For poultry keepers looking beyond the chicken, raising guinea fowl is a more exotic alternative with definite meat-producing possibilities.
A Domesticated Game Bird
The guinea is an option for those seeking an exotic poultry variety. It is a bird virtually unchanged from its wild forebears still found on the plains of Africa. Many will tell you that they really don’t own guineas; they just provide them with some room to roam and a bit of feed and shelter when the snow flies.
Fried young guinea is a regional favorite of the Midwest, seen in late summer and fall when the keets of the year have reached pan size. Guinea is all dark meat of a very rich flavor, and it’s seen on the table very rarely and then only in high-end restaurants. It is a culinary favorite in France, where poultry in great variety is one of the pillars of classic French cuisine.
A few years ago a daytime TV celebrity with an estate home in a state with a history of Lyme disease cases spoke several times of using guineas on her large holding as a natural control measure for ticks. They have a long history of eating ticks and in rural Missouri are said to repel snakes and keep even the fearsome chigger at bay. They also have a well-deserved reputation as feathered watchdogs. They raise a true din when anything intrudes into their territory. If kept in large enough numbers they have even been said to deter winged predators such as hawks.
Their near-wild nature and the propensity to roost in trees make them vulnerable to that winged predator of the night, the owl. An owl will alight next to a guinea roosting on a limb, crowd it off its roosting point, and, as it flutters groundward in the dark, will dive and snatch it away. For those of you who have held on to a relic of your disco-era ways and have a strobe light up in the attic or bought one at a yard sale, it can be given a second life positioned in a poultry yard above the pens and coops. It is said that an owl will not fly through a strobe light.
Guineas have been domesticated for over four thousand years, and here I use “domesticated” in the broadest sense of the word. They were kept and valued for the delicate and rich flavor of their flesh, which is all dark meat. The proper name for them is Helmeted guinea fowl, but it seems a bit high-falutin’ for a bird that has carved out a rather catch-as-catch-can existence on the small farms of the United States.
Raising Guinea Fowl for Color and Meat
For much of my life guineas were to be found almost exclusively in Pearl, White, and a Splash blend of the two. From time to time you would see a few of the Lavender variety, but guinea breeding was left to the whims of nature, much like the weather and the arrival of the cicadas in summer. They were not a cultivated crop. The Pearl variety of guinea, gray with small white spots, is nearly identical to its wild counterparts. Mating Pearl or Lavender birds with White guineas will produce the so-called Splash birds. They will have the Pearl or Lavender patterns with large splotches of white on the breast and across the wings. There is some resistance to the White variety as many believe that the color makes those birds more vulnerable to predator attack. The guinea is bred in several other colors and patterns, including the Chocolate, Buff Dundotte, Lavender, Violet, Coral Blue, Regal Purple, Slate, Splash, and more. They are all color phases of the same bird.
A more recent development has been a bird termed the Jumbo, French Jumbo, or French variety. They have been developed to be a larger and meatier bird than the typical guinea seen on U.S. farms and smallholdings. They will have a mature weigh of one to two pounds heavier than the standard guinea fowl. One or two pounds larger would not matter much with steers or even wethers, but the standard guinea male or cock has a mature weight of four pounds and the female or hen an adult weight of three and a half pounds.
I have a friend, an old poultry hand from northern Missouri, who says that he predicted forty years ago that the guinea would be taken up seriously by the American Poultry Association, that it would be bred in greater variety, and even be entered into competition in poultry shows. All of this and more has come to pass. Guinea meat, however, is still not widely eaten. More people probably value the bird as a natural means of insect control or as an alarm system in the poultry yard. Ranging fowl of numerous species will hunker down when guineas sound the alarm. And a great many producers keep them because having a few guineas was just one more thing you did as a part of farm-keeping in the forties and fifties, times when a lot of us in the Boomer generation were foaled.
