Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guinea Fowl: Game Birds that Feast on Ticks

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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

Housing Guinea Fowl
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.

8 comments:

  1. Be careful when mixing them with chickens. My two guinea decided one day to try and kill my sweet cochin rooster. They also horribly harassed my flock of 20 free range chickens. Wouldn't let them hardly eat with their constant attacks. They were raised with the chickens, all were the same age so I don't understand where the hostility came from. Also, despite my handling them and trying to make pets of them from day one when I got them as keets, they never tamed down like the chickens and turkeys did. Every-time we would go outside they would follow us around and constantly do their car-alarm screaming until we went back inside. Very unpleasant birds to have on a small farm. After they nearly killed my rooster and many complaints by our neighbors (if they saw our neighbors outside they would follow them around on their own property and scream at them as well, despite there being 10 acres between us) they ended up in the stew pot. Our chickens and turkeys do an excellent job of tick and insect control and are much more pleasant to have around. I've heard similar horror stories and I applaud anyone who has good experiences with them.

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    1. Sounds like both were males. The males are more watch dogs and not as friendly.

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    2. Sorry you had a bad time with them. Mine were sweethearts. Yes, they'd yell if we came outside, but all I had to do was say, "It's just me, guys" and they'd calm right down. And, they got along just fine with the chickens, basically ignoring them. Did have a couple of my roosters approach them with a gleam in their eye, but as soon as they figured out what was happening, they scooted right away from the roos. Roos couldn't keep up with them. They weren't as friendly as my other birds, but they weren't unfriendly either, and, at need, I could herd them on the ground.

      As soon as I'm better set up, I'll have more of them.

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  2. Since we move3d to our new farm, we haven't been able to get started with guineas again, but they are loved by all my family. My children grew up calling them "Tickers" after our first male guinea. We had 30 in the end. Safety in numbers as it were.

    All our guineas were raised in a brooder right by our front door to be talked to, and well, communicated with. We became part of their flock. The biggest male, Ticker, was trained to sit on your forearm like a falcon, and when smaller, would ride my daughters shoulder like a pirate's parrot. They did however hold grudges.

    When they were turned into the poultry yard, the single Chinese Weeder goose we had took an instant dislike to Ticker and tormented him, and us, until the goose ended up in the gumbo pot. Later we purchased Toulouse geese with much better temperments. Ticker then being, bigger, began to torment the gander who was still immature. This went on as Sam the Toulouse began to mature. One day, he'd had enough and defended himself. He grabbed Ticker's toe in a hard pinch and refused to let go. Ticker dragged Sam in circles in the poultry yard until he scraped him off by going under the ramp into the chicken house. Sam strutted for a week as Ticker limped for a week. It was decided "armed neutrality" was a better plan. They would carefully walk around each other from then on. We finally had peace, well, as much peace as 30 guineas screeching goodnight every evening will allow. Guineas are a love/hate bird. We just happen to love the noisy mutants.

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  3. The ONLY reason I keep guineas is for tick patrol. When I didn't have them our dogs would come in the house loaded with ticks. Now if we find 5 ticks on them all spring we are lucky. The only problem I have with them is with my peacocks. My male peacocks like to follow the female guineas then the male guineas get mad and chase after the peacocks. This actually saved my one female guinea that was sitting on her nest as she was screaming so I went to what I thought was the male peacock harassing her not it was a hawk ripping feathers out of her.

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  4. As a first time feathered Momma, for the past 10 months I've raised 2 hens with 2 guineas, since they were all only a few days old. The male guinea torments the hens, so we've separated them into their own pen, but allow all to free range daily as long as there is a referee in sight. I'm wondering when the guinea couple will begin to mate & how many eggs I should expect? I'm hoping to raise some keets as my neighbors are interested in having their own watch-guineas!

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    Replies
    1. You likely need more than one hen. Unless you grab the eggs and brood them yourself, either with an incubator or a broody hen, they'll most likely not raise any babies for you. They tend to be absent minded, and they'll set a nest, if they have one, right out in the open in the oddest places. I found one, that was being covered by one hen, and contributed to by all the rest of them, out in the middle of our back driveway, in one of the vehicle ruts.

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    2. Incubation is way better than letting a guinea hen set. They have a horrible problem with being unable to count, and sometimes they forget they have keets. The moms run off and leave them screeching, completely lost.

      I had one of those soft, puffy vest with uncountable pockets for everything. If I missed a guinea hen setting and she hatched out, I'd just walk along behind mom picking up keets and placing them safe and warm in a pocket. They would quiet instantly. It was like being under mom. The hens?

      Well, they tend to walk 1 circle, wonder why she's doing it and what she's looking for, then she runs off to the flock. They begin to lay immediately.

      If you watch a guinea hen, and they are where they can move around on your property, somewhere around 10am to 2pm, she'll sneak off into the bushes away from the flock. She will look sneaky, checking behind her, sometimes zigzagging, to go to a nest under and in brush/bushes. That's where you'll need to check for eggs.

      With my bunch, I caught those that sneaked through and collected who I could to be incubated.

      Note! Keep the incubators very clean. Bacteria can play hell with guinea eggs and break your heart at hatching time. Watch the humidity. These are African birds, humid normally only when mom sits on them.

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