place the excelsior pad that came in the shipping box in the end of the tub where the heat source will be located. This gives the babies a firm place to cling to when they go to sleep. Next, place the guineas on the pad in the tub and show them where the food and water are located.
After you’ve placed your keets in their new home, watch them for a few minutes to make sure things are okay. They should be moving around, eating and drinking, and not huddled and chilled.
If they’re okay, don’t bother them for an hour or so; allow them a chance to get established on their own. Because they are closely related to wild birds, guinea keets are easily spooked by your movements and the noises you make. Birds that are frightened when they are still so young and getting their strength can dislocate their legs, among other injuries that you would never think possible.
Guinea keets will never cease to amaze you with some of their predicaments. They scurry rambunctiously, not paying attention to where they are going. They end up trapped in corners of buildings if you have them running loose in a large area. They’ll pile into a water bowl, and if the light goes out, they’ll heap up in a corner. Keets are certainly amusing; in fact, they seem to have no idea what to do with themselves. Drop a worm or small insect in the brooder with them and they go crazy chasing one another and their prey around the brooder. They can act like little windup toys, zooming around with no clear direction.
Guineas, like other species of fowl, need a constant ambient temperature of 95°F (35°C) the first week. Adjust the temperature down after that, depending upon the season, your locality, the number of guineas in the brooder, and other factors.
It is best to lay a thermometer on the floor of the brooder near where they will go to keep warm. The general principle is to back the temperature off 5°F (3°C) a week. There is no one-size-fits-all rule, as many conditions factor into the shift, such as building temperature and number of guineas in the brooder. A box home in your basement with a stable temperature is an entirely different situation than a cold building that may or may not be drafty. The heating requirements for two-week-old keets in Louisiana, where summer nighttime temperatures are in the 70s, are less variable and easier to maintain than those for keets being raised in the mountains of Idaho, where summer nighttime temperatures are in the 40s. The more fowl you have, the more quickly they adapt to a rapid decline in brooder temperature.
Once you have raised guineas for a few years, you won’t even need the thermometer, as you will learn how to read the keets’ signals of comfort and discomfort. When they are too cold, they huddle under the light with their eyes closed and make continuous peeping noises. When they are too warm, they move as far away from the light source as is possible. Be observant and they’ll show you what they need.
Food and Water
Make sure that you have a drownproof waterer to offer your birds. I prefer to use the quail no-drown fount bases screwed onto a quart-sized (1 L) Mason jar. Although this waterer may seem to have an unusually tiny exposed water area for drinking, it serves them just fine. If you use a larger waterer — such as one you use for newborn chickens — you most likely will find injured or drowned keets.
Keets do best if you provide a high-quality feed for them. For the first three or four weeks of their lives, feed them a 28 percent protein starter, such as those used for game birds. If you can’t provide that type of feed, they will probably do okay on a regular brooder starter of about 23 percent protein, though they may not grow as fast and may have other issues develop. Poor feathering and feather picking are two common problems.
Once your new keets get a good drink of water and you show them the feed, they will be off and running. I try to sprinkle feed all over the newsprint, except for where they are sleeping, to give them something to stand on and something to pick at. Once they become a bit stronger, they’ll be steadier on their feet.
If they (and you!) survive the first week, you’re probably on the right track. Be careful in those first days not to give them sand or grit because they aren’t ready for it yet. They will fill up their gizzard and crop with it and sometimes die as a result. Grit should be introduced gradually as their feed switches from a tiny crumble to other feeds when they are several weeks old.
Baby guineas are one of the driest and tidiest of the fowl to raise. As long as you provide them with no-drown waterers, your facilities will be dry most of the time. Their droppings are a dry, concentrated waste product — not wet and runny like that of waterfowl. It is always a relative joy to clean the guineas’ shelter because you know you’re not going to be dealing with a messy, runny, or sludgelike waste product. The dry and in many cases powdery waste makes an excellent fertilizer for your garden and can be used as such. When it comes to cleaning the guinea house, it’s called common sense. When it looks bad, clean it; there are no sure-fire formulas except using your brain.
Getting Their Wings
Guineas grow rather rapidly when eating a proper diet. You’ll find that after two weeks in the plastic tub, they will be more than willing to get out and fly into the outside world. Be cautious, though, and don’t turn them out to forage at too early an age. Anything less than six weeks can be hazardous if they’ve not been raised with small chicken friends that they have “bonded” with. Without them, guineas become independent thinkers and sometimes wander off.
