Sunday, September 18, 2011

Growing Guinea Fowl - "The Keets Are Alright"

An adult Guinea fowl, very weird looking but
they certainly earn their keep (Wiki Commons photo) 
We decided for Valhalla's first poultry acquisition to get Guinea fowl. These birds, slightly larger than a chicken and originally from Africa, have long been adapted to farm use primarily in an insect control role and as an early alarm system. When mature they alert to all strangers two- and four-legged, with voices that can penetrate steel. Stateside breeders have produced a variety of colors, and we opted for the more usual pearl coloration, deciding that a darker color makes them less visible to airborne predators like hawks and owls.

One of Valhalla's Guinea keets at
two weeks. Incredibly difficult
to catch at that age since they
were terrified of everything!
Guinea fowl are most effective in a free-range mode. On many farms they will roam during the day, happily making a living on insects, small reptiles, and small mammals, then return to roost in the barn or simply take residence on the limbs of nearby trees. We've decided that until we get a handle on the density of local predators (coyotes, raccoons, possum, bobcats, and domestic animals all have a taste for poultry) we'll see if we can entice them into an outdoor pen at night, perhaps with a millet or scratch feed bribe.

The Guinea's training
bell with a handy lanyard
made by MSG Mike King.
Thanks Mike, it's perfect!
We read about a woman who rings a cowbell in the evening when she scatters grain around the pen and brings them in that way. So Chris got a cowbell from the local hardware store and MSG Mike King made a cool lanyard out of green 550 cord to attach as a handle. We've been giving them Pavlovian training in their outside pen, ringing the bell every time we toss feed to them. When they move outside we'll keep up the practice and see how it works.

Our five week old keets have now spent almost two weeks in the large pen on the deck outside our bedroom. It originally measured 6' x 4', fabricated from 1" x 2"s and covered with 1/4" mesh wire. Plywood sections formed a roof. Last week we added two 2' x 2' modular sections to each side and pushed out the area to 6' x 6', thereby giving the 18 birds about 2 square feet each to run around in. We put a lattice cover over the new section and opened it up to some sunshine and (thankfully) rain. Might as well get them transitioned into what they will be living in full time soon.

Valhalla's five-week-old Guinea fowl keets in
the corner of their nifty outdoor pen. Located
high above the front yard on a bedroom deck
they're able to spend their days observing the
wildlife and acclimating to the local environment.
We also added an extra-large feeder and waterer so that we can be away for a bit and not worry about their needs. From the outset we've been bedding predominately with dry leaves and whatever insects happen to be attached to them when we toss them in. For about three or four weeks we've been adding fresh cut wild grass and weeds to their diet, just tossed inside the coop and ravaged by the keets.

They treat the fresh greens like candy. We'd read extensively about poultry raising (and Gordon has had chickens and Guinea fowl in a past farm incarnation) but no source ever mentioned fresh greens for Guineas whereas it is commonly accepted that chickens and turkeys derive a significant percentage of their food, if free-ranged, from greens (20% and 50% respectively).

"Hey, what are you doing in our pen?" The Guinea
keets used to run away and cower when we came
close but now they're always wondering when we'll
bring them fresh grass or other treats. They spend
hours observing us through the sliding glass doors
next to their pen as we go about our business.
So we experimented by adding some finely chopped clover, grass, and dandelions scattered about the coop. It was like watching piranhas go after fresh meat. Since then we've made it a point to get fresh wild grass, lawn clippings, and of course, more dry leaves to them daily or twice daily. They clean it up and seem to thrive on it.

Anytime one keet gets ahold of an extra-long piece it runs around like crazy encouraging others to chase and try to steal it away. Good exercise and lots of fun to watch. Just for grins we cut a large bunch of all long pieces the other day and tossed it among them. Now each one had a long piece of his or her own and the resulting Chinese fire drill was highly amusing for us and it seems the keets as well.

Within a couple of short weeks they will need to be moved to an outside pen for a few days pending release to free range. We plan to make a highly rustic but effective pen from small diameter cut timber and saplings covered with a corrugated plastic roof and poultry wire with a gutter to capture rainwater. Got the plans already drawn up and need some help putting the thing together. If anyone wants to drop by after we return from Fort Leonard Wood next weekend to assist in construction please give us a holler (Keith and Charles will be here throughout the week while we're gone to watch over the keets and secure the premises).

Once the 18 keets are relocated we'll transition the small ones from the loft to the larger coop on the deck until they are ready to move outside permanently. The nine keets upstairs are two weeks behind the larger guys, and when we move them to the permanent nighttime roost outside we'll probably pen them inside of it for a few days to let both groups get to know and accept each other.

The 18 are just about fully-feathered now and highly adaptable to temperature fluctuations and all but bulletproof. The younger batch are growing their feathers and rapidly losing chick down. They'll be ready for the outside pen as soon as it can be built. There's so much to do here on a daily basis that we would like to solicit any help we can get as preparations for the first Valhallans continue!

Joker the cat doesn't know about the Guinea keets yet. By the time he 
finds out they'll be able to run him off without any trouble, and it's likely
that the first encounter will be a real experience to remember. Since Joker's
skittish by nature he'll quickly learn to appreciate their watch dog -like abilities.


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