Early Birds: Guinea Fowl
with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2003, 8(3):8-9
Engraving from The American Poulterer's Companion, 1863
Once, when I was newly married and was seeking low-cholesterol recipes (long before I left most of the cooking to the Stouffer and Ragu companies), I asked my Aunt Pauline if she had cooked "breast of guinea hen." After all, in my late mother's 1949 Joy of Cooking there were instructions to "lard" a "breast of guinea hen" before roasting it, so I reasoned it must be a beneficial, low-fat food which had mysteriously hitherto escaped my notice. "Oh no!" exclaimed Aunt Pauline. "Why, a guinea is such a sweet thing! They mate for life, you know, and when one is gone, the other mourns so!" I hadn't known, and I felt terrible for even thinking of being so cruel. If she, who had been raised on a farm and had never betrayed any visible sentimentality toward animals that I was aware of, had a soft spot for them, they must be something pretty special.
True, I had seen and heard Pearl Guineas before at my Aunt Ruth's farm, where I had the misfortune of startling a whole shed full of them. Apart from their shrieking, the guineas appeared to be demure enough. Round-shouldered, clad in sheer dark feathers with delicate white polka-dots, it was as if they were in mourning dress, the second-stage, more relaxed attire permitted by Queen Victoria after the first ten years of solid black. Now that I have read a number of descriptions of guinea fowl culture, some written within Victoria's very proper reign, I find that the poultry writers share my consternation at the unexpected complications of the guinea-fowl personality. Writers seem to speak of the guinea as they would an eccentric but wealthy relative who has come for an extended visit -- tolerated, even welcomed, in the unspoken hope that one day their benefits will outweigh their inconvenient behaviors. A few, such as E. Davenport in Domesticated Animals and Plants (1910), dismiss the guinea, saying "This noisy little hen is hardly worthy of being ranked as a domesticated fowl. The Guinea is really an African pheasant [sic] . . . rarely kept in numbers, but a few are often found with other poultry to scare off the hawks."
Most others are willing to grant the guinea a larger role in agriculture, however, and describe the best practices for keeping these birds of "a semi-wild nature." One good thing is that guineas are "best of all adapted to the 'let alone' system on a farm, where they will find nearly all their own living . . ." (Wright). In order to begin keeping guineas, F. H. Valentine tells us (in Farm Knowledge, 1918), "It is probably best to start by buying a setting of eggs since old birds are likely to leave a new home and fly back to the farm from which they were bought. They seem to consider the place where they were hatched as home." Place the purchased eggs under a broody hen, wait 26 to 28 days, and keep the newly hatched keets out of the damp and well-fed: six feedings a day are required due to their "very small crops" (Browne). By allowing the baby guineas to be mothered by a chicken, they will "grow up much more tame" than those raised by other Guineas (Wright).
Guineas are described as endearingly easy keepers. It sounds like we shouldn't build pens or order special feed for a guinea, since "Being of a roving disposition, thriving best when not restrained, it is better suited to the general farm where it can roam at will than to the restricted poultry plant. It may steal some grain and perhaps damage berries, tomatoes, and green crops in the garden if not prevented; but it will also destroy many insects and consume many weed seeds. Both old and young will thus obtain the greater part of their living by foraging, benefiting rather than injuring the farm crops" (Valentine).
When grown they "prefer trees for roosts so the cost of housing guineas is slight. Any cheap shed for use in bad weather is ample. Some growers who have had fair success in domesticating guineas put high roosts and well-hidden nests under open sheds and by feeding them regularly close by induce them to roost and lay in the sheds" (Valentine). Lewis Wright adds that guineas "prefer" to "roost in a house . . . in really bad weather, and if brought up to it," but "If they are to lay in the house, some pains should be spent, as with turkeys, to arrange nests which are not only secluded, but look naturally so; otherwise care must be taken to regularly visit all likely places about the farm." Your hunt around the farm is for the guinea's nest, and you should take a stick with you. "The fowls have been known to make a deep, tapering nest, in which they would lay twenty-seven to thirty eggs," which are "remarkably fertile" and "small, about two-thirds the size of an ordinary hen's egg. The shell is very strong, of a dark color, and spotted throughout." Do not depend on the guinea egg money to meet the next mortgage payment, since "The guinea hen's habit of hiding its nest and of sharing it with other guineas until a large number of eggs have accumulated, make egg production a less satisfactory enterprise" (Valentine). You need the stick and a degree of stealth as you gather the eggs because guineas ". . . like to conceal their nest and will leave it if they see a person near it. It is said that they are able to detect whether the hand has touched the nest in their absence, and if so they will desert it. If eggs are removed with a stick or spoon, either some should be left or others substituted so as to leave about five in the nest" (McGrew). When you do market them, remember the importance of presentation: The eggs "if collected fresh, sometimes find a good and regular market at first-class shops, packed in dozen baskets with a little moss, like the eggs of some game birds" (Wright).
