Animal Husbandry December 2009

The Great Guinea Hen Massacre

Good intentions collide with dumb birds on a small farm in Pennsylvania.

I live on a small farm in Oxford, Pennsylvania, and this summer my wife, Gail, and I decided to install on our modest acreage a flock of guinea fowl.

Birds are colorful and entertaining, worthy of cultivating for their own sake, but we had a darker purpose. Guineas eat deer ticks. Like every unpaved acre in this part of the world, our property harbors an ever-growing herd of white-tailed deer, and is thus infested with the little Lyme disease–carrying arachnids. In the world of tick, we were assured, guinea hens are feathered hell.

They arrived in early June as chicks, 25 of them, each small enough to fit quivering in the palm of one hand. They quickly grew into rambunctious and noisy keets, and by the end of August were about the size and shape of rugby footballs, wandering our property in a chattering flock. There were whites, royal purples, pearls, and lavenders. All sorts of grotesque wattles and other growths popped out of their heads, above and below their orange beaks, but they had lovely plumage. The pearls, in particular, are so named because their dark-gray coloring shows off an even spray of white specks.

One stood out. From birth, this bird was fearless. Whenever Gail or I would show up to change their water or clean their box in our bathroom, the birds would form a writhing, screaming mass that tried to merge itself into the far corner, or become invisible. This one, a pearl, whom we named Luke, after Cool Hand Luke, would sit alone on the top perch and eye us up and down, as if to say, “You again?” He would sometimes fly out of the box and strut around the bathroom, and when we stooped to pick him up, he didn’t even try to get away. We figured he was either the world’s smartest guinea fowl or the stupidest—the latter distinction being highly competitive.

When they became too raucous, and started tearing apart their jury-rigged indoor cardboard nest, we built a coop in the yard. Actually, less of a coop than a poultry condo, complete with a 14-foot ceiling and five roosting levels. The coop was roughly 20 times as expensive as the birds, but once you have hand-raised a flock, you have a harder time abiding the idea of a fox, dog, raccoon, or feral cat digging its way into your birds’ lair and turning them into a poultry smorgasbord. We have plenty of wild predators on our farm, and even if we didn’t, we have a Jack Russell named Duey who, beneath his puppy-like cuteness, is a ruthless serial killer.

Put it this way: Duey once saw a chicken. Seconds later, the bird was no more. Duey 1, Chickens 0.

Make that Duey 2, Poultry 0, since he nailed one guinea when Gail left the door to the coop open behind her for an ill-advised split second. The Jack has ever since been biding his time, nose pressed to the screen. Mind you, dogs are especially good at biding their time.

Guineas have four modes: eating, sleeping, chattering, and screaming in terror. Chicken Little had some guinea in her. Here’s what you need to know about a flock: it has no idea what is happening, it is scared of everything, it makes noise constantly, and its long-term memory is about five seconds. You may note a resemblance here to how news disseminates on the Internet and cable TV.

Communication among flock members is very simple. In English, it would go something like this:

“I’m okay.”

“Me, too.”

“Good over here.”

“I’m okay too.”

Presented by

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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