Even if you’ve decided that keeping urban chickens is not for you it’s a fair bet you will encounter their nemesis – the fox. The first thing that says you are the subject of unwanted fox attention is the disagreeable smell – a sharp choking musty aroma – an unpleasant amalgam of musk, blocked drains and stale urine.
Foxes are wily adversaries of those inexperienced in keeping poultry. And any small mistake will be punished unmercifully – so let’s take it as red that your coop or hutch is sturdy, strong and perhaps has even been sold to you as fox proof.
Even so you might want to consider a little help in skewing things further in your favour – so here are a few suggestions.
Electric fencing: Foxes check everything with their noses first so it shouldn’t take too many shocking encounters for them to get the message. While being the most obvious solution it can seem quite expensive – but worth it to protect both your investment and your feathered friends.
Light and sound: Leaving a radio on in the coop overnight can be very effective simply because a fox would generally prefer not to be in the presence of humans and simple lighting arrays that mimic the eyes of another predator like the Nite Guard Solar can also work wonders.
Sonic repellents: They do work but you get what you pay for and as they start at around £20. But remember these will be audible to dogs; so opt for models that only sound when they detect a threat and not one on all day – or you could send your pets barking mad.
Chemical repellents: There are a couple on the market but Scoop is widely acclaimed as the most effective product of its type on the market. It’s totally safe for use in gardens, near chickens, on plants and edible crops and is humane, bio-degradable and very effective.
Scent marking: Most of us won’t have access to Lion dung (as used by one well known comedian to protect his brood) but we have the next best thing – for free. This involves directly mimicking the territorial behaviour of a fox by the application of male urine to your boundaries – I’ll leave issues of supply and demand to your imagination. However, if that’s too much for you, consider using human hair (male works best), either your own after a cut or try asking at your local barbers. Stuff some into a pair of old tights and hang around the margins of your garden – good luck.
There don’t seem to be enough great articles written about poultry at the moment, and especially the less obvious game breeds like quail and guinea hens! Fortunately, I found a brilliant writer and this great article about keeping and raising Guinea Hens by Mark Bowden, which I know you’re all going to love.
ANIMAL HUSBANDRY is not for sissies. It has now been more than a year and a half since my wife, Gail, and I first brought a box of chirping, week-old guinea fowl home to our small Pennsylvania farm, and began diligently rearing them. We built them a luxurious coop, and provided them with warmth, food, drink, and 16 acres to roam.
Deer ticks were infesting our acreage, thanks to a Malthusian proliferation of their white-tailed hosts, and we were assured that the guineas would make short work of the little bloodsuckers. An organic solution! We never got a chance to see if it worked, because when our rambunctious flock of 25 was turned loose, the birds proceeded to defy all predictions of guinea-fowl behavior—that they would not wander far from the coop; that they would establish a predictable daily routine; that they would return to the safety and warmth of the coop every evening; that they would fly up to a tree branch to avoid danger.
Ours made haste to their own demise. They showed no skill or even inclination to avoid the onslaught of neighborhood carnivores, and were thus dispatched, one by one, by foxes, hawks, and that most deadly scourge of local poultry, Amber, the ever-cheerful chocolate Lab who lives next door—a course of events that I documented for this magazine (“The Great Guinea Hen Massacre,” December 2009).
By winter our hand-reared flock had been cruelly whittled down to just two, one white and the other gray (the type is called a “pearl”). We decided to keep our two survivors safely cooped up, and then give them away come spring, hopefully to someone in a more peaceable spot.
It turns out to be hard to give grown guineas away. When the weather grew warm, the two survivors clamored ever louder each day to be turned out. They are insistent birds, and they can make themselves very loud, as in scare-the-horses-and-annoy-the-neighbors loud. We relented one morning, and against our better judgment opened the coop door and bid them adieu.
Then an amazing thing happened. They came back! Not just the first evening, but the next, and the next, and the next. They stayed right on our hilltop property, just as all the books and Web sites promised they would, and just as all their more headstrong feathered brethren had not.
Intelligent behavior in guineas, it seems, is an inverse function of their number, a truth long known about human beings. The large flock was good at only one thing: panic. Confronted with a threat, its members acted out a perfectly choreographed charade of a nervous breakdown, full of fluttering feathers and high-decibel clatter, and then succumbed to whatever had alarmed them.
