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Game for a guinea fowl?

25 February 2022
helmeted guineafowl running through meadow, ukhahlamba drakensberg park, kwazulu natal, south africa

The bird for you if you need neighbourhood watch that also does pest control. Words: Wendy Maddison.

While chickens tend to be the most common birds kept in backyards, it is well worth considering what others are available as they may fit your needs better. The attractive – and tasty – guinea fowl definitely has its pros and cons for different owners and properties.

If you are in an urban area wanting an alternative bird for your backyard, guinea fowl are not it. They can be wild, flighty and noisy. They are fabulous fliers and love a large roaming area, so your neighbours will not be impressed. I don’t say this very often, but having a goat may be easier!

Having said that, if you have a larger lifestyle block or rural property, particularly with trees, then these pretty birds may be what you’re looking for. Why do I mention trees? Well, that’s where ticks prefer to live and guinea fowl LOVE eating ticks, as well as numerous other pests like fleas, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, ants and even mice. Have I got your attention yet?

Chickens vs guinea fowl

Don’t imagine that these birds are just chickens in disguise – their natures and behaviours are quite different. Instead of being cuddly, quiet pets like chickens, guinea fowl don’t like being picked up, have cautious natures, are not so inclined to come back to a house at night and are much more self-sufficient foragers.

Having said that, this independence can be a positive trait. They are much hardier and as a result are a lower maintenance bird than chickens.

Another difference relates to eggs. Most people keep guinea fowl for pest control and meat. It’s not that they don’t lay eggs, it’s just that you’ll have a tough job finding them! If you manage to spot where all the hens are laying and want to raid the nest, make sure you are not seen and that you leave a few fake eggs behind, or they will just find another place to lay that is even harder to get to.

guinea fowl perched on a tree in samburu national reserve

Eggs and keets

Like chickens, hens will eventually go broody on a clutch of eggs, but they will keep laying if the eggs are collected regularly. The eggs are delicious and rich but slightly smaller than chicken eggs, so use three where you would normally use two chicken eggs.

If you want to grow little guinea fowl to one day become delicious big guinea fowl in a red wine and herb sauce, then you’ll need a male bird to fertilise the eggs. But it’s a good idea to pop those eggs under a broody chicken, as guinea fowl are not the best mothers, often losing track of their tiny ‘keets’ and leaving them behind in the grass.

Home your rangers

Guinea fowl prefer a large area to roam around and can become unhealthy if restricted to a small area. They do not naturally return to a house overnight, much preferring to roost overnight in a tall tree where they can be vulnerable to predation.

If you want your birds to survive, try to get them used to sleeping in an old shed or building. Give them plenty of space and put perches up high. Providing two pop holes will stop lower-ranking birds from being bullied at the door, at which point they will just fly upwards into a tree and soon you’ll find the whole flock sleeping in the delightful outdoors.

A small light in their shed will also help, alleviating their natural fear of going into dark spaces.
If your flock can be restricted to a large run or allowed to free-range in a large garden with clipped wings, then they should do well. A roof or covering will reduce predation from above and stop the birds from flying out of a confined area.

Pest patrollers

Consider letting them patrol your garden for pests. While they may also eat a little vegetation, they don’t scratch at the ground the way chickens do – although they do love a good dust bath in some bare soil.
Other than lots of bugs, they also like chicken feed (especially corn), greens and clean water. Providing them with a daily food source will help to encourage them to come home at the end of the day.

An adult guinea fowl walking, followed by two young keets

Security guards

The downside of guinea fowls is that they can be very noisy. They start up at the slightest change in their environment. This means they can make very good ‘guard dogs’, albeit quite paranoid ones, seeing almost everything as a threat.

There are ways to minimise the noise they make by understanding why and when they make it. The reasons include changes in the environment, being startled, losing one of their flock and general chatter. Therefore, some ways to reduce the level of noise include:

  • Cull the noisier members of the flock, so that the other birds are not copying their behaviour.
  • Raise keets with chickens so that they learn to be more like them and don’t pick up noisy habits.
  • Provide a male guinea fowl to reduce the loud mating calls of birds raised without a male around. Introduce him slowly so that he is not perceived as a threat.
  • Try to maintain routines and a constant environment.
  • As they get restless in the dark, provide lighting at night.

As these practices take effect, new keets should become naturally quieter and should learn good habits from the flock.

Dinner time

Finally, the proof is in the eating! Guinea fowl are best roasted or casseroled, tasting a bit like pheasant (being more gamey than chicken). Younger birds around 12 weeks old (weighing 800g–1kg) make the best eating. Eating an older bird, you may find the lean meat dries out more during cooking. Basting or covering in bacon can help. I’m sure that the noisier the bird was, the more delicious it will be with roast potatoes and gravy.

So, if you thought you were limited to chickens for eggs and flying creatures in your backyard, think again and consider giving these crazy birds a go. What have you got to lose, other than your sanity and favourite garden shed?

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