Published February 2005

Remember the Good Old Days?  Many of you do, and most will remember that many farms had at least a few guinea fowl or guinea hens.  My own grandmother always kept a dozen or so around, and the dark, grey mottled, or almost white birds with their ridiculous little blue and red heads were considered an essential part of the landscape.  Today, you rarely see them, except on the occasional Amish or Mennonite farm, but they are (or should be) as important a part of any country place as before.  For several good reasons.

One of the few landowners who still maintain flocks of guineas is Sandy and Carl Kleman who live and raise livestock just south of Plymouth in northern Richland County.  Sandy has had as high as 200 of the average 2.8 pound birds and still keeps around 15 of them.  She got her original pair from her father who lived in Pennsylvania about 20 years ago, and has kept them ever since.  Sandy gave several reasons why guineas are almost essential to life on the farm.

“They’re great watch dogs.” she said.  “Guineas are quiet most of the time, but when someone pulls into the driveway, they start loud cackling, and let you know they’ve arrived.  They do the same when a stray dog turns up, or a fox or raccoon, and often enough they’ll chase it off themselves.  We’ve had more than one dog get chased by a dozen or so birds, and head off down the road.  We’ve had them surround and kill a snake, too.”

If guineas have a primary job for farmers and gardeners, it’s that of Official Bug Killer.  Guineas won’t tear a flower bed up, but they will patrol it and every inch of ground looking for anything from ticks to Japanese beetles, and they eat them with relish!  Chickens scratch and will tear up plants, but guineas move through without touching a leaf, just watching carefully and picking off grasshoppers and other critters.  If they have a problem, it’s that they might choose an open spot for a dust bath unless you mulch well.

Other uses for guinea fowl?  They’re excellent eating, and that means EXCELLENT.  The eggs, taken fresh and usually in late May, are about half the size of a chicken egg and have a sweeter, more flavorsome taste than chicken eggs.  And the meat is reminiscent of pheasant without the gamey flavor. It’s meaty too, with an exceptionally high 50/50 yield between meat and bone. 

They’re anything but a household name here, but in countries like France and Germany the “pintade” is the bird of choice.  No fried chicken there, just fried guinea.  And in Africa where these wild game birds originated they’re hunted just like pheasant and quail, and eaten with relish.  If guineas have a problem, it’s that they must be prepared for the table with care.  I remember the meat as being very dark, and Carl had an explanation for that.

 “An old Amishman down near Kidron told me once that guineas have to be killed very carefully” he said.  “If they’re caught and allowed to flop and fight before you remove their heads, the meat fills up with blood.  So he bagged them quickly and unsuspectingly, probably using a .22 rifle with shorts and making head shots.  He said they were delicious then with white meat like a chicken.”

Readers who would like to race out and buy a few right now should know that guineas are hard to raise, though worth it when you do.  You need a large ratio of females to males because males will fight for their own little harem and sometimes kill each other.  Since they come from wild birds, they won’t nest in a coop like chickens, but outside on the farm somewhere, maybe in a hay mow, under an outbuilding, in a handy alfalfa field, or patch of weeds.  And they like to “gang lay” their eggs with anywhere from two to four hens using the same nest and filling it with sometimes several dozen eggs.

They’re not great mothers either, and if seriously disturbed on the nest will abandon it to raccoons or foxes, and when the eggs hatch into peeps, they’re likely as not to walk them through wet weeds which can kill the chicks within 24 hours.  Weather decides when these tropical birds start laying, and while they might start in an unusually warm April, they’re more likely to begin reproduction in May or June.  So, the tactic is, when they begin, is to patrol your land, find the nests, and put the eggs in a warm, dry  place with the hen(s) nicely penned up with plenty of straw.

Once the eggs hatch, day old keets need to be in a 95 degree brooder with the temperature lowered five degrees weekly until they are fully feathered (6 weeks).  Sandy sets them free at this point, since they can fend for themselves and fly into trees to roost at night far above any predators.  She feeds the keets medicated peep feed, and the hens kept in confinement will eat the same along with scratch grain.  “Be sure the water dishes are really shallow.” she said.  “The babies are really small at first and if they get into the dishes and get wet, they’ll die.”  Once they reach adulthood though, they might stay around for many years.  They’re long lived fowl.

Readers might have two more questions about guinea fowl, one being “Are they worth raising, other than for bugs and as watch dogs?”  And the answer here is a resounding yes!  The 200 birds Sandy once  had were far to many, so she took most of them to the Kidron auction as half grown birds and had no problem selling them all for $4 each.

The second question, “Where can I buy some?” is a little tougher.  There are occasional ads in newspapers offering young guineas for sale, and on rare occasion Sandy and Karl might have some, though some years (cold and wet) they don’t produce young at all.  You might search the web too, starting with the Guinea Fowl Breeders Association, or ask around next time you’re in Amish country.  But even with their little problems, which include occasional roaming over to other farms, they’re worth having.

“I like guineas.” Carl said.  “It’s interesting to see none around until someone pulls into the drive, then watch them appear like Indians from nowhere at all.”  And Sandy said, “They’re like the Dixie Chicks to me, lots of mouth to them, and that’s not a bad thing.  I like to raise them and see them do strange things like admire themselves in a mirror I put in the coop.  I guess they’re a little vain.”

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