by Nancy Smith - Photograph by Martina Berg
Guineas are indigenous to grasslands and woodlands of southern Africa, and large, wild flocks continue to roam with semi-domesticated birds kept by farmers. Guineas are hunted in the wild along with ducks and geese as game birds; a commercial safari-type shoot can set a hunting enthusiast back $2,000 to $3,000 for a four to seven day adventure.
The annual consumption of guinea meat in France is among the highest in the world. The guineas have been bred up in size for culinary use and for increased egg production. In some cases, 190 eggs a year are laid, compared to the normal 90 to 100 eggs.
Common guineas usually weigh about 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, but French guineas often weigh as much as 8 to 10 pounds. Many gourmands regard the meat as a delicacy, with a taste extremely similar to pheasant."
Guinea fowl are not often called pretty. Their oddly shaped, nearly bald noggins resemble helmets. Fortunately, they have one important redeeming quality: their appetite for ticks (a Lyme Disease threat) and other insects, such as Japanese beetles and grasshoppers.
During pre-Civil War days, guineas were introduced to the United States from their native Africa. They are usually kept on small farms or homesteads, mixed in with chickens and other fowl. Guineas are admired most for their delicately speckled eggs and “watch dog” instincts. their alarm call can be heard whenever strangers drive up the lane, when hawks eye the chickens or rats invade the poultry house.
Photograph by Jamie Wilson
You can house your guineas in either a stand-alone structure or inside another building. The number of guineas will determine the size needed. Gardening with Guineas author Jeannette Ferguson advises allowing 3 to 4 square feet per bird. It’s helpful for roosts to be the ladder-type, containing perches of 2-by-2-inch wood with beveled edges to make for easier gripping, cut into 4-foot lengths and positioned 1 foot apart.
Fresh water is needed at all times. Approximately 90 percent of an adult guinea’s diet consists of free-range foods such as ticks, but their foraging efforts should be supplemented with the following: an 18 percent-protein chicken layer ration, oyster shells and free choice grit. Ferguson prefers to hang these supplements in rabbit feeders on the wall to discourage the birds from eating off the floor.
White millet is said to be the ultimate treat for guinea fowl. It can be used to teach guineas to come when called and return to their indoor roosts at night, protecting them from nighttime predators.
The first food for baby guineas, called keets, needs to be a high-protein turkey starter or a similar starter/grower mix. When they are 6 to 12 weeks old, guineas should begin to eat feeds for more mature birds; a gradual change in feed is helpful. All ages of guineas do best when permitted to free-feed at all times.
Although guinea fowl share a U.S. Department of Agriculture poultry classification with chickens, they are a bit different. Guineas are more active than chickens, range further and fly higher, Ferguson says.
“Guineas are rough, vigorous, hardy, basically disease-free birds,” she says. “They’re also the most active ‘gardener’ on the farm. Continuously on the move, they pick up bugs and weed seeds with nearly every peck they take – and they do it without destroying plants because they do not scratch like chickens.”
Common helmeted guineas, Numida meleagris, are widely known in folk history for their efficiency in reducing populations of ticks and other insects. In 1992, a scientific study headed by researcher David Cameron Duffy confirmed this evidence by finding a “highly significant difference in tick presence in response to guinea fowl activity.”
Duffy, now a professor of botany at the University of Hawaii, says the study, performed in New York, demonstrated that guineas, despite their natural instinct to avoid brushy borders and the predators that lurk there, will perform tick patrol at the perimeter of a field or lawn. Ticks will travel about a yard out from the brush, but not farther because lawns generally are too hot and dry. Duffy advises that guineas can be most successful against ticks when incorporated with an integrated pest management program that includes regular removal of leaf litter, which is often a tick’s favorite home. (Results of this guinea study were extensively reported in publications, including the New York Times, Time magazine, and in "The Wilson Bulletin" of the Wilson Ornithological Society. This study is also available online by clicking here.
Model Christie Brinkley is credited, as is Duffy and researcher Randall Downer, for the work; Duffy says Brinkley, concerned for her young daughter’s safety, helped start the project through her congressman after hearing some of the anecdotal evidence involving guineas and tick control.
Because ticks have been recognized as vectors of Lyme and other diseases, many people are looking into tick control and giving guineas a try. Ralph Winter owns and operates the Guinea Farm in New Vienna, Iowa, which is the largest guinea fowl hatchery of fancy varieties in the world. He has a breeding flock of 2,600 birds in 23 different colors. Each Tuesday from mid-May to mid-October, he hatches and ships 5,000 keets.
Baby guinea, also known as a keet. — Photo by Robin Arnold
During the last 10 years, Winter’s business has tripled, “especially on the East Coast, the main deer tick area.” Most buyers are looking to the birds for bug control. Before the discovery of Lyme disease, people bought guineas to eliminate dog ticks on pets, grasshoppers from gardens, fire ants from lawns and flies from stables. “Guineas will eat ’em all,” he says.
Ferguson bought guineas to clear her garden of Japanese beetles and grasshoppers 20 years ago. She says she only wanted some decent flowers to enter in garden club competitions. The guineas did not let her down – since their arrival, she has won more than 100 prize ribbons for her now-perfect blooms – and the guineas ate their way through her tick population, too. “Ticks were thick here,” she says of her 14-acre country home site.
Ferguson and her family have never have had Lyme disease, but other guinea owners, including Phyllis Bender of Westport, Conn., bought their first guineas after contracting that illness. Bender was diagnosed with the disease eight years ago and then contracted a second tick-borne disease. Her dog has had Lyme disease three times, and had such critical torn ligaments around its knees from the disease that it had to undergo orthopedic surgery.