If you’ve come here from our first installment on guinea hens, welcome back! If you’ve just stumbled across this article however, and begin to feel a little lost, here’s a quick link to catch up. Last week, we covered the “why” of guinea hens. If that made you decide a flock of these fussy little birds is right for you, read on to find out exactly how to make your dream a reality.
What Kind of Hens?
As with most such species of birds, guinea hens come in quite a few varieties–plumed, crested and vulturine, just to name a few. By far the most common breed however, is the helmeted guinea fowl–its knobbed skull gives the bird a helmeted appearance. While each breed has its quirks–the vulturine, for instance, is the largest and most tame, while the crested is the most aggressive–the helmeted generally offers the best balance of availability and personality, and would be this author’s recommendation to start. While the birds are available as either “keets” (hatchlings) or adults, how to brood such young fowl is an article in and of itself (and probably will be, in the future). If your main reason for wanting guineas is utilitarian, you are better off purchasing adults, which are easier to care for and will not take as much time adapting to their surroundings.
Upon arriving at adulthood, guinea hens are a resilient breed, and require little in the way of shelter. As mentioned in the previous piece, they often roost in trees. That said, the birds absolutely hate snow and, if you wish to keep any semblance of control over your flock, some sort of shelter for them to retreat to at night is necessary. As a general rule of thumb, guinea hens are much like people: The more room they have, the less stressed they are. This in mind, any shelter should allow around 2 square feet of room per guinea. This becomes more important if the flock is being confined for meat or egg production, in which case that number should be bumped at least to three. Free-ranging guineas, able to take advantage of the entire yard in the daytime, will be less troubled by a little less space. For free-ranging guineas, however, it is still best to keep them locked up for the first several weeks—so they get used to the coop as their home—before allowing them to range. Letting them out too soon could result in a flock that prefers the trees to the safe little refuge you have made for them.
As far as bedding goes, wood shavings, chopped hay or straw all work well. While it is often asserted that bedding can go months without cleaning, many neglect to mention that such advice only holds if the bedding is kept dry, which I have never seen happen for any extended period of time (disclaimer: I do live in a very rainy, humid state). As a result, be ready to clean out and change bedding about once a month. Additionally, don’t forget to include both perches and, if egg production is your goal, some common nesting boxes. Hens may roost in the trees, but they nest on the ground.
Finally, a word of warning. As tempting as it may be to make your guineas roommates with your chickens, don’t do it, particularly if both your flocks contain roosters. The larger guinea roosters will chase your common roosters around without mercy, sometimes causing the smaller bird to drop dead of exhaustion, starvation and dehydration. That said, letting them crash on the couch during stormy weather would not be disastrous, so long as the mutual confinement is short-term. To identify a guinea rooster, simply look at the wattles hanging down the side of its head. The male’s wattles will be considerably larger than those of a female.
If you’re interested in guineas, chances are insect and pest control is a large factor, and thus the birds will be free ranging. Guineas, after all, fulfill the majority of their dietary requirements on their own. Despite this, it’s important to remember one must still give the birds some access to sustenance. The most important part of this equation is water—ready access to fresh water is essential. Aside from that, a cup or two of mixed grains to attract your flock in at night (depending on the size of the flock) is all you should need. In winter, when forage is scarce, double that.
I should mention that, while not as vigorous as chickens, guineas are scratch feeders, and will decimate newly planted seedlings, or plants grown in freshly aerated soil. It’s best to keep them away from any recently planted sections of your garden, lest you find your family’s food has become the guinea’s leftovers. Once plants are more mature, however, guineas tend to pay them no mind, far preferring to snack on weeds and insects—hence why farmers have used the birds to patrol their crops for centuries.
If your guineas are penned up, purpose-driven egg layers, of course, feeding becomes a little bit larger of a concern. In general, guineas will thrive on regular poultry layer food; plan on about a pound per six birds per day. Just before laying season (which generally begins in March), switch them onto a higher-protein substitute–turkey rations, for instance–to improve egg production.
Okay okay, this one may be a little tongue in cheek, but be forewarned. One of the reasons guineas make excellent alarm birds is because they are LOUD. You certainly won’t be sneaking them into a subdivision. Take a listen here for a sample, and if the concussive cacophony of the social little birds doesn’t bother you, rest happy knowing you’re cut out for guinea hens.
A humble homesteader based in an undisclosed location, Lars Drecker splits his time between tending his little slice of self-sustaining heaven, and bothering his neighbors to do his work for him. This is mainly the fault of a debilitating predilection for fishing, hunting, camping and all other things outdoors. When not engaged in any of the above activities, you can normally find him broken down on the side of the road, in some piece of junk he just “fixed-up.”