A New Type of Meat Bird
The Guinea Fowl
The Helmeted Guinea Fowl (Numida meleagris) (sometimes called Guinea hen) is endemic to Africa. It is the best known of the guinea fowl family and the only member of the genus Numida. Numida meleagris has been domesticated and is now found through most of the world. The three common varieties are pearl, lavender and white.
Originally the helmeted guinea fowl was found in the more arid areas of the west coast of sub Saharan Africa. It has now been dispersed throughout the world including the West Indies, southern France and Australia. It is increasingly recognised as a game bird for meat. In Australia, they are often seen in vineyards and orchards, keeping down locusts and insect pests.
If not housed, the guinea fowl does best in warm, fairly dry, open habitats with scattered shrubs and trees.
The helmeted guinea fowl is a very distinctive bird with its white-spangled feathers. It is considered large and measures 45 to 71 cm in length and weighs 700 to 1600 grams. The body is round and the small head is devoid of feathers. It has a 'helmet' or casque (cf. the cassowary) which is a dull yellow or reddish bony knob. The neck and face are bare-skinned with red and blue patches. The tail is very short and the wings short and rounded. The plumage is dark grey or blackish with dense white spots. The legs and claws are strong but there are no spurs on the legs.
Guinea fowl are very gregarious and form largish communities which feed and roost together – once the breeding season is over! Twenty-five or more birds will form loose flocks. In common with other birds of the gallinaceous type, their flight is explosive but short-lived. They gain extra distance by gliding. They are hardy birds, easily covering 10km or more in a day. Their loud, harsh call when disturbed makes them useful as a watchdog when kept with domestic chickens. They enjoy scratching in loose soil but seldom damage or uproot plants in a garden or vineyard despite the strong nails on the feet. They prefer free-range conditions and are much too noisy for a suburban area. They pay for their keep by keeping down grasshopper and locust numbers. Indeed they are such good foragers you shouldn't need to supply much for them. The hens make good mothers and brood seasonally.
The guinea fowl will eat almost anything and is very much an omnivorous bird. Their diet is rich and varied given the chance, consisting of seeds, fruits, frogs, lizards, spiders, worms and small mammals. They also consume the (eg sheep and deer) ticks which spread Lyme disease.
Under natural conditions, guinea fowl make a simple nest which they take great trouble to conceal. The nest is usually just an unlined scrape. Up to a dozen eggs are laid. Incubation takes from 26 to 28 days. When the chicks force their way out of the eggs, the shells tend to shatter whereas a domestic hen's eggs will break in two.
The young are called keets and mortality can be quite high. The chicks become chilled easily and may succumb to the cold. The wings of the chick are quick to develop and the week-olds will start to flutter up to low branches. In the wild, the guinea fowl may live for up to twelve years.
Domestic guinea fowls begin to lay as the days start to lengthen. The laying season is around nine months. Egg production is sometimes extended with the use of artificial light. About a month before the breeding season, artificial lighting is set up to give 16 hours of sunlight a day. This is believed to give a better fertility rate. Typically one male is penned with four to eight hens. One cock to five hens is believed to give optimal fertility rates. Artificial insemination is also used.
Successful artificial incubation of the eggs can be increased by careful attention to hygiene. Diseases develop quickly and easily in the moist, humid atmosphere of an incubator. Eggs should be collected at least twice a day and the shells dry-cleaned with fine steel wool. Then fumigate the eggs. Ensure strict adherence to the directions of the incubator being used. With this in mind, the eggs are generally kept at 12 to 15oC for a few days (up to a week) before placing them in the incubator. Then set the thermostat at 37.2oC for a fortnight. Close the vents on the incubator and drop the temperature to 36.1oC. Use bottled, distilled water in the water troughs to limit the release of impurities.
When ready to place the eggs in the incubator, sit the eggs either on their sides or with the broad end towards the top. This gives maximum room for the chicks to develop. Unless you have an automatice timer, turn the eggs at least three times a day. If you don't, you run the risk of having the embryo stick to the shell. The eggs can be turned late at night then left till early in the morning but turn an odd number of times so the egg doesn't sit on the same side every night. Turn the shell in the opposite direction each time. You will find it easier to keep track of which shells are still to be turned if you place a pencil mark of some sort on the shell. It is all too easy to get distracted and lose track of which shells still need to be turned.
Newly hatched chicks in particular are very susceptible to cold and will need some kind of artificial heating. Rice hulls or wood shavings make good bedding. In commercial enterprises, the keets are often kept in artificially heated pens for up to six weeks. The keets can be fed commercial turkey foods. Generally their requirements are the same as for meat chickens, however they do require more floor space.
Guinea fowl bred for meat are normally killed at between 14 and 20 weeks. At that age they will usually weigh from 800 grams to a kilo or more. Guinea fowl meat is very lean and darker than chicken meat. The breast meat comprises about 25% of the live weight. Raising guinea fowl is being increasingly considered as an alternative animal husbandry choice.