Our survivors still panicked, but they also evaded. When one of our dogs took off after them, they would squawk with annoyance and fly to the nearest roof or high branch, hurling fowl invective down at their tormentors. Conscious of danger from above, they would move swiftly when crossing a pasture or yard, and mostly keep to tree lines, tall grasses, or brush. These two, the white and the pearl, almost a year old, seemed to have figured things out.
We still refused to name them, anticipating their certain extinction, but despite ourselves by early summer we had grown quite attached. I loved to see their wattled, bobbing heads pop up unexpectedly from our gardens, or watch them flee in loud panic when the lawn mower scared them from a thicket. There is something innately comical about them. Sure, two birds weren’t enough to be useful for tick control, but they were a charming and (in their own way) beautiful addition to our farm.
Then the pearl stopped coming back. One night it was just the big white waiting outside the coop, and we assumed the worst. It was a sad but unsurprising turn. Except, the next day, the pearl reappeared, frantically racing around with the white, as if feeding in double time. That evening, again only the white waited outside the coop. The answer was apparent. The previous summer’s massacre had fortuitously left us with a male and a female. Our pearl was a girl. She had built a nest somewhere in the woods, filled it with eggs, and was now sitting on them.
Every scrap of intelligence about guineas, who are native to much of Africa, assures you that their offspring are not likely to survive in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Eggs and newly hatched keets need a steady dry temperature of 95-plus degrees, the experts say. Besides, the hen, exposed outdoors overnight for weeks on end, is, to borrow an expression, a sitting duck.
So we stalked the pearl one afternoon, crawling through underbrush and lurking behind trees, following her to the hidden nest. It was on the ground in a deep thicket of grass and brush, so cunningly placed that had we not watched her wriggle into the spot, we might have stood right over it without seeing it. Twenty-two eggs were in her nest.
I shooed her off with a broom, which she pecked at valiantly, while Gail collected all the eggs. The pearl was vocally unhappy about the theft for about 30 seconds, and then promptly went off in search of her mate. They went right back to their old routines. We went to the local grain-and-feed store and bought an incubator.
The pearl built and filled four nests last summer. She laid upwards of 80 brown-speckled eggs. We incubated three of the batches, enthusiastically but inexpertly. I had ambitions for replacing the entire original lost flock, but we ended the season with 14 new birds. The coop was once again a noisy, lively place.
It wasn’t easy. Some of the keets popped right out of the egg after 28 days, as though arriving on time at the train station. Once out, most were hardy and fast-growing. But nature is neither clean nor perfect. Some got stuck in their eggs and didn’t make it, so we listened to them chirp plaintively for days, trapped and dying. We learned the hard way that helping them out is ill-advised—if they can’t make it out of the egg, they are usually doomed.
A few of our hatchlings arrived damaged. One was born with the long orange toes of one foot curled. Taking instructions from a Web site, I straightened the toes and taped them firmly to a small square of cardboard. The keet stomped around unhappily on the makeshift flapper for about five hours, and—voilà! Straight toes! But even after the foot was fully restored, he remained suspect, for some reason, to his fellow hatchlings, a fact that was not immediately apparent.
We now had three groups of birds. There were the older two, the parents. Then came the first batch of offspring, hatched in early July, whom we now considered teenagers. And we had a batch of toddlers, hatched in early September. As with all the other issues we faced in this saga, we turned to our not-so-trusted adviser, the Internet, for how best to integrate younger birds with older ones in the coop.
Some Web sites stated flatly that it was best to introduce the younger birds when they were still small, because they would naturally submit to the authority of the teenagers and adults. If you waited until they were more mature, the new birds would be more likely to fight back, which could get ugly.
Others argued that the right way was to place the smaller birds in the coop inside their own cage, so that the flock could get used to them over time without being able to attack them.
We initially opted for the first approach, which went fine for all except the one white keet whose foot I had straightened. There was nothing different about him anymore to my eyes, but the teenage birds attacked the little guy mercilessly. I found him one afternoon jammed into a corner of the coop with his head hidden in a narrow opening between a pipe and the wall, where the other birds could not get at him. I rescued him and nursed him back to health.