Perhaps before we plan to market any eggs, we should solve the basic conundrum of telling the male and female guinea fowl apart. The male "is generally slightly larger, has larger wattles, his voice is a more shrill shriek . . . and he has a peculiar habit of strutting on tiptoe and arching his back." Although neither guinea is very nice to other poultry, the male is "very pugnacious . . . chasing them away from their food" (Wright). Perhaps the female is easier to recognize, since, according to Browne in The American Poultry Yard (1850), "the hen alone uses the call note 'come back, come back,' accenting the second syllable strongly, from which they are often called 'come backs'."
Call them clingy, but the "come back" cry must work, for the males are monogamous, just as my aunt told me. Although Lewis Wright says "The wild bird is monogamous, in domestication two hens may be allowed to one cock; more than this sometimes succeeds, but nearly as often fails," Browne is more detailed on the subject of guinea family life, and he has a slightly different opinion: "There is one circumstance in regard to the habits of the Guinea cock, which may not generally be known; that is he is monogamous, or having one wife only, pairing with his mate, like a partridge, or pigeon, and remaining faithful to her, (perhaps with one or two trifling peccadilloes,) so long as they continue to live together." If one tries to put one male with two females, "it will be found, on close observation, that though the three keep together so as to form one 'pack' according to their original instinct, yet that the cock and one hen will be unkind and stingy to the other unfortunate female, keep her at a certain distance, merely suffering her society, and making her feel that she is with them only on sufferance." The extra hen's eggs would be all right to eat, but will only produce "disappointment and addled eggs" if set. The Guinea hen, presumably happily married, will begin to lay anytime from the end of March through mid-May, and will continue through the end of August, producing 60 to one hundred eggs. Lewis Wright advises setting the April and May eggs, although the guinea hen will usually not go broody until August.
Perhaps guineas were too widely valued as insect-eaters to be killed and eaten themselves, or perhaps the nineteenth century farmer was too sensitive to deprive guineas of their mates, but a market for table guineas never developed. In 1850 this could be attributed to poor timing, since they were being sold during the gap between the last game birds and the first spring chickens, rather than "in late autumn and winter when they are younger" and are "more delicious and tender," "very choice and game-like." Perhaps they never caught on because of their small size (about three and a half pounds, sold intact except for the breast feathers, which were removed). By the end of the 19th century, "A few attempts have been made to breed them in considerable numbers, the most successful of which were in Ohio, where a guinea broiler farm of modest pretensions has been conducted for several years." Resourceful people seem to have made attempts to make use of the guinea by crossing guinea cocks with chicken hens. The "progeny in all such cases . . . [were] very wild and perfectly sterile. The Guinea cock also has been known to cross with small turkey hens occasionally. None of these results are of any practical interest" (Wright).
Should the reader conclude that if the guinea can't be conveniently domesticated, then let it become a game bird, like the pheasant or grouse, think again. It seems, according to Lewis Wright, that the bossy guinea kicks all the other game birds out of the covert, then refuses to fly (although it can do so very well), merely "running before the dogs . . . and . . . affording no sport." Despite its seeming disadvantages, most of the poultry writers maintained hope for the future of the guinea. Although F. H. Valentine does not use the term "niche market," he appears to have something like that in mind: "In reality as a side line in combination with crops to which they do little damage, and where a market for them exists or can be developed, guineas should prove a valuable feature. The bird is fine eating. It is in great demand in city hotels and clubs . . . The meat is dark and the birds are often served as game; prices, therefore, are high as a rule." McGrew adds, "if proper attention were given to the mating of guinea-fowls to improve their size and laying qualities, they could be developed into a most profitable kind of poultry." As it has taken over one hundred years for the guinea to be sufficiently accepted to be admitted to the Standard, it may take another century before it is raised and marketed in the manner of chickens and turkeys.
In the meantime, if its bug-eating talent is not enough to recommend it, then perhaps we should consider keeping the guinea fowl as a security system. "No strange person or noise escapes them, and then their screaming is not only effectual, but calculated of itself to frighten off any evilly disposed marauder" (Wright). The final word, however, is accorded to Browne, who, in passing the following judgment reveals that curious combination of admiration and exasperation found in so many writer's voices on the subject of the guinea: "This bird is no great favorite with poultry keepers, in general, but is one of those unfortunate beings, which, from having been occasionally guilty of now and then a trifling fault, has acquired a much worse reputation than it really deserves. Notwithstanding this, it is useful, ornamental, and interesting during life, and a desirable addition to the table, if properly dressed, when dead."
Browne, D.J., The American Poultry Yard. New York: C.M. Saxton, 1849.
Davenport, E., Domesticated Animals and Plants. New York: Ginn and Co., 1910.
McGrew, T. F., "Guinea Fowl," in The Cyclopedia of American Agriculture, Vol.3, L. H. Bailey, ed., New York: Macmillan Co., 1909.
Valentine, F. H., "Guinea Fowl," in Farm Knowledge: Vol. I, Farm Animals, E.L.D. Seymour, ed., New York: Doubleday, Page and Co. for Sears, Roebuck and Co., 1918.
Wright, Lewis., The New Book of Poultry. London: Cassell and Co., 1905.
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