Guinea fowl make up a group of plump wild and domesticated birds. Their natural range
is in much of Africa. Today, these fowl are raised on farms around the world for their meat
and eggs—just like chickens.
The Guinea Fowl Group
Scientists classify guinea fowl in the subfamily Numididae, which, in turn, is
classified in the family Phasianidae. This is a large family of birds that also includes
chickens, turkeys, pheasants, partridges, grouse, quail, and peafowl (peacocks).
There are several species of guinea fowl. The helmeted guinea fowl (Numida meleagris)
is the main species from which domesticated guinea fowl are descended. The natural habitat
of the helmeted guinea fowl is grassland and scrubland in Africa, south of the Sahara. This
bird has a large backward-curving bony “helmet” on top of its head.
The vulturine guinea fowl (Acryllium vulturinum) is the largest and showiest species of
guinea fowl. This bird, which is native to grasslands in eastern Africa, has a longer neck,
legs, and tail than other guinea fowl. It also has beautiful blue feathers on its breast.
The white-breasted guinea fowl (Agelastes meleagrides) is a bird native to the forests of
western Africa. It has mostly black feathers, except for a bright white breast.
The plumed guinea fowl (Guttera plumifera) and crested guinea fowl (Guttera pucherani) both
have tufts of black feathers on their heads. The black guinea fowl (Agelastes niger) is
completely black, except for its naked head.
The Guinea Fowl’s Body
As indicated in the previous section, different species of guinea fowl have differences
in appearance. Generally, however, guinea fowl have plump roundish bodies that range in
length from about 16 to 28 inches. They typically weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 pounds.
The bodies of guinea fowl are covered in gray feathers with tiny white spots, but their heads are small and featherless. Domesticated varieties may have various combinations of colors, including white, purple, yellow, and blue.
A wattle (red fleshy part) hangs on each side of the beak. Males (roosters or cocks) and females (hens) look more or less alike, though the male may have a larger helmet and larger wattles than the female.
Seeds, berries, insects, spiders, worms, and other small invertebrates (animals without backbones) are all in the diet of guinea fowl. Because these birds eat large numbers of insects—including ants, termites, ticks, and wasps—they are valued as pest controllers around farms. They help reduce the risk of tick-spread illnesses, such as Lyme disease.
Besides capturing their own food, guinea fowl on farms are usually given such food as basic chicken feed, scratch grains, chopped corn, and millet.
Guinea fowl live in flocks consisting of several birds. These flocks can be very noisy, as the birds make loud calls whenever they become alarmed—and they become alarmed fairly easily. Males make “kek-kek-kek” or “chi-chi-chi” calls, and females make "buck-wheat buck-wheat" cries.
Their noisy nature makes guinea fowl excellent “guard birds,” warning chickens and other barnyard fowl when hawks, owls, raccoons, or other enemies intrude into the area. Guinea fowl are quick to defend themselves and their young by pecking, scratching, and flapping their wings at enemies.
Guinea fowl can walk, run, and fly. In the wild, they usually roost (rest and sleep) in trees at night. As many as 2,000 of these birds may be seen roosting together in a single large tree. On farms, they are often seen perched high up outside or inside barns.
Courtship and Reproduction
A male and female guinea fowl are normally monogamous—which means that they pair with each other for life and mate with no other individuals. In certain species, however, a male may mate with more than one female.
When a male is courting a female, his body takes on a “hump-backed” posture as he struts in front of her. A male may also hump his back when he has an unfriendly meeting with another male.
The female usually lays a clutch of 12 to 15 small dark eggs in a nest scratched into the ground, which may be hidden among a clump of weeds or some other cover. Some clutches may contain as many as 30 eggs. The eggs are incubated (sat on to keep warm) by the hen for about 26 or 28 days before the young birds, called “keets,” hatch. Both parents take care of the keets.
For the first few weeks of their lives, keets need to stay warm and dry, or else they may die. When they are a few weeks old, however, they become very hardy birds.
On farms, newly hatched keets are typically kept in a brooder box, which is a box with a heat lamp, for about 6 weeks—until they are fully feathered. The young birds are then usually moved into a safe nursery area, where they are introduced to the older birds of the flock while protected behind a wire divider. After a few weeks in the nursery, they are released into the main flock.
The average lifespan of a guinea fowl is approximately 10 to 15 years.
Guinea fowl can mate with other species of fowl and produce hybrid offspring. The hybrid of a guinea fowl and a chicken is called a “guin-hen.” The hybrid of a guinea fowl and a peafowl is called a “pea-guinea.”
Guinea Fowl History
Wild guinea fowl were probably hunted by early tribes of people in Africa. These birds have been raised in captivity for thousands of years. Archaeologists have uncovered engravings and small statues of guinea fowl dating back to ancient Egypt, more than 4,000 years ago. In ancient Rome, the meat and eggs of guinea fowl were considered to be delicacies.
The Spanish brought guinea fowl to the Americas in the early 1500’s, soon after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. In recent decades, breeders have developed many new color varieties of guinea fowl.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Steve Madge, Phil McGowan, Guy M. Kirwan. Pheasants, Partridges and Grouse. Princeton University Press, 2002.
- J.S. Ferguson. Gardening with Guineas. CTA, 1999.