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.”

“Wait!”

“What was that?”

“Oh, my God!”

“Oh, my God!”

“Oh, my God!”

“Look out!”

“Look out!

“Run!”

“Run!”

At which point they flee and flutter pell-mell. Unbridled terror lasts for just a few seconds, which is as long as it takes them to forget whatever it was that prompted the stampede. The behavior repeats.

We let them out of the coop for the first time when they were about three months old, well past the recommended time. At first they sensibly refused to step out—all except for Luke, that is, who promptly hopped into one of the pastures and started chasing our Andalusian mare around like he owned the place. It took the others a few hours to venture forth.

And then … they ran off. Contrary to encouraging advice about the breed, gathered mostly from books and the Internet, which assured us that they would not stray far from their coop, they took off like a mob of unleashed teenagers, the whole flock of 23 (another, alas, had expired in the coop on the hottest day of August, prompting the installation of a fan). They bore southwest and just kept on going, as if drawn by some poultry siren over the horizon, making their way across several broad Thoroughbred horse pastures, then across Route 472, and so on toward the setting sun. After it became clear they were not planning to turn around, we made a heroic effort to herd them back, leaping tall fences, crossing the road, and, with curious horses peering over our shoulders, driving them before us with long sticks. The guineas were having none of it.

We gave up, and the guineas vanished.

Gail took it harder than I did. She is of the Bambi school, while I am more of a “nature, red in tooth and claw” person. We had given it our best shot, I figured, and had succeeding only in serving a moveable feast to our neighborhood foxes, dogs, and hawks. Neither of us ever expected to see them again.

But, lo! Three days later, they were back, chattering away in our middle pasture, minus two. One of the missing was Luke. We admire fearlessness, but it is a poor survival strategy. Not bad, all in all, I thought—only one fatality per night in the wild. The flock seemed chastened, and to have lost its appetite for wandering.

Temporarily.

Then came the great guinea-hen massacre.

We have a fairly large property, so the flock has many safe acres in which to roam, chatter, panic, and vacuum ticks. But some madness, weeks later, propelled them once more to alien pastures. You would think that eons of evolution would have clued the guinea to Labradors. But, no. Amber, the chocolate Lab in question, is an especially obedient and friendly dog. She never saw a human hand she wasn’t eager to lick, and never strays from her own farm.

“She just tore into them,” said Chuck, our neighbor and Amber’s owner, who witnessed the slaughter and came away shocked by the flock’s stupidity. “I kept thinking they would try to get away,” he said.

Chuck found four carcasses, and five other birds just vanished, either down Amber’s gullet or felled by sheer terror in the high weeds.

The rest returned, an even dozen—less than half of those we raised. Duey is still biding his time. Gail is afraid to let them out of the coop. At night, mixed in with the usual racket of tree frogs and katydids, I swear I can hear deer ticks out there, laughing at us.

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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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