Helmeted guineas, white-breasted guineas…learn more about these fascinating birds with Audrey Stallsmith.
Read other articles on guineas by Audrey here:
From Ranging to Roosting: How to Keep Guineas Housed and Happy
We need to remember where guineas came from to understand where they are coming from! They originated, appropriately enough, in what used to be called the Guinea Coast of Africa. However, that region acquired its name from the Berber aguinaw (“black man”) rather than from the birds themselves.
Introduced to the rest of the world first by its Roman occupiers and later by the 16th century Portuguese colonizers of Guinea, the foreign fowls adapted to life in colder climes. But they don’t have to like it!
Coping with the Cold
“The guineas have gone back to bed,” Dad reported one wintry morning years ago after a heavy overnight snowfall. At that time, our birds were roosting high up in an old corn crib. They apparently had flown down from their perch, taken one look at the white stuff, and decided that it was a good day to sleep in.
Although our current guineas will venture out when a snow fall has been light, they tend to prowl around inside the barn instead when drifts have piled up outside. Fortunately, they used to trail herds of wildlife in Africa or forage on the forest floor beneath trees full of monkeys. So they have learned to find sustenance in other animals’ droppings, whether you take that word to mean manure or spilled feed.
These days they simply have traded herds of elephants and antelope for cattle, pigs, and sheep. Even though our guineas have access to the feed room, they are industrious birds who seem to prefer scavenging to sponging.
On less white winter days, they will come clamoring up to the area beneath the bird feeder in search of millet and milo (sorghum). Those spherical grains, often included in the more inexpensive bags of bird seed, aren’t popular with most songbirds. But I always buy some anyway because the guineas adore it. Millet and milo probably remind them of Africa, since those plants grow wild there.
Pairing Up to Parent
Back in their freer days, guineas often traveled in flocks of up to three hundred birds, inhabiting both African savanna (grassy plains) and the more open forests of that continent. They tended to pair off during mating season, however, being monogamous or serially monogamous by nature. That latter term means that they might not choose the same mate the following year.
The pair would make their nest in a hollow on the ground, which they still do, usually in a hidden spot. Often, though, you will get several hens from the flock laying in the same nest, though nobody seems to get around to actually setting on the eggs. Perhaps they all think somebirdy else will do it!
In recent years, our guineas haven’t seemed much inclined to raise little ones themselves, but that could be because they are waiting for the weather to warm and dry out to African standards. And the drying out part hasn’t happened here in western Pennsylvania for several years now.
Back in the days when we were blessed with more reasonable weather, I was very late in getting around to whacking the weeds and tall grass between my large rose bushes one summer. When a guinea hen suddenly exploded up from her hidden nest, the fright we gave each other probably took a couple years off both our lives. I backed off and allowed her to keep those shielding weeds and grasses.
Last summer I found a stash of eggs hidden behind large leaves in the rhubarb patch. I left it in place in hopes that one of the guinea hens would brood about doing some brooding. However, another critter—probably a possum—helped itself to eggs tartare before that could happen.
Dealing with the Damp
I’m guessing that the reason guinea hens lose so many young keets to cold and damp here in the States is because they didn’t have to be as assiduous about keeping their young warm and dry “back home.” In Africa the climate would be more arid and the male often would assist with keet care. That seldom happens in farmyard flocks.
Another pair of eyes would help, since a guinea hen often doesn’t notice that she has left keets behind. A neighbor girl kindly brought a few back to me once which their mother had lost. Fortunately, after the birds have fully feathered out at about six weeks, they seem to be able to tolerate most inclement weather.
However, the color on one of our white guineas inexplicably changed to brown in mid-spring this year. That bird turned up dead a couple days later, though it didn’t appear bloody, as it presumably would have been if mauled by a predator. The guineas chase each other a lot during mating season, so I’m guessing the unfortunate white bird may have gotten pursued into a mud hole and never succeeded in drying out properly at a time when the weather still was chilly and sporadically snowy. Though it is difficult to catch free-ranging guineas, I probably should have made the attempt with that one, to provide it a warmer environment until it recovered.
Sussing Out the Sexes
Our barnyard helmeted guineas (Numida meleagris) derive their species name from the Meleagrides, the sisters of Meleager in Greek mythology. They wailed so much over the death of their brother that an irritated Artemis supposedly turned them into birds whose plumage was spattered with white tears. According to this bawl tale, the female guineas still call “Come back!” Of course, some people interpret that rattling call as a more prosaic “buckwheat” instead!
Male guineas speak in words of one syllable instead. They also are supposed to have larger helmets and wattles than the females and walk taller.
As I mentioned above, guineas do a lot of chasing of each other in the spring, between the males fighting with each other or pursuing females. It is entertaining to watch the birds’ legs churn while their bodies seem to remain aloof, but I’m relieved when that phase is past because I’m always afraid they are going to run each other to death.
Although guineas can fly when necessary, an ability that helped them evade brush fires in Africa, they seem to prefer a mad dash. When we consider that their original predators must have included lions and crocodiles, we can understand why they are such nervous birds!
Meeting the Relatives
The Meleagrides aren’t the only members of the guinea family native to Africa. In fact, I recently cast a covetous eye on photos of the oddly beautiful vulterine type (Acryllium vulturinum). The largest of the guinea species, it should be spooky with a head similar to a vulture’s and red eyes. However, it also sports a stunning striped blue, black, and white cape of feathers, and is supposed to be one of the easiest guineas to tame.
When I learned that a pair of those birds could set me back $1500, I quickly squelched my acquisitive instincts! In fact, a single egg can cost as much as $50 or more. Another equally pricey variety is the crested guineafowl (Guttera pucherani), which is a svelte black, accented by white spots and stripes, and wears a curly black toupee. The plumed type (Guttera plumifera) dresses in gray blue instead with a higher, straighter hairdo.
The white-breasted guineafowl, Agelastes meleagrides, now is considered threatened in the wild. In addition to the white shirtfront indicated by its common name, it sports a red head and black bustle. Its “brother,” Agelastes niger, is the red-masked black guinea of the family.
Since most of us probably won’t be able to afford the exotic species, we are fortunate that the more common helmeted type comes in a wide range of colors. If you incubate eggs from a mixed flock, you usually will get several hues. We have had white, chocolate, and pied guineas in addition to the common pearl gray.
And, although an African coast wasn’t named for them, a flower was. The bells of Fritillaria meleagris often are called guinea hen flower, because their intricate mottled coloring is thought to resemble that of the birds.
Also, if you notice a sudden change in the appearance or condition of any of your birds, you might want to try to catch that one and keep it warmer for a while—just in case. I’ve heard that using a large fishing net sometimes works for the catching. But don’t attempt to lift the bird by its feet as you would a chicken, since guineas are prone to foot and leg injuries. And they won’t be able to manage their typical loco motion if they are limping!
Audrey Stallsmith is author of the Thyme Will Tell series of gardening-related mysteries, one of which received a starred review in Booklist and another a Top Pick from Romantic Times. Her e-book of humorous rural romances is titled Love and Other Lunacies. She lives on a small farm in western Pennsylvania.