Guineas are fairly hardy birds once feathered out and will winter well even here in northeastern Missouri where winter temperatures often fall below zero, well below zero. During cold times they do need to be held in dry, draft-free housing, and they will do best when fed a game bird ration appropriate to their stage of development or reproduction. They are seasonal in their breeding and laying patterns and are bad to steal out their nests if allowed even half a chance to do so. They are staunch to the nest and after a twenty-eight-day incubation period will hatch off fair numbers of keets from a clutch of eggs that can number up to twenty. Alas, they are, originally, birds of the dry African veldt, and their little keets don’t fare well in the dewy mornings and thundering downpours of Midwestern springs and early summers. And the hen, her eggs, and young are all very vulnerable to a great many different predators when on the nest.
Brooding and Raising Guinea Fowl Keets
As with the spring hunts here for morel mushrooms, many with guineas spend a deal of time ferreting out nest sites. The plan is to scoop up the young keets as quickly as possible when they emerge from the egg and then brood them artificially. Survival rates there tend to be much greater than even when keets are brooded and reared under much tamer chicken hens.
The preferred method is to brood and rear guinea keets with a few baby chicks. They tend to have a calming and a gentling effect on the little keets. If raised and then kept with these brooder mates they will be more tractable, more easily contained, and will be more comfortable in and return regularly to nighttime housing.
If they can be shut into secure housing each night and not released until late each morning they will be more apt to lay in nests inside the housing unit. The eggs are more easily collected, better egg quality can be maintained, the hatching dates are predictable, hatching rates will increase, and more keets will be saved.
Incubating guinea eggs artificially requires a bit of care and a plan of management in the incubator. First there is that twenty-eight-day incubation period. The eggs have to be removed from the egg turner on the twenty-fifth day and laid down to hatch. Guinea eggs have one of the thickest shells of any domestic fowl, and unit humidity must be managed accordingly. The eggs can be very difficult to candle clearly due to this thickness, and newly emerged keets are among the most vigorous of all hatchlings.
Against my better judgment an acquaintance once talked me into hatching sixty of his guinea eggs in the cabinet incubator that we had at the time. It was an incubator with a cabinet that was deeper than my arms were long. He assured me that the eggs were absolutely fresh, had had no incubation, and that the keets would all hatch together. On the tenth day of incubation little keets began popping up in the farthest corners of the incubator, and it took long minutes with the incubator door open to extract them from those far nooks.
If left on their own guineas will tend to pair up, and the male will stay close to the hen when she is on the nest. A couple of hens may merge their clutches of hatchlings into the larger flock for added protection. In more controlled situations a male needs to be provided with three to four hens to assure fertile eggs. Here a female guinea is termed a hen and a male a rooster.
Feeding Guinea Fowl
Though larger in size guineas are essentially game birds. Game bird starter is the best choice for a ration to start and grow the young keets. The small particle size and nutrient density of those rations are needed by the smaller sized keets to grow better and be healthier as they develop. In cold weather the birds will need to be offered at least a simple grain mixture twice a day–maybe three times in severe weather. Typically this will be a mixture of corn, wheat, and oats. We generally offered our guineas the same rations our chickens received, a laying ration in pelleted form. A bit of scratch grain will boost energy levels and may be used to draw the birds into an enclosed roosting area each evening. Egg production may be increased by feeding a higher protein content, game bird breeders ration.
Old hands would also offer grit, oyster shell, and even a bit of charcoal on a free-choice basis. Many modern complete feeds now eliminate the need to offer supplemental grit. It is certainly a hot button issue, but the nature of these birds is such that they will benefit from some animal-sourced protein in their feed. At one time this might have been done by offering some farm-produced skimmed milk, and now it might be done by offering a bit of pet food or catfish food.
All fowl will savor and benefit from being fed a bit of green feed such as cabbage, kale, collards, or even green, leafy legume hay. Do not leave it on the ground, however, as it will soon be trodden into a sodden mess on the pen or house floor. Suspend greens just above the birds’ heads, and they will benefit both nutritionally and mentally from the stimulation of pecking and reaching for them.
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Reprinted with permission from Beyond the Chicken: A Guide to Alternative Poultry Species for the Small Farm by Kelly Klober and published by Acres U.S.A., 2014.