The guinea fowl, a chicken-sized bird originating from Africa, is prized by many farmers and homesteaders throughout the U.S. for its ability to consume vast quantities of bugs, including garden pests and disease-ridden ticks. The bird is also valued for its pheasant-like meat and nutritious eggs, and its watchdog-like tendencies.
“They’re a very effective natural control for deer ticks and Lyme disease,” said Ralph Winter, founder of Guinea Farm, a family-run guinea fowl hatchery in New Vienna, Iowa. “In the last 10 or 15 years, that’s really boosted sales for us.”
Established in 1986, Guinea Farm is one of the largest suppliers of guinea keets (hatchlings) in the country, with about 3,000 breeder guineas that come in about 30 different color varieties. Over the years, the farm has worked with countless customers, sharing their knowledge of this domestic bird.
“They’re a lot easier [than keeping chickens], I think,” Winter said. “They don’t feather peck like chickens do. They don’t get all the respiratory diseases that chickens get. And with free ranging, they’re very easy to maintain.”
How to care for guinea fowl
Guinea fowl — for which “guinea hen” is a female and “guinea cock” is a male — are similar to chickens. In fact, the two species are often kept together in the same flock because they generally get along, they will free range together, and they consume the same poultry feed. These birds are also usually shut into a coop at night as protection against predators and cold weather.
“If you don’t manage them, they’ll roost in the trees. They’re quite good at adapting,” Winter said. “But they’re more susceptible to predators if they roost outside — mostly owls and raccoons.”
In addition, while guinea fowl are extremely hardy, they do sometimes need protection against cold temperatures and wind.
“I’ve never seen any get frostbite,” said Dana Manchester, who runs a guinea fowl hatchery at Shady Hollow Farm in Morrill, Maine. “Though I have heard from people in the Dakotas, where it’s even colder, who left them outside and had them lose a few toes.”
To train guineas to enter their coop each night, Manchester suggests working with them for about six weeks. During that period of time, he suggests enticing them with treats, such as millet and cracked corn, and herding them using long poles or branches as extensions of your arms. He also suggests restricting their flight by trimming their flight wings for that period of time.
“Some people think that trimming a bird’s feathers is like cutting fingers off, but it’s more like a hair cut,” Manchester, who offers educational programs on guinea fowl at agriculture fairs multiple times a year, said. “It makes it so they can’t fly up as high and get to a place where they can’t be retrieved during the training process. It’s a temporary thing, and painless. When you get new guineas, it’s a pertinent part of training them so they get into a routine.”
Wing feathers on a guinea takes about six weeks to grow in — just enough time to complete training and establish a routine.
How guineas differ from chickens
While guinea fowl and chickens certainly have their similarities, they also have important differences.
“They’ve evolved completely independent of each other and have very different social needs and behaviors,” said Manchester, who has conducted extensive research on the evolution and history of guinea fowl.
“Guineas have a social hierarchy to their group that’s not like chickens,” Manchester said. “Like a wolf pack, there’s an alpha male that controls everything, and there’s an omega at the bottom of the pecking order that gets picked on by everybody.”
Manchester said that this social structure can be confusing and even alarming to first time guinea fowl owners, who sometimes attempt to save the omega bird from being pestered by the others. However, that will only cause the flock to select another scapegoat, he said, and if the removed bird reintroduced to the flock, the other birds may kill it.
While this behavior may seem cruel, guineas are generally less violent than chickens, which are known to kill and even consume members of their flock, Manchester said.
“Chickens will eat each other,” Manchester said. “I’ve never had a guinea do that.”
Guineas also tend to be less destructive of gardens because they don’t scratch at the ground like chickens do, Winter said, and they don’t usually peck at plants.
“On occasion, you get people reporting problems, but for the most part, if you don’t feed them garden scraps, they don’t have a taste for it,” Winter said. “They walk through and eat the bugs and don’t bother with the plants.”
On the downside, guinea fowl are noisier than chickens. Guineas will regularly produce high-pitched calls, especially when alarmed. For this reason, young guinea fowl are typically noisier than older guinea fowl that are more comfortable in their surroundings, Manchester said. Females are generally noisier than males. If you only want guineas to eat ticks and other bugs — not for eggs or to produce keets — he suggests investing in a group of males.
Guineas can also fly better than chickens, and they tend to roam farther when free ranging. However, if you keep them with a chicken flock, that may reign them in, Manchester said, because they’ll instinctively stick with the other birds for safety in numbers.
Getting the most out of your guineas
Ticks, a family of bloodsucking arachnids that can carry and transmit a variety of diseases to people and pets, are becoming an increasing problem throughout the country as certain species of ticks expand their ranges, and the more tick-borne diseases are being discovered. In response, people are seeking ways to rid their properties of these dangerous pests, or at least lessen their numbers. That’s why many people are pursuing guinea fowl, Winter said.
“Out east, deer ticks are getting to be a problem all over. And they’re in the Midwest here, too,” Winter said. “I have many customers tell me how [guineas] clean out the ticks.”
But that’s not all guineas are good for. They were originally domesticated for their meat and eggs. Winters describes guinea meat as darker than chicken meat and “a little peasant-like, but not quite as dry.” And guinea eggs are about three-quarters the size of chicken eggs and have a larger yolk-to-white ratio.
“They’re supposed to make the best noodles and angel food cake,” Winter said.
If you plan to collect guinea eggs for consumption, that’s another reason to train them to enter a coop at night. Otherwise, they’ll create hidden nests in bushes and other places that are hard to find, Winter said. In the coop, you can provide nesting boxes, but in his experience, guineas prefer laying eggs in groups, right on the floor.
Another role guinea fowl can play on a farm or homestead is as “watchdogs,” alerting you to predators and other visitors.
“They’re kind of comical and patrol your property,” Winter said. “And if they see anything unusual, they’ll make a chatter about it.”
So even if you don’t have a pest problem on your farm or homestead for guineas to tackle, they might be a good domestic bird for you, especially if you have a chicken coop with room to spare.