|By Brenda H. Reed
any of us who garden also raise chickens, guineas, ducks, geese and turkeys. These fowl can help us by eating the insects from our gardens, flower gardens as well as vegetable gardens can benefit from them. The key to the success of the birds’ contribution is the timing of when we let them go into the garden so that they do more good than harm.
In general, if you let chickens into the garden to graze while it is still full of tomatoes, the chickens are most likely going to bite into the tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, or whatever else strikes their fancy.
They aren’t as likely to have worms and insects for dinner. But if you let them into the garden as the garden plants have finished producing, the chickens will go after worms and insects with a vengeance. They will scratch to dig up anything that may be under the dirt such as mealy worms. They will also take some earthworms, but not enough to be a problem. They will also eat some of the spent vegetation. The insects and vegetation they consume make the eggs they lay protein-packed and a yolk color of deep yellow to deep orange. It is much better to let the chickens into the garden between growing seasons; they do much better that way.
Geese are great weed eaters and walking lawn mowers. They just walk along clipping off the top of the grass, not tearing it up as chickens would do or snorkeling it like a duck would. Geese eat only greenery, never bugs, as they are vegetarians. Geese should have lots of room to forage and probably the area should not be an enclosed garden. They are big and may trample some plants, and sometimes will eat vegetables such as asparagus and strawberries.
Geese are more like grazing animals than any type of poultry. Their beak and tongue are particularly well equipped for grazing. The beak has sharp interlocking serrated edges designed to easily cut and divide grass and other plant tissue. The tongue at the tip is covered with hard, hair-like projections, pointing towards the throat, which quickly convey the pieces of grass and other vegetable material into the throat. The rough covering on the point of the tongue enables geese to bite off plants even closer to the ground than sheep can. Because of this, overstocking must be avoided as the ground will become bare.
Ducks are really good about eating snails in the garden. They also do a bit of weeding, but if they find a little bit of water in the dirt, they will snorkel in it until they have themselves a little pond to get muddy in. Lots of people have ducks on farms where there isn’t any water for the ducks to swim in. We had four and eventually they became a nuisance with their digging holes where there was water, say where the water hose had been to fill containers for the chickens, guineas and ducks. As soon as we’d fill the duck pans with water, they would hop right in and nasty the water up immediately. Since this went on and on, we decided they would be happier on a lake and we gave the four of them to a friend on Lake Conroe, where they have been extremely happy living a duck’s life for two years now.
Turkeys need a large area to roam so they wouldn’t do very well enclosed in a garden area. Get the young birds out onto the grass early, even at 1 to 2 weeks. Turkeys have a hard time with fences. If you want to get them used to moveable fence, you have to start early. Otherwise, they will just run through it. Start with a short fence using rebar and heavy black landscape cloth when the chicks are two weeks old (they roam out of their insulated house to the fence). Then move the 5- to 6-week-old birds to a day range with shelter pens surrounded by poultry netting that has been doubled so that the holes are small enough and the young turkeys can’t squeeze through. The young turkeys learn well enough that the fence is a barrier at this early age that they will then respect a fence for the rest of their life.
Turkeys are indeed different to raise than chickens and you need to try as much as possible to duplicate their natural habitat. Turkeys like a lot of space to roam, and do best within open-topped large range. Turkeys are actually very personable and friendly, and will sit on your back porch if you don’t contain them, so keep this in mind also.
Guinea fowl are my all-time favorite birds to let into my vegetable gardens for organic pest control. They are very careful not to step on plants and once they see an insect, there is no escaping the guineas. They eat weed seeds, certain weeds and they stay much too busy to wallow dust bath holes. They have their favorite place in the yard underneath a pear tree for that. They don’t peck tomatoes or any vegetables. Ours have been trained to go inside their house at dusk, preventing owls and other predators of the night killing them. It is quite easy to train them to their house, really. You just leave them in there for a couple of months when they are growing, and then begin letting them out for a couple of hours before sundown. That way they don’t venture off far at all but keep an eye on them just in case. They are intelligent birds, given the chance and some patience.
We have added more baby guineas as of late and the grown guineas are helping to train the little ones to go inside at night. So my favorite fowl are the guineas and chickens, though I may add a few Weeder Geese to the farm someday.