In a quail's eggshell; we've been experimenting in a modest way to see if we can integrate guineafowl into our other operations here. The potential benefits: they may eat a lot of ticks (which we were having huge problems with), they can eat weevils, once grown they need little care, they nearly feed themselves, they serve as watch-dogs for all others on the farm, they can lay useful eggs, and might provide meat; potentially enough for serious sale, if we really scale up. Like to running a couple flocks of over 100 birds each. No problem marketing, we've already had pleas from top white-tablecloth restaurants. Everybody who eats them says they taste like you wish chicken tasted.
The known downsides to guineas: they strongly tend to hide their nests, so you can't gather eggs without a lot of work; you can barely tell the sexes apart for flock management; they can be difficult to catch when you want to; they can be NOISY- i.e., think a flock of 40 geese. And I'd add; there's a dearth of local experience to draw on; lots of old farmers kept a few guineas around here, but they never bothered to look for eggs, and are shocked that anyone would eat them. Originally they were kept as hawk watchers for the chickens, but gradually they just became ornamentals and pets, in a way.
Cutting to the chase- we've solved all these "problems."
(click for larger)
We've got 100% of our guinea hens (which would be 7) laying daily- all in one nest- in the coop. Our two chicken hens lay in the same nest, somewhat less reliably. There are three hens eggs in the photo above; the white one is from the last commercial eggs we'll be buying for a long time; and was graded "Extra-Large". The egg from our one remaining Dominique is plain to see; the egg from our Banty Brahman is less easy to pick out; virtually the same size as the guinea eggs, but less pointy.
And this is our situation, a week later. We've got more eggs than we can eat. This is 3 dozen guinea eggs, our current arrears. For the last weeks, the birds have been totally consistent. Every day; every egg; in one nest; in the coop.
If you know anything about guineas, you should be a little surprised about that- we sure were. Most guinea operations which collect eggs work with birds that are totally confined to coops or fenced runs. Our 15 birds are turned loose every morning- and are completely free range all day; plenty of opportunity to lay eggs far away- yet they come back to the coop to do it; mostly between 9 AM and 4 PM. They wander freely over about 25 acres; grass, brush, and forest; and could wander further if they wanted to. Yet they come back to lay.
When they first started laying this spring, they did not all lay in the coop. I enticed them; using that most powerful tool- homework.
Ok, I'm kind of stretching on the homework, since I'm including all the work I did for my PhD(idn't) minor in Ethology- but basically, I took what I knew, and put it together with what other people knew, about other birds, and tried it out- and it worked.
There are hints about most of what you have to know kicking around; but they're really sparse hints, and not all in one place. Basically- a nestbox built for a hen does not suit a guinea. They want more cover. Some recommend a triangular box, and creative placement. I went a little further, and dug out information on what wild guinea nests look like. No photos I could find of true wild birds; and scanty descriptions- and contradictory ones. Normal.
Taking everything I knew about guinea nests, and general info about how animals view "security", I gave them something simple- and lucked out. But it was an informed lucked out. :-) I gave them a propped up, inverted tub. They have to duck to get in- but once in, there's a lot more room- and, there's a second exit, which I think is a big deal, security-wise. Chips and mulch for the floor, a minor depression for the eggs. The straw I've put in won't stay there.
The first egg we got was in this box. Chicken. Then, a couple guinea eggs a day; certainly not all we should have had. And we found an egg outside the coop, under a door lying propped up on the permanent coop construction site. We knew there were more eggs being laid, and we weren't getting them. The idea that we'd have to hunt for them- even for a few to provide hatching eggs to build the guinea flock, was not appealing; we have way too many places to hide nests around here.
Thinking cap back on. Back when I was studying ethology, I read a huge amount of Niko Tinbergen's work on nesting in terns and gulls, and his dissections of how birds perceive eggs. He did spectacular work, incidentally.
So. I've got a social nester here; a species known to lay eggs promiscuously in many nests... hm... any nest with other eggs already there...
We'd been leaving one egg in the nest. Then two. Not much change. Then I mandated we leave three eggs. I had to have a long discussion, and cite Tinbergen extensively to get Spice to go along- why should we waste another egg; leave it exposed to spoilage, etc.
Bingo. Three is the magic number- next day; 8 new eggs added to the nest. And 100% since then.
Another aspect to it is that we've trained our birds to come back at sundown, to be closed in the coop at night; they do see the coop as "home". Yes, guineas will cheerfully roost in trees; but we've got owls out the wazoo here, and I know we lost a guinea or two that way last summer.
How did we train these "half wild" birds this way? Two tricks, gleaned from the information already available. Feed them only once a day- at the time you're closing them in. And manage the feed so there is none left by mid afternoon. The guineas are fantastic foragers (our feed use is down to 1/2 scoop a day from 1.5 a day in winter); but they do love a little easy regular chicken feed. And- a cup of white millet, inside the coop, at closing time.
Only one site recommended white millet; and we tried it a few times on our adolescent birds, who were totally unimpressed with it. But, we tried it again in spring- and the older birds now did indeed clean it up very rapidly when it was offered. It has definitely made it easier to get them all in and happy; for quite a while there, it took two people to herd them inside; now it's a one person job, "getting the birds in." White millet seems to be guinea candy; and the chickens dive for it too. We had to search around for it- finally found it at a local elevator.
What are we going to do with all these eggs? Eat quite a few- and hatch quite a few. Somehow. Someday, if we really wind up with hundreds of birds- we'll sell them, too; both as hatching eggs and to eat. Hey, the feed is better than free- a lot of it is bugs we want eaten.
They're mostly fertile, as we can see when we crack them. We've cooked them daily now for a couple weeks- the euphemistic term for how they taste is "more delicate than a hen's egg". Which means- they don't have a pronounced "eggy" flavor; they're quite mild. They're not bland, though; they taste- and feel like- food. Very satisfying on tongue, and in tummy. Cooking behavior is indistinguishable from chicken eggs; since they're smaller they tend to cook a tad faster. The shell is indeed much stronger than a chicken egg, you have to get used to whacking them to get them cracked. On the other hand, you can drop them on a hard floor, with no consequences... usually. And I now recall my father telling me about boys playing catch with guinea eggs. And eventually swapping a chicken egg into the game. Sometimes a really old chicken egg.
Like other free-range eggs, the yolk is bright yellow; and one good aspect of the mild taste is that Smidgen now eats the yolk of her "egg-in-a-basket" as well as the white; with chicken eggs, she'll usually refuse to eat the yolk. Lots of egg and cheese breakfast quesadillas; lots of egg salad sandwiches, something we never had before. Intending to make our own mayonnaise before long. And cakes- whenever we have an oven available.
We're seriously wondering about the real nutritional content of these eggs. Digging on the web hasn't produced much hard info- and what there is is hard to compare. The really good news is- one site measured guinea eggs as having the lowest cholesterol number of all eggs tested - and they tested everything from geese to doves. Guineas had 12.77 mg/g of yolk; doves were the worst, with 21.99 mg/g.
Anybody out there have the ability (and desire) to do a thorough analysis of our free-range guinea eggs? We'll cheerfully ship you the eggs to work with- and publish the results, both here and elsewhere. Would be great to know.
More on guineas- like, the sex stuff- next time.
Hang in there.