The more they are threatened or traumatized by predators or sudden movements, the wilder and more independent they will become. They will drive you slightly buggy with their independence, to be sure.
Caring for Adults
Once the guineas reach adulthood, their care is fairly simple. They are well-suited for any living quarters that work for chickens. It is best to move them from the brooder to the house they are going to live in for the rest of their lives. They do not like to change houses and always try to return to the place where they first learn to roost. Your best bet is to try to get them into their final home by the time they are four to six weeks old.
Adult guineas handle the cold well, as long as they are dry. Make sure that they have some place to get in out of the wind and rain and storms. A basic shed will work just fine.
Outfit the house with roosts and consistently train them to go into their house at night. You must be ready to lock them up every night. If you get lazy, break training, and don’t lock them up one night, you’ll spend the next three weeks retraining them.
When we’ve had exceedingly cold weather, I have seen the feet of my birds frostbitten. Some of these guineas have lost both of their feet from staying out in the snow.
If allowed to free range, guineas will find most of their food on their own during the growing season. Their commercially prepared feed consumption decreases rapidly when foraging. During the winter months, they like a balanced feed ration.
Keep in mind that whether or not the snow flies, guineas will want to stay out at night to roost in trees. It is your job to try to convince them, or to force them, to do otherwise. This can be an extremely frustrating process in the midst of a snowstorm. Capture them and trim their wing feathers after the first snowfall so that they cannot fly out of their assigned space again.
I usually catch my young guineas for feather trimming in the fall after they have molted. They’ll stay out in the elements the first night after a snowstorm passes through, but by the second night, they’re usually smart enough to try to go into the shed, and that’s when I ground them. As with chickens and turkeys, by trimming the outer flight feathers on one side, I keep them off balance when they attempt to fly. That keeps them in a pen, although it seems to wound their dignity considerably when they try to fly up into the tree the next morning and are not able to reach it.
Remember, guineas are like wild birds and will release their feathers. When you grab at a guinea, unless you actually get a wing or leg, you just end up with a handful of feathers. If you simply pull out the wing feathers — and that can be done easily with minimal damage to the bird — they grow back rather quickly. Instead, you must trim their wing feathers to keep them near the ground until the next molting season.
Trimming their wings also keeps them from flying away and joining the wild. Once the weather warms, they decide anyway that they don’t need to be so high and exposed in the trees. When guineas roost in the trees at night, owls will swoop down and knock them out of the tree. Then they’ll catch them on the rebound on the ground when they’re not able to see what’s happening.
Once guineas start getting their wing feathers, they want to roost. They love to get up high and look around. Install a roost using a 2 by 2 (5x5 cm) 4 to 5 feet off the ground. If you try to keep them in an area where they cannot roost, they will be nervous, upset, and frustrated. Even guineas as young as three to four weeks will take out their frustration on any other innocent birds they can find if they don’t have a safe place to roost.
Guineas typically start to lay once the weather warms. In the northern half of the United States, under normal light, that is sometime in April. In the southern parts of the United States, it starts earlier. Note that guinea egg production rapidly declines when there is a cold, cloudy, or cool wet spell during the summer. They like it warm and dry.
Of course, egg-laying patterns change if you let them set on their own eggs. By gathering their eggs daily, they usually don’t become broody their first year. Eventually, however, they will want to be mothers and will go broody many times each season, regardless of whether or not you gather their eggs. If you don’t allow them to set, you’ll find guinea eggs look and taste much like chicken eggs. They are about the size of a bantam egg, speckled, and have a very hard shell for incubating purposes. This makes humidity control in the incubator a necessity for successful hatches.
Guineas have a strong desire to raise their own young far from anything. Whether you keep your guineas penned up or allow them free range, they do their best to try and find a secluded place to make a nest, hide out their eggs, and raise their own. Of course, if they are free range they will find a fencerow, bush, or isolated area for their nest. Penned up, they look for a corner in the barn. Guineas are communal nesters. This means all the hens, no matter how many there are in a group, lay their eggs in one nest until it is full. Then one hen will start setting and the rest will start a new nest somewhere close by.
A typical “wild” nest is simple and usually hidden in tall grass or under a shrub or tree. I have found them in hay fields, under trees in orchards, in among thick squash vines and even in deep rose-briar thickets. Guineas don’t build elaborate nests: Usually I find a slight cavity with dried grass full of 30 to 40 eggs. If the weather is not too cool or too wet, the mother guinea usually hatches out every single egg!
