Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Guinea Saga, Part Trois.

In order to understand this post, it might be a good idea to go back and read the earlier bits;  The Guinea Saga, Part One and Part Two.  And maybe the bit about where have all the chickens gone.

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.  


Nettle said...

When all my dreams come true and I finally have room for livestock again, I was planning on experimenting with mixing a few guineas in with the chickens for tick control and watchbird services, which is the only way I've seen farmers use them. I added a few more as meat birds to my imaginary farm after tasting guinea in a restaurant. After reading this, I've evicted the imaginary chickens and totally replaced them with imaginary guineas. Especially now I have a guinea guru to refer to! I hope you continue to keep us updated - I'm taking notes.

Nancy M. said...

This was a really informative post. My guineas which would once only sleep outside have given that up lately in favor of sleeping in the chicken coop. I'm not sure if this is due to predators or not. I have a guinea hen with a nest. I have tried to find it, but can't. She only comes out once a day to eat and drink a little, then heads back. I have heard that if you have too many males, the eggs won't hatch. I don't know if this is true or not. If so, my hen's eggs won't hatch since I only have 1 hen and three males.

MissAnna said...

Wow. The work behind figuring out how to get them to lay inside (consistently) is fascinating. Nice job! Have you experimented with using 'dummy' eggs? Maybe wooden eggs that have been stored with real so they smell the same? (I wonder how they'd know the eggs are real vs fake?) And do the eggs left in the nest have to be guinea eggs or can they be chicken eggs? I'm definitely impressed with all your tricks! All the guineas I've ever been around have been loud, tree-dwelling creatures.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, thanks!

Maybe at some point you can pull all the info and experiences together and write a book. A little extra income!

Heather G

Beelar said...

Nicely done, Dad. helwen- he certainly has a lot of books to write. One of my middle-burner goals over the next few years is to help get that done, at least for one or two...

John T. said...

I enjoyed your post. We are just getting started with chickens - only six, all hens. Haven't thought about guineas. We could let them run, but I worry about preditors.
You mention coyotes, we have tons of them and lots of coons, red tailed hawks and owls and who knows what else.
It seems like free range birds wouldn't last long out there. Do you lose a lot of birds? Are guineas better at surviving than chickens?

Greenpa said...

Nettle - :-) - well, a few chickens might be good! We still haven't navigated through the natural brooding process; where most folks recommend using a chicken to raise the keets; making them less wild. We'll see, I hope. And I do intend to keep folks updated.

Nancy M- it'll be interesting to see! I'd heard that if you had 1 male and 2 females- although they'd pal around and both females would lay - only the eggs from one female would be fertile. I think there's a lot of mythology to sort out. Tell us what happens!

Miss Anna - thanks. :-) We were looking for dummy eggs- "nest egg", they used to be called; the origin of the phrase. They're hard to find, and pricey. We're going to try blowing some eggs; and filling them with- silicone caulk. So far we haven't been able to puncture any guinea eggs without cracking them- they're hard. Even tried drilling (steel bit) - nope; goes slow, then breaks through- and breaks. Going to try a carbide bit, I think; we are dealing with a carbonate composite.

According to Tinbergen's work on terns and gulls, the most important recognition factor of a bird for its egg is- shape. Then color pattern (as I recall, and it's been, um decades) - then mass. Size, oddly, doesn't seem to matter; except the bigger the better; birds would ignore their own real eggs if given an egg correct except for being 3-5 times too big; the big egg would get all their attention. Smell doesn't seem to enter the equation anywhere- which if you've ever smelled a tern colony, you'd understand.

Helwen - might happen, you never know. One of the nice things about a blog- a lot of words get put down...

Beelar - :-) I hope you like eggs.

John T. - we've got predators out the wazoo - including now- bald eagles in abundance; and the farmers tell of having whole chicken flocks wiped out. The guineas ARE better at seeing- and avoiding them. Two days ago; we suddenly had a big outbreak of guinea noise- looked up to see a big raptor- which turned out to be a bald eagle. It was NOT loafing by - it was flying very fast, just above the treetops- and made 3 passes over the guineas. The trees they were in made it impossible for the eagle to get at them- but they also saw it immediately, and really reacted.

We started with 32 keets- lost 3 in the brooder; then one here, and two there when they went out as free range teenagers; then lost 5 one night when those 5 totally refused to come in- and it dropped to 10 below zero- they froze out of the trees. Since then- in December I think- we haven't lost a one. Culled out some dummies? maybe. Learned better what we were doing, sure.

And when the ex-dog killed almost all the chickens - disaster strikes 20 chickens died, and we found most of the corpses - 2 guineas disappeared that day, and we never found any bodies; my guess is they just got freaked and flew off. All the other guineas survived the mass murder.

We do have 2 dogs now; who are supposed to eventually be useful in keeping predators at a distance; we're working on their training carefully. So far; so good. I do think some good dogs will make a huge difference in the security of the birds.

Anonymous said...

If you have excess eggs they are great dog and pig food.

Do the nest eggs have to be realistic? I used golf balls but that was for easier to train chickens.

healinggreen said...

How great that they are laying in the coop! Our guinea hens went wild and moved three doors down to a horse pasture 8 years ago. For now we are sticking to chicks, though your post is inspiring...

Anonymous said... has wooden eggs for 70 cents each.


Sam said...

The Guinea Saga, Part one and part two is a really informative post. Thank you for sharing with us.

junaidi @ Jerun Roku said...

nice post... i love royal purple guneas.

Amanda said...

Your blog on eggs is the most complete I've been able to find about Guinea eggs. I still have some questions I have been unable to answer by googling etc.
1. After the eggs are laid, how long will they last outside until they are bad to eat. If one is in the coop and one is in full sun all day, is the coop one good and the sunned one bad?
2. How long do guinea eggs last - or rather how long do I have to eat them?
3. I know you said you don't have a fridge but I still gotta ask - will they last longer in the fridge and if you know or have a good guess, how long?

Thanks! I love your blog and also love your comment about "ewww you do that inside" about b-room facilities - I laughed really hard - it is true. LUV IT!


Greenpa said...

Hi Amanda- delighted to know folks are still reaching and using this stuff!

I've been putting off another guinea post for way too long; and that's part of the problem; the longer I put it off, the more that needs to go into it.

Worth noting here; we've had to back off on our claim to have gotten the guineas to consistently lay inside. A week or so after this post, we got complacent; and didn't gather the eggs fast enough. So for 3 days, the nest had an average of 15 eggs or so in it; all day, and night.

That caused a couple of the guinea hens to start sitting on the eggs, full time. 3 hens were sharing the duties- but that made all the other guineas look for somewhere else to lay. Outside, of course; just not room in that tiny "temporary" coop.

I'm still pretty sure it can be done, without much trouble, but with some more knowledge.

About the eggs:

"1. After the eggs are laid, how long will they last outside until they are bad to eat. If one is in the coop and one is in full sun all day, is the coop one good and the sunned one bad? "

I the sunned one will not be bad at that point ( unless your sun is a lot hotter than ours), but it will likely then have a shorter "shelf time" left.

"2. How long do guinea eggs last - or rather how long do I have to eat them? "

At least 2 weeks, if not left out in the sun all the time. :-)

3. I know you said you don't have a fridge but I still gotta ask - will they last longer in the fridge and if you know or have a good guess, how long?

Sure, they'll last longer if kept cooler; the 2 weeks number is guessing an average temperature of 60°F or cooler. At actual refrigeration temps, I'd bet on a month.