Wednesday, October 16, 2013

For some unknown reason we are extremely drawn toward guineas. We initially started a flock in order to help keep the tick and chigger populations down. The first summer we had adult guineas running around there was a hugely significant reduction of ticks in our yard.

They also serve as avian "watchdogs" alerting the entire countryside to startling situations in their little world. It's true, their raucous calls can be a little deafening and grating, especially if something scary sets them off at 4 in the morning. Yet somehow we still find them endearing, in their own extremely bazaar birdy way. And, to be honest, most of the time we no longer notice the cacophony. Hopefully the neighbors are the same.

After our first fun year of being guinea owners, the initial flock of guineas slowly started to disappear. They learned how to fly up in trees to escape danger and how to navigate away from aerial hawk attacks. And we thought they were fairly safe roosting on the chicken coop roof and tree above it. But every night one more would disappear, until I finally moved the remaining birds back into the chicken coop for safety. Apparently the chicken coop is too easy for predators to climb up.

Guinea keets are expensive to obtain and we couldn't justify emptying our wallets to replenish our flock every year. Last summer our guineas did go broody out in the fields and hatched at least two clutches of eggs. Sadly none of the keets made it more than a few days in the wild and we didn't manage to capture any. So this year we began hatching our own birds. Fortunately the predators had left us with two males and three females - a fairly well mixed group (guineas tend to be proper and monogamous little birds) - and we were blessed with the loan of an incubator.

Though I grew up with chickens and the occasional incubation/chick raising experience, we entered the summer as naive newbies to the guinea hatching world. Some lessons we learned the hard way, and it is due to this that I am motivated to try to jot down some notes for my own sake so I can remember a few pointers for next season.

For those experienced guinea owners out there, please feel free to leave lots of comments and let me know what other invaluable information I am missing out on.

Collecting Eggs:

Laying season for guineas around here is May-October. Each hen will typically lay about one egg a day. For good hatching success do not incubate eggs that are too small (chick could run out of room or hatch small and weak) or too large (could be double yolk).

I tried to provide a nesting spot for our guineas inside the chicken coop. Going off of some brief research I secured a section of plywood at an angle to the wall of the chicken coop and lined it with straw. They hid in their sometimes but never used it as a nest. They also hardly used the chicken nest boxes. Instead, our guineas scattered their eggs all over the floor inside the coop and in the outside run.

Collect eggs daily and discard ones that are too coated in dirt. Eggs that are a little dirty can be cleaned with a warm damp rag (make sure water temp is warmer than the egg) and dried before storing. Never submerge eggs in water.

Store eggs in a cool location (about 55-60 degrees, 70-75 % humidity) with the eggs placed small side down and slanted at a 45 degree angle. Keeping them in an egg carton with a 2x4 under one side works well, move the 2x4 over to the other side daily to "turn" eggs.

Allow eggs to come to room temperature for a day before placing them in incubator. Store eggs at least 24 hours after being laid before placing in incubator to allow the air sac to grow larger. Don't store eggs longer than 14 days.

Before placing eggs in incubator mark an "X" and "O" on opposite sides of egg to help remember how to turn the egg. Also, if incubating more than one batch of eggs at a time write the start date and/or hatch date on the egg.

Incubating Eggs:

 Follow incubator instructions and make sure it is holding a steady temperature before beginning to incubate eggs. Place a thermometer at a height to match the top of the eggs and a wet bulb thermometer to measure humidity. Do not adjust the heat upwards during the first 48 hours of incubation, over heating is more damaging than under heating. Heat should be 99.5 degrees, humidity should be 60% (increasing to 65-70% during last 3 days). Incubation time is 28 days (can vary from 26-30 days).

When adding water to the incubator make sure it is warm to the touch. 

Turn eggs (a half turn each time) multiple times daily, or use an automatic egg turner (definitely on my wish list for next year!). 

Hatching Eggs:

During last three days prior to hatch date: Stop turning the eggs, and increase the humidity. If incubating multiple batches of eggs in one incubator have a second incubator designated for the hatching period. The less you open the incubator during hatching the better. Humidity can be increased by changing the size of the water pan or by placing a damp sponge in the incubator. Having a second incubator for hatching also helps with clean up as you can wash the hatching incubator in between hatches and keep the mess out of the main incubator.

There are varying strong opinions on whether or not you should assist any hatching egg. Most people recommend not assisting. There is usually a good reason why the chick is not hatching successfully, and it is often something that can be genetically passed on. The same goes for eggs that hatch late - it is recommended to toss eggs within 12-24 hours after the rest of the eggs have hatched in order to prevent subsequent generations' hatch times getting spread over longer and longer intervals. 

We had mixed results in assisting with hatching. Some were successful, some we helped too early, some we helped too late, some were just too weak and it didn't matter what we did. At the end of the summer our general rule of thumb was to give the chick 24-48 hours of unassisted time. If the chick was stuck and not showing any signs of progress at that point we would consider intervening. At this point the ones that made it successfully were the ones that were still making at least some effort on their own. If we had to remove the shell and membrane off by ourselves the chick didn't make it. They might survive a day or two but in the end they just weren't healthy enough. However, if the chick was almost hatched, and still working hard but starting to show exhaustion, we would give it little boosts and let it push through the last bit itself. Those chicks were fun to help and I have to say, it is pretty rewarding to hatch out a little wet chick in the palm of your hand...and to know it is a fighter.

This site has some good tips on assisting hatches.

Leave the chicks in the incubator until they are completely dried off (about 6-12 hours). Then move them to a brooder.

Raising Keets:

 Set up a brooder with heat lamp, chick feeder (with game bird starter), chick waterer (with marbles in it to keep chicks from drowning) and a top (they can jump!). Keep thermometer in the brooder to monitor heat. Heat should start at 95 degrees and decrease 5 degrees every week after that. Place the lamp so that there is a cool spot away from the lamp where the chicks can escape if they get overheated. Place the water and food in the middle in between the lamp and the cool area. Wash out water container frequently to prevent dirt and mold build up.

Bedding should be textured to prevent spraddle leg. Next year I think we will use either wood shavings (not cedar) or a thin layer of straw. Watch for pasty-butt and feet coated with feces (this is typically a sign of overcrowding). Maintain good ventilation and change the bedding at least once a week (depending on how many chicks there are).

Once the chicks can be removed from the brooder you can keep them penned wherever you want their home base to be. Supposedly keeping them penned in the same location for 6-10 weeks will cement the homing instinct to that spot.

Our new plan (experiment) is for our guineas to use our old empty cement silo for a roosting area. We have yet to build a satisfactory set up in there but the plan is to secure at least two roosting poles across the inside of the silo at a sufficient height to keep them safe from predators. We are also discussing how to give them some additional cover over part of the perch to protect them from rain. We'll see how this works out next summer.

Most guinea owners recommend letting the guineas free range during the day and having a coop for them to return to at night so they can be locked up in safety. If they share a coop with chickens it is recommended to make the fencing around the outside chicken run 6 feet tall to keep the chickens in and let the guineas fly in and out at will. We tried that briefly the first year as well and had an opossum family climb over the six foot fencing and move into the chicken coop. This was probably due to the fact that we often forgot to lock up the door between the coop and the run at night. However, after that experience we put the roof back on our chicken run.

This article has lots of excellent information (including how to make and monitor a wet bulb thermometer).
And this site is a good resource as well.
And if you're looking for a long list of guinea links, check out this page.


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