Although guinea hens are dedicated setters and fierce defenders of the nest, they’re not great mothers. Mama guinea is somewhat disorganized, likes to wander, and forgets to keep track of all of her children. Perhaps it’s because they have so many young ones that they can’t keep track of all of them. It’s common to see a mother guinea set out along the fencerow in the morning with 30 or more keets following her. But come evening, it’s just as common to see only the strongest three to five keets who have been able to keep up with her throughout the day accompanying her. A frustrated owner will spend precious time tiptoeing through the grass and weeds trying to gather up the pitifully peeping babies the mama left behind.
If you have a period of particularly wet weather at hatching time, their success rate is limited. The young will get damp and chilled. If you’re going to let guineas raise their own young, it is best to isolate the mother in a place where she can take care of her babies. In that sort of situation, she’ll nurture them well.
Guineas Can Be Tyrants
The male guinea is always watching out for his hens and any other birds he claims. Guineas raised with chickens, ducks, geese, and other fowl tend to look out for everybody. The guineas really are the barnyard bosses.
I used to keep guineas with my turkeys but found that to be unwise. Male guineas were well behaved until spring — the breeding season — when they terrorized the turkeys. They would never allow the male turkeys to breed their hens, aggressively keeping the toms constantly on the run. It’s amazing to see a bird one-tenth the size of a turkey cause so many problems. The guineas kept the turkeys constantly moving, pecking at them and chasing them until some of the turkeys died from exhaustion. I would hose the guineas down with water and chase after them, but nothing seemed to work. If a guinea cock decided he didn’t like the tom, he wouldn’t let him rest.
Similar problems can also occur with guineas and roosters, and between males of other poultry species during the breeding season. It’s best to keep your guineas away from other birds during that time. While they don’t have spurs, as do roosters, they do have very sharp beaks and are not afraid to use their claws.
Although they can be tyrants, I’ve rarely had a guinea fly at me. I’ve only been chased off once or twice when I tried to check their nest of newly hatched keets. The adults defend their babies at all costs and the males defend the hens with vigor during the breeding season and if young are present.
Guineas have an extraordinary homing sense. In fact, the desire of this type of fowl to return to their home can be extremely frustrating if you purchase adult guineas. On more than one occasion, I have sold adult guineas to individuals who take them to their homes four or five miles away, only to have them come back to me several days later. Of course I always warn the buyer to keep the guineas shut tight inside a building at their new home, where they cannot escape. I instruct them to keep the birds enclosed for two to four weeks until they can get used to where they live. Nevertheless, here they come. . . .
Even if you don’t sell your birds, but move them to a new, unfamiliar location on your property, expecting them to stay inside the new shed, don’t give them a chance to get out a door. If you do, you’ll probably find them the next morning on their way back to the home where they were raised. In summer, when I move my guineas out of the baby brooder into their range brooder house, where during the day they forage in the orchard and among the garden plants, they become attached to that particular building.
Then in late fall, when I sort out breeders for the next year and take them to their new location, I must again keep them confined in their new location for a while to keep them from returning to the very shed where they were raised.
You have to try to train adult birds or trick them into thinking the new shed is the place to go every night. Do this by locking them up and leaving them confined to this new home for several weeks.
Start training young guineas to roost inside their building at night right away. If you’re not consistent, you’ll lose the battle. At three to four weeks of age, guineas discover the thrill of flying up to a roost so this is the time to have a roost ready for them. The longer you take and the more moving they must undergo, the more difficulties you will face. Your goal should be to get them to their final home by three to four weeks; confine them there for several weeks while they become accustomed to it. Once they learn where home is, it’s okay to let them out to forage some.
I was first drawn to guineas because of their delicate, beautiful color pattern; they look outstanding running around the barnyard always looking clean and fresh and ready to go. The only color variety I saw as a child was the common Pearl, so I was fascinated when I first discovered the color varieties: Royal Purple, Lavender, Buff Dundotte, Coral Blue, and White.
Today you can find a whole range of additional colors, such as Buff, Chocolate, Bronze, Pewter, Sky Blue, Brown, and Violet, among others constantly being developed. Controversy exists as to the integrity of the breeding of these color varieties. However, if you’re not a purist, a group of mixed color varieties can be a spectacular farmyard sight.
Natural curiosity is the trait that makes guineas the most charming fowl species; they are always eager to see what’s going on in the world around them. When people regularly spend time raising guinea fowl, the birds become quite adapted to humans, especially the young females. Mine tend to follow me around to see if I’m going to drop a few particularly delicious treats.
Excerpted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry by Glenn Drowns, used with permission from Storey Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry.