Guinea Fowl: The Un-Chicken

by Anita Langley Leadbetter

I’ve realized that there are two types of people in the world: Those that have never heard of guinea fowl and those that swear by the fact that guinea fowl will eat all the ticks. 

Each year I hear of people encouraging others to get guinea fowl to control tick problems. Guineas can certainly help with ticks and other insects since they are voracious foragers, but they are also complicated and delicate barnyard residents. With a little research and planning ahead, you can decide if guineas will make a happy addition to your own farm or homestead. 

I first learned of guineas when I was a child of 7 or 8 years old. Well, actually – I first heard guinea fowl. It was at a poultry show, hosted in a cavernous metal barn type building filled with small wire cages of various fowl, mostly chickens. The building was loud and crowded. Every so often above the general hum of birds and exhibitors, there was an ear-splitting squawk that seemed to pick up its pace with each call and continue with fervor. It was unmistakable that this noise originated from a bird that was clearly un-chicken.  

I remember asking my grandfather why anyone would want guinea fowl. They didn’t have the showy plumage of pea fowl, they weren’t producing heavy amounts of meat like turkeys, or eggs like chickens, or the large bodied graceful swimming presence of geese. What good are they? 

He told me that some people just like to have them around. They could notify you when something was different around the farm. Of course, this was years before we worried about ticks in Northern New England, long before the words “deer ticks” and “Lyme Disease” became so commonplace in our daily lives. 

I promptly decided that guinea fowl were something I would never want. I would stick to chickens and occasionally waterfowl. Maybe a pair of pretty ring-neck doves every now and again. But never would I find any reason to want those screeching loud guinea birds anywhere around!

Fast forward to a couple of decades later when my husband and I were moving our family to our very own farm with acres of land for our kids to explore and plenty of space for horses and goats and chickens. And, with all that, also came plenty of ticks. 

We moved our two horses into the barn the day before we moved ourselves into the farmhouse. Then, a week or so later, I bought a few laying hens to add to the chicken coop. And the week after that, we bought 8 adult guinea fowl from a Craigslist ad. Never say never when it comes to guinea fowl if you have any sort of farm or homestead property. After a nearly life-long claim to never wanting guinea fowl, I was adding them to our farm almost as soon as we had moved in. 

The man that sold us our first guinea fowl warned us that “they go up!” when scared. I quickly learned this was true. Unlike chickens, they can really fly! Their first reaction to close handling (like from a transport cage) is to fly up and out whenever there is an opening. A couple of our new birds escaped like this before we could even get them into their chicken tractor setup. The escaped guineas were the extra beautiful birds of the group – a bright blue pied male and a peach-colored female. Darn. There was absolutely no way I was going to be able to catch them that first night or convince them to enter the tractor with their flock mates. 

At dusk, they perched far too low for safety on top of their pen. The next morning, we awoke to a couple piles of pretty-colored feathers which was a sad loss and an important early lesson. Guinea fowl, as I had already suspected years ago, were entirely “un-chicken” and required an altered way of thinking and handling from a standard chicken flock. Challenge accepted. 

Over the subsequent years of raising guinea fowl we’ve learned more and more about these unique birds and just how un-chicken they truly are. They have a reputation for being not very intelligent, but that’s not true. They are highly dependent on their flock structure and pay close attention to each other while out free ranging. I’ve watched them spend hours calling for a missing flock-mate and then circle around and seemingly acknowledge the dead body when the missing member is found (and then stop calling 

for the missing bird). I’ve watched them co-parent a clutch of 20 keets together—male and female—both taking turns sitting with the young and watching over them. 

I’ve watched them range far out into the pasture but dash back across the property to our front porch when I call to them with treats (and watching them glide into the front lawn, wings spread, 10 feet off the ground, really is a treat for me). I’ve listened to their coos and chatter, soft whistles of communication with each other when they are calm. I’ve come to realize what the alarm sound is (and it’s loud!) as compared to a squawk of agitation, such as when they are cooped up and want to be let loose. 

I’ve learned that, unlike chickens, they are methodical in their foraging. Guineas will fan out in a line and cover large swaths of ground, hunting for insects in the grass. Guinea fowl in a flock stay busy around here, much more than our chickens who prefer lounging in the sun, dirt bathing, and following me around the barn for handouts.

I’ve found that to free range guinea fowl long term, you should have a strategy for regularly replenishing your flock. You can let the flock hatch a clutch or two each summer, incubate eggs inside your house, or purchase replacement keets from a hatchery annually. Like any free-range bird, you will encounter losses eventually and having a backup flock of youngsters will help keep your free-range flock in business. 

Guinea fowl don’t recognize property lines or boundaries. The world is their oyster, including the busy road or a nearby neighbor’s flower bed. Delicious bugs gather on hot roadways in mid-summer, and according to guinea fowl, some of the best dust bathing can be found in the neighbor’s garden. If you’re surrounded by neighboring homes close by your coop, you may find it difficult to keep your guinea flock confined to your own land.

Overall, one of the surest ways to summarize that guinea fowl are un-chicken, is that they are always just a little wild. Guinea fowl will never be as tame as your typical chickens. Guineas are more cautious and much more reactive. It’s not common to be able to easily pick up a guinea. It’s difficult to catch a guinea by hand; coercing them into a coop or enclosure with treats really works best. 

Sometimes the flock will put themselves to bed in the coop at dusk like chickens do, but then again, one day, they won’t. There’s a certain art to balancing the quirky behavior of guinea fowl to allow the flock to thrive long term. 

My intent is not to discourage you from getting guinea fowl but rather to encourage you to consider all the important details of what guinea fowl keeping entails so you can make the best choice. If you don’t mind the time investment and you aren’t bothered by fairly frequent loud squawking, guinea fowl are a rewarding and fun flock of birds to keep. 

photo credits: Anita Langley Leadbetter