I then attempted, with him, the second approach. I put him back inside the coop in his own cage. He was in with the rest of the flock, but they couldn’t attack him. This apparently just built resentment, because when, after a few weeks, I decided to let him back out, the teenagers waited until I left and then pecked the poor little guy nearly to death. I found him bloody and unconscious, with what looked to be a hole pounded into the top of his head.
He survived, and I ended up giving him away with the one bird that hatched out of the third batch of eggs we recovered. The newly hatched sibling seemed to think his older brother was hunky-dory, and they got on famously. Both are reported thriving.
As for the dozen new guineas we kept, we don’t plan to let them leave the coop until the spring, when they will be about the same age their parents were when they demonstrated a knack for survival. We are hoping they will follow the example set by their elders—the eternal hope of parents everywhere.
The two adult guineas, the male white and female pearl, have names now. Our son Ben dubbed them Adam and Eve, although we prefer the more pedestrian Mr. and Mrs. They are inseparable. Next summer, when we turn their offspring loose, we do not plan to hunt down every last nest and egg, nor do we plan to go through the sordid business of incubating and integrating another batch.
We are instead going to test the theory that guineas cannot successfully breed in the wild in these parts. Internet advice has been iffy about everything else. My money is on the birds.
“I remember stepping inside and being blown away by the birds,” Staples recounted. “They were gorgeous! And the show itself—the people, the smell, the sounds, the camaraderie of the shows and the beauty of the birds—who knew there were so many varieties of chickens beyond what you think about when they’re on your dinner plate?”
Staples’ love for the birds began during visits with her favorite relative, Uncle Ron, who lived in Athens, Ga., and was a chicken breeder. “I would go visit him and hang out behind his henhouse, and I started asking about chickens, and he invited me to that first poultry show 20 years ago,” said Staples.
White Showgirl Bantam Cockerel. Photo by Tamara Staples
The hardest part for Staples was getting accustomed to shooting on location. Once she mastered that, she began to think more about styling for the portraits.
“I originally started using things you would think of with chickens: gingham, burlap, even hay,” Staples said about the styling. “And one day my assistant said he wanted to come with me. He was amazing. He showed up with all of these fabrics … and when we put them behind the chickens, it was just ‘wow.’ ”
Staples began looking for fabrics in thrift stores and started collecting samples from friends and friends of friends in the design world to enhance the portraits.
“For the second book I knew I wanted to try something more exciting and fashionable,” Staples said.
“Look, the birds get into a cage, then into a car or truck, and travel long distances and then get to the show—they’re fragile little animals! They’re in a show in a huge hall with a million other birds; they may fight with their neighbors, they may be afraid of them, they may smell funny. You have to think about their experience, so when they go to me they’ve already been cooped up for maybe two days, so they’re either exhausted or ready to take off.”
Ideally, Staples will get a bird in a mood that falls somewhere between fatigue and the desire to flee for the session.
“Everyone is different, of course,” explained Staples. “You want someone with vigor who will look around or pose. Some of them just sit down; some crap all over the background immediately as if to say, ‘what’s this?’ ”
For now, two books is enough for Staples, who is moving on to some new projects, but don’t expect her to stay away from the chickens for too long.
“I will always have a very special place in my heart for the chickens, and I hope there is another project that leads me to them—I really enjoy working with the birds, and I enjoy the people in the shows,” said Staples.
Silver Duckwing Modern Game Large Fowl Hen. Photo by Tamara Staples
Blue Cochin Bantam Pullet. Photo by Tamara Staples
We thought it would be helpful to give you a background to keeping guinea fowl, and to address a lot of the frequently asked questions about guinea fowl.
The meat of a young guinea is tender and of especially fine flavor, resembling that of wild game, and therefore has been substituted for game birds such as grouse, partridge, quail and pheasant Guinea fowl has a taste similar to other game birds and has many nutritional qualities that make it a worthwhile addition to the diet. It is second only to turkey in calories, having 134 Kcal (Calories) per 100 grams (turkey has 109 Kcal). The meat is lean and is rich in essential fatty acids.
