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The Captive Care and Natural History of the Helmeted Guineafowl

Helmeted Guinea FowlHelmeted or Gray-Breasted Guineafowl, Numida meleagris, are just about the most active, responsive and interesting birds that one can imagine.  I first worked with a free-ranging flock on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, and became an immediate fan.  Related to pheasants and domestic fowl, they are perhaps best known as egg and meat-producers, but if kept as pets they will reveal many other fine qualities.  Innate alertness renders them as fine a “watch dog” as one could want, and they are supreme hunters of ticks, weed seeds, mice and other pests.

Natural History

Helmeted Guineafowl are native to West Africa, where they inhabit dry grasslands, brushy savannas and overgrown fields.  Flocks hunt in a very organized manner, sometimes walking forward through the grass in a tight line to drive prey before them.  Very little, even the young and eggs of ground-nesting birds, is spared.  Birds hunting alone will carefully stalk insects in a most amusing, “cat-like” manner, and rarely miss their targets.

Guineafowl as Farm Animals

Despite centuries of captive breeding, Helmeted Guineafowl retain many of their natural instincts, including an amazing ability to detect danger.  They have long been used to warn their “dimmer” cousin, the domestic chicken, of the approach of hawks and other predators, and to keep yards clear of small snakes, rodents, crop pests and weeds.

Guineafowl quickly learn to recognize individual people, and sound a loud alarm at the approach of strangers.  Several kept outdoors by a friend of mine accepted my presence even though I visited infrequently, yet “screamed” if I brought along a stranger.

Head of Guinea FowlDomestic and semi-domestic Guineafowl strains, some of which top 7 pounds in weight (wild individuals average 3.5 pounds) are well-established in dozens of countries.  Pearl, violet, blue, lavender and a wide variety of other beautiful color phases have been established by breeders (please see article below for photos).

Being resilient to both heat and cold, and able to forage on their own in many habitats, Guineafowl are well-suited to life in harsh environments.  They are often crossed with domestic chickens in order to improve their vigor, and readily inter-breed with a wide variety of other relatives, including turkeys, various pheasants and even peafowl.

Guineafowl as Pets

Your Guineafowl will need the run of a large yard or other fenced-in area, or an outdoor aviary, with access to an indoor shelter during very cold or wet weather.  They spend most of their time on the ground, but prefer to roost in trees at night.  Most keepers lock them into a coop after dark, when they are at risk of attack by owls, raccoons and other predators.

Through the use of millet or other favorite treats, a flock can be trained to come to you when called. It is best to start out with young birds, known to Guineafowl fanciers as “keets”, as older individuals may be stressed by a change in habitat and will tend to wander, perhaps seeking a return to familiar haunts.

A number of other Guineafowl species are also bred in captivity.  My favorite is the “oddly-attractive’ Vulturine Guineafowl, Acryllium vulturinum (please see photo).


On farms or in large fields, Guineafowl will find a great deal of their own food during the warmer months, but should also be supplied with turkey pellets to assure a balanced diet.  Crickets and other insects, hard-boiled eggs, pigeon feed and other seeds and a variety of chopped greens will round out their diet.

Potential Concerns

As with any intelligent, active pet, Guineafowl do present some problems, especially in residential areas.  When agitated by a passing hawk, dog, or stranger, they let loose with loud, sharp screams – great for security’s sake, but troublesome if you are trying to sleep or have neighbors nearby.

Having evolved in arid habitats, they seem never to learn that water is dangerous…if a pond is present, they will drown.

Adult males can become quite aggressive – usually not to owners, but chickens, peafowl and small children are fair game.  I actually had to trap and relocate one free-ranging Bronx Zoo male who persisted in chasing down toddlers who crossed his path.

A Namesake in Greek Mythology

Vulturine Guinea FowlHelmeted Guineafowl have had a very long association with people, and their Latin species name, Meleagris, bears evidence of this.

The name is in reference to Prince Meleagros of Greek Mythology.  As the story goes, the prince’s 4 sisters were (for reasons unknown) turned into fowls.  The prince’s mother blamed him for this and the prince, unable to bear the shame, died.  This greatly saddened his (now chicken-like) sisters.  Their tears are said to be represented by the pearl-like markings on the Guineafowls’ breast.


Further Reading

Photos of amazing array of Guineafowl color phases that have been developed

Introducing Guineafowl to Farming Communities in Malawi

Videos – Rearing Guinea Fowl 

Helmeted Guinea Fowl image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by eboy

Head of Helmeted Guinea Fowl image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Bob

Vulturine Guinea Fowl image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Steve Garvey


  1. avatar

    Dear Frank

    Now a person like you, way far overseas (away from Namibia) has to comment on a bird that is sooo part of our growing up like learning how to walk….and YET your article has revealed lot of new interesting facts!
    We live in a road where we are the last row of houses. Opposite the road is a railway which divides us from the small local airport of our city; Windhoek.
    Well, in winter times, sometimes these cool birds come to forage on the railway strip…not visible but only audible! It also sometimes happens that one gets separated from the main group….and this is when these poor buggers REALLY become annoying!
    The lost bird will call very loud AND constantly until it will eventually find its way back to the main group our back to where it came from!
    I tell you Frank, its call can be heard for miles (kilometers) right through the night!

    Unfortunately this is the only thing I can recall of this bird SOOO familiar to ANY Namibian citizen. Never the less I would like to thank you for turning my eye into another light and start to appreciate this cool bird again!

    P.S. not worth mentioning, but they also have scorpion on their delicate food list…LOL

    Best regards

  2. avatar

    Hello Gert, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the interesting post; so nice to have your first-hand observations on Namibia’s birds and reptiles – please keep them coming, as it offers such a unique perspective.

    Yes, there calls, from what I have heard, are amazing…good when you need an alarm, but tough otherwise! I guess there is not much they will refuse as food..folks here favor them for tick control, they are said to make a real difference in tick-infested areas.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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