by Audrey Stallsmith
WE MUST REMEMBER where guineas come from to understand where they come from! They hail, appropriately, from what used to be called the Guinean coast of Africa. However, this region takes its name from the Amazighs aguinaw (“black man”) rather than birds
Introduced to the rest of the world first by its Roman occupants and then by the Portuguese colonizers of Guinea in the 16th century, foreign poultry have adapted to life in colder climates. But they don’t have to like it!
Facing the cold
“The guineas went back to bed,” Dad reported one winter morning years ago after a heavy snowfall overnight. At that time, our birds were perching high up in an old corn nativity scene. Apparently they’d climbed down from their perch, glanced at the white cloth, and decided it was a good day to sleep.
Although our current guineas venture out when snowfall has been light, they tend to prowl inside the barn instead when snowdrifts have accumulated outside. Fortunately, they used to follow herds of wild animals in Africa or feed on the forest floor under trees full of monkeys. Thus, they learned to find their food in the droppings of other animals, whether you take that word to mean manure or spilled food.
These days, they simply traded herds of elephants and antelopes for cattle, pigs and sheep. Even though our guinea fowls have access to the feeding room, they are industrious birds that seem to prefer cleaning with a sponge.
On less white winter days they will come claiming down to the area below
the bird feeder looking for millet and milo (sorghum). These spherical grains, often included in less expensive bird seed bags, are not
popular with most songbirds. But I still buy it anyway because the guineas love it. Millet and milo probably remind them of Africa, since these plants grow wild there.
In their freer days, guineas often traveled in flocks of up to 300 birds, inhabiting both the African savannah (grassy plains) and the more open forests of that continent. However, they tended to mate during the mating season, being monogamous or serially monogamous by nature. This last term means that they might not choose the same companion the following
The pair made their nest in a hollow in the ground, which they always do, usually in a hidden place. Often, however, you will get several hens from the flock laying in the same nest, although no one seems to move in for
laying on the eggs. Maybe they all think someone else will!
In recent years, our guineas haven’t seemed very keen on raising cubs themselves, but that may be because they’re waiting for the
weather to warm up and dry out by African standards. And the drying out part hasn’t happened here in western Pennsylvania for several years now.
Back when we were blessed with more reasonable weather, I was very late getting rid of weeds and tall grass between my large rose bushes one summer. When suddenly a guinea fowl
exploded from its hidden nest, the fear we probably gave ourselves
took a few years from both of our lives. I backed off and allowed him to guard those protective weeds and grasses.
Last summer, I found a hiding place of eggs hidden behind large leaves in the patch of rhubarb. I left it in place hoping that one of the hens was brooding. However, another creature – probably an opossum – served itself to egg tartar before this happened.
Dealing with humidity
Guess the reason guinea fowl lose so many chicks to the cold and wet here in the US is because they didn’t need to be so diligent
to keep their little ones warm and dry “at home”. In Africa, the climate would be more arid and the male would often help with the care of the deer. This rarely happens in backyard flocks.
Another pair of eyes would help, as a guinea fowl often doesn’t notice that it has left chicks behind. A neighbor once kindly brought me some chicks that their mother had lost. Fortunately, once the birds have fully feathered at around six weeks old, they seem to be able to tolerate most inclement weather.
However, the color of one of our white guineas inexplicably changed to brown in the middle of spring this year. This bird turned up dead a few days later, although it didn’t look bloody, as it probably would have if it had been mauled by a predator. Guineas chase each other a lot during the mating season, so I’m guessing the unfortunate white bird may have been chased through a mud hole and never managed to dry out properly at a time when the weather was still cold and sporadically snowy. Although it’s hard to catch free-ranging guineas, I probably should have tried with this one, to provide her with a warmer environment until she
Unravel the sexes
Our barnyard helmeted guineas (Numida meleagrislisten)) derive their species name from Meleagrides, the sisters of Meleager in Greek mythology.
They mourned their brother’s death so much that an irritated Artemis would have turned them into birds whose plumage was spattered with white tears. According to this bawling tale, the female guineas are still calling “Come back!” Of course, some people interpret this cry as a more prosaic “buckwheat” instead!
Male guineas tend to speak in one-syllable words. They are also believed to have larger helmets and wattles than females and to walk taller.
As I mentioned above, guineas chase each other a lot in the spring, with the males fighting each other or chasing the females. It is
entertaining to see the legs of the birds fidgeting while their bodies seem to remain distant, but I’m relieved when this phase is over because I’m still afraid they’ll kill themselves.
Although guineas can fly if needed, an ability that helped them escape bushfires in Africa, they seem to prefer a mad dash. When you consider that their original predators must have included lions and
crocodiles, we understand why they are such nervous birds!
The Meleagrids are not the only members of the guinea family native to Africa. In fact, I recently glanced avidly at some photos of the oddly beautiful Vultera type (Acryllium vulturinum). The largest of the guinea fowl species, it should be fearsome with a vulture-like head and red eyes. However, he also sports a stunning cape of striped, blue, black, and white feathers, and is said to be one of the easiest guineas to tame.
When I learned that a pair of these birds could cost me $1,500, I quickly quelled my buying instincts! In fact, a single egg can cost up to $50 or more. Another equally expensive variety is crested guinea fowl (Guttera pucherani), who is a svelte black, accented with white spots and stripes, and wears a curly black toupee. The feathered type (Guttera plumifera) dresses in gray blue instead with a taller, straighter hairstyle.
The white-breasted guinea fowl, Agelastes meleagrids, is now considered threatened in the wild. In addition to the white breastplate indicated by its common name, it sports a red head and black bustle. His brother “,nigeris the masked black guinea of the family.
Since most of us probably won’t be able to afford the exotics, we’re lucky that the most common helmeted type comes in a wide range of colors. If you are incubating eggs from a mixed flock, you will usually get multiple shades. We had white, chocolate, and piebald guineas in addition to the common pearl gray.
And, although an African coast was not named after them, a flower was. The bells of Fritillaria meleagris are often called “guinea fowl” flowers, as their intricate mottled coloring is thought to resemble that of birds.
Also, if you notice a sudden change in the appearance or condition of one of your birds, you might want to try catching it and keeping it warm for a while, just in case. Or. I’ve heard that using a large fishing net sometimes works for the catch. But don’t try to lift the bird by the feet like you would a chicken, as guinea pigs are prone to foot and leg injuries. And they won’t be able to handle their typical locomotion if they’re limping!
AUDREY STALLSMITH is the author of The thyme will tell series of gardening mysteries, one of which received a star-studded review in
Book List and another Top Pick from Romantic Times. His book of humorous rural novels is called Love and other follies. She lives
on a small farm in western Pennsylvania.