Why raise guinea fowl? There are many reasons. The guinea has been used in protecting the farm flock from intruders because of its loud, harsh, cry and its pugnacious disposition. Since one of the main sources of food for wild guineas is insects, they have gained popularity for use in reducing insect populations in gardens and around the home, especially because, unlike chickens, they do not scratch the dirt much and do very little damage to the garden. Recently, guineas have been used to reduce the deer tick population, associated with Lyme disease. Other people raise them for their unique ornamental value.
There are three principle varieties of helmeted guinea fowl reared in the United States at this time, the Pearl, White and Lavender. The head and neck are bare, but there may be some wattles. The wattles on the male guinea are much larger than on the female. The Pearl is the most popular variety and the one most people recognize. The Pearl has purplish-gray plumage regularly dotted or ” pearled” with white spots and its feathers are often used for ornamental purposes. The next most common variety is the White Guinea (also called African White). The White Guinea has pure-white feathers and its skin is lighter than the other two varieties. These birds are not albino and are the only solid white bird that hatches solid white and not yellow. Lavender guineas are similar to the Pearl, but with plumage that is light gray or lavender dotted with white.
Basic Management of Guinea Fowl
If you already have other poultry, you will soon discover that guineas are not chickens. They are much more active than chickens and not as easily tamed. They seem to retain some of their wild behavior and will remind you of this whenever they get spooked.
Guineas require a dry environment with plenty of room. Guinea fowls are extremely good runners and use this method, rather than flying, to escape predators. Since most people raise guineas with the intention of letting them run loose after reaching adulthood, space is usually not a problem. If you are confining your birds for any length of time, give them as much room as possible outside and a minimum of 2-3 square feet per bird inside. The more room they have, the less likely they will become overly stressed. Guineas tolerate weather extremes fairly well after they are fully feathered and have reached adult size.
Guineas begin to fly at a very early age and can be confined only in covered pens. It is not unusual to find adults roosting 20-30 feet above the ground complaining about everything they see. They are very strong fliers and the birds will often fly 400-500 feet at a time when moving around the farm, especially if startled.
The laying season will vary depending on your latitude and local weather patterns. The Pearl and Purple usually have the longest laying season and the lighter colors have the shortest.
If you are purchasing guineas for tick and insect control then you are better off purchasing adult guineas as they require little care and do very well on their own. Clean water and a regular chicken laying mash is basically all you need to rear them. They enjoy a little scratch feed mixed in with their feed and scattered on the ground. If your birds are allowed to roam freely they will eat very little during the summer months. If you keep their feed restricted during the summer months, then they will spend more time eating insects.
Keets need a 24% – 26% protein ration such as turkey starter or gamebird feed. It is recommend using an unmedicated feed to avoid potential problems with keets getting over-medicated. Reduce the protein to about 18% – 20% for the fifth through eighth weeks. After that they will do well on regular laying mash that is usually 16% protein. If you can’t find feed with different amounts of protein, mix the higher protein feed with laying mash to get the proper protein mix. The guineas’ natural diet consists of a high protein mix of seeds and insects. If your birds have a large area to roam they will usually get enough to eat on their own, but you can train the birds to stay closer to home by providing supplemental feed in a regular location. Guineas need a higher protein feed than chickens, but do quite well on regular poultry mash or crumbles. It is recommended that they be given only mash or crumbles instead of pelleted feed. They will not eat much supplemental feed if they are finding plenty to eat on their own, but it has been found that they really like wheat, milo, and millet and will clean up every kernel. However, only give whole or cracked grains as a treat or supplement, but not too much. The protein content is too low and the fat content too high to be much value. They don’t care for the larger grains and will ignore whole corn kernels.
Make sure they have access to clean water. Give keets warm water only! They don’t tolerate cold water well.
One of the most-often asked questions about guineas is how to tell the hens from the cocks. Young guineas cannot be sight-sexed like other poultry or fowl. The hens and cocks look exactly the same except for some of the newer colors where the hens are darker, as both keets and adults. The only precise way to tell the sexes apart is to listen for the two-syllable call the hen makes. This sound has been described as sounding like “buckwheat, buckwheat”, “put-rock, put-rock” or “qua-track, qua-track”. This is the only sound that the hen makes that the rooster doesn’t. The young birds start making these sounds at 6-8 weeks, but some hens do not start calling till much later.