I used to think guinea fowl were just chickens with polka dots, but nothing is further from the truth! Guinea fowl are quite a bit different from chickens in appearance and behaviour. In this article, I will try to outline in what ways guinea fowl are different and why, how and where to keep and raise them. To give you a hint - they will do most of the keeping and raising by themselves
A short introduction: Guinea fowl originate in Africa and have been domesticated there before they were introduced to other parts of the world. There are several species, but the type most often kept is the helmeted (pearl grey) guinea fowl. They thrive in warm, dry climates but can live pretty much anywhere with a little added weather protection. Guinea fowl are independent, efficient flyers and incredibly hardly - in two years, I have never had a sick guinea fowl.
There are quite a few advantages to keeping guinea fowl. They are pretty, interesting and fun to watch. They are also famous for gobbling up huge amounts of pesky pests, most notably ticks, while leaving most of the vegetation alone. They eat pretty much every creepy crawly they can find. I have also seen them catch mice and small snakes, which brings me to the next advantage: Guinea fowl form a feathered alarm system for your backyard! They raise a deafening alarm at anything threatening or out of the ordinary, such as snakes, dogs, predators, intruders and anything else they find suspicious. Often, one of them will sit in a tree on the lookout while the rest forages. When they see something new, they will approach it cautiously and surround it, a very entertaining sight:
(This is not my picture, but it is such a great illustration of guinea fowl nature that I couldn't resist using it!)
My guinea fowl are they only animals that are 'allowed' out of my fenced enclosure. Actually, there isn't much I can do about it. They are excellent flyers and as soon as they are big enough, they are on top of the fence and out into the wide world! They will often separate into smaller groups and comb the environment for tasty bugs, keeping in constant contact with each other by calling loudly. They are very good at noticing and escaping from predators and I very rarely lose one. When a predator approaches, they immediately fly up and back over the fence, raising high alarm. They never stray far and always come back. They do not sleep inside but feel safer in trees or on top of the fence. Sometimes it seems as if they never sleep, I hear them calling at all times of day and night.
And yes, I have to admit that many people will see this as a major disadvantage to guinea fowl - the incessant screeching! They are always making noise. There is the alarm screech, the lookout shout, the contact call, the general chatter... This can be a problem if you are keeping them in an urban backyard - they will drive your neighbours crazy, and possibly yourself as well. Due to their travelling habit and loud calling, guinea fowl are probably best suited to a more rural setting. If you have a very large backyard and your neighbours are some distance away though, you would probably be fine with them.
The appearance of the guinea fowl has been described by some as goofy, weird or even ugly - but I think they are beautiful! They have lovely, finely spotted feathers, and while the bald, helmeted blue or white head might take some getting used to, there is beauty in that too. Males and females are very similar looking. Often males will have bigger wattles (red appendages by the sides of the head) and helmets, but the surest way to differentiate is by voice: females make a distinct, two-note call while males only chatter in one note. There is some variety in colours: besides the traditional pearl grey there is white, lavender, purple, blue, pied and many others.
(Sitting on the fence screeching after a heavy rainfall)
Guineas lay a small, brown, pointy egg with a very hard shell. I personally have not tried to eat them because I wanted to hatch them, but I have been told they taste similarly to chicken eggs. They lay from early spring to late summer, taking a break over fall and winter. I wanted them to hatch their own eggs, and after some false starts trying to find a good nesting site, my female indeed settled down on 15 eggs and hatched an equal amount of chicks (keets) after 28 days! Male and female guinea fowl form a strong bond and the male was always standing watch over the female sitting on the nest. After the keets hatched, the male and female raised them together, always staying close to each other. They were a real family unit. Even now the keets are all grown up, they are always together and the big male still retains the role of protector, chasing away any chickens or cats that come too close to his brood.
(Keets are striped instead of spotted and their colour corresponds to the colour they will develop later.)
In addition to the entertainment factor, the pretty feathers, the alarm function and the bug destruction, guinea fowl are very edible. I keep my birds purely as pets, but it would be very well possible to raise them for meat. The taste is often described as a cross between chicken and pheasant. They are a popular source of meat in Africa, but are also frequently eaten in other parts of the world.
Lastly, a bit of myth-busting: I have often heard guinea fowl described as stupid birds, frequently falling prey to predators, and bad mothers, leaving the nest before all their keets have hatched. I have found this to be not true at all! On the contrary, they are very clever, watchful and form tight family bonds. I believe people might experience guinea fowl being less than efficient when they are kept in a way that is not natural for them. Caged guinea fowl are often stressed and will pace back and forth, back and forth in a futile attempt to find an exit. Male and female guineas mate for life and watch out for each other. If this bond is broken and the male is separated from the female when she is brooding, I can imagine her panicking and leaving her nest. They are flock birds, still more wild than domesticated, and will always find security in numbers, functioning best in a large group that is free to roam.
So, if you have a large space and want an interesting looking bird that eats a lot of bugs and takes on the task of a feathered watchdog – guinea fowl are the way to go!