Reading Time: 5 minutes
Cotswold Wildlife Park is nestled in a quiet part of the English countryside, renowned for its quaint villages and yellow stone cottages. The park is home to a wide range of animals from rhinos to giraffes, to exotic birds. Today we’re meeting Chris Green, one of the bird keepers, who takes us to meet their “naughty guinea fowl.”
Chris steps into an aviary and ushers us in quickly as a Kenyan crested guinea fowl dances around his feet pecking his Wellington boots. We sidle in and quickly shut the gate. The naughty guinea fowl is a real character with lots of personality. Let’s call him Jimmy.
Jimmy is super-confident around people because he was hand-raised, so he’s not at all concerned about our presence. In fact, he thinks we’re a novelty. He likes to peck everything he sees. This is why he’s been dubbed “the naughty one” by keepers, who are used to nursing minor wounds after a visit to Jimmy’s enclosure. He’s just being friendly and likes attention.
However, Jimmy is no stranger to a bit of bad behavior. He was so lively when he was in the Africa enclosure that he had to be moved to a more secure location. In his new home, he shares his territory with a variety of exotic birds.
“Why was he moved?” I ask. I’m intrigued.
“He used to gently peck visitors’ fingers when they were over-familiar with him through the fence,” explains Chris. “And then he jumped over the fence, into the visitor area. That’s when we decided it was time to move him.” Jimmy’s escape caused some amusement among visitors, but he wasn’t going far. The whole area is surrounded by tall fences and gates.
It’s easy to see why Jimmy and the public need to be kept apart. Jimmy enjoys pecking people’s shoes, feet, knees … and anything else he can reach. So, to keep Jimmy in his rightful place, and everyone’s fingers intact, the keepers moved him to an aviary in the gardens. Here, he still makes the occasional bid for freedom through the keepers’ gate, but so far, unsuccessfully. He’s a lively little fellow!
Jimmy does enjoy attention and has a happy life at the park. He has an adorable mate, who perches quietly on a branch above us and looks down on Jimmy’s antics, probably in amiable despair! The couple gets on well.
“We usually keep crested guinea fowl in pairs because they can be aggressive and there’s a good chance they will fight if there are more than two together,” says Chris. “We have seven guinea fowl in total. These two (Jimmy and his wife) were born here. His parents were our first Kenyan crested guinea fowl and we got them from a private breeder. His grandparents were living wild in Africa in the 1980s and were brought to the UK when imports were allowed. We never take animals from the wild. One of ours came from Chester Zoo. We now have two pairs of Kenyan crested guinea fowl and three males.
“Not many people keep the Kenyan crested guinea fowl in the UK. Most farms that have guinea fowl have the helmeted variety or vulturine guinea fowl, which are bald.”
Chris looks at Jimmy, who’s having a good peck at his knee, and I ask about breeding. “These two eat their eggs, which makes successful breeding difficult,” he says. “We do try to save the eggs and incubate them, but the eggs often fail to hatch. This is probably because we have little genetic diversity among the breeding population.”
The species is classified as “least concern,” so they’re not threatened in the wild. They do have predators, but there are no projects in place to protect the species because they’re doing fine in their native lands of Africa.
“In the U.S., people often keep Reichenow’s helmeted guinea fowl,” says Chris. “They have a bony bit on the head.”
Jimmy gives me a good peck and Chris pushes him away. I ask about their care needs and challenges. “They’re easy to keep,” Chris explains. “They stay outside most of the year. We shut them in when there’s heavy snow, but they’re very robust. If it’s -10 degrees Celsius outside we’ll shut them inside to keep them warm. They’re nice birds and they stay in good condition all year — they never look scruffy.
“The biggest challenges are hatching them and rearing them,” he continues. “They’re not the easiest to breed because their genetic diversity isn’t as good as it should be. The gene pool is small and we can’t import to increase the gene pool … Well maybe we could, but we don’t. The lack of people keeping them in the UK limits our ability to find them suitable matches. There are only two collections in addition to ours — one at Chester Zoo and a couple at nearby Birdland, where they have a brother and sister.”
I ask about their nighttime habits. “They roost in the trees,” says Chris, “and go to a specific tree at night. They make an alarm call if they get spooked and they can be very noisy.”
What do they eat? “I feed and water them every day,” he says, “give them pheasant pellet, corn, lettuce, carrot, boiled egg, chopped fruit, vegetables, mealworms, and other stuff. They have plenty of grit on the floor of their enclosure. Most of the birds are wary of visitors and keep out of the way, but this naughty one is very sociable. He pecks people to say ‘hello,’ if he gets the chance!
“The guineafowl lay eggs between April and August. There are usually about five in a clutch.”
“Do any of the others have funny habits?” I ask.
Chris says, “One of our guinea fowl pecked the feathers off his mate’s head, so she was bald. It didn’t do her any harm and she wasn’t hurt, but individual birds do exhibit some strange behaviors sometimes!
“Our visitors like them,” Chris continues, “especially when this one is being sociable!” He points to Jimmy, who’s now taken to pecking my husband’s feet. This enclosure has some extra perks for Jimmy and his girl. “They have more perches than they did in the Africa enclosure. The perches make life more interesting for them.
“I do routine health checks,” Chris adds. “I look out for scaly leg, ticks, and signs that they’ve been fighting. These are things you have to look out for in chicken flocks too, so it’s very common.”
After we’ve exited the aviary, Jimmy hops up onto a branch and looks at us outside. He’s a curious little fellow and he seems to enjoy perching on the branches and watching the world go by.
Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.