Animal husbandry is not for sissies. It has now been more than a year and a half since my wife, Gail, and I first brought a box of chirping, week-old guinea fowl home to our small Pennsylvania farm, and began diligently rearing them. We built them a luxurious coop, and provided them with warmth, food, drink, and 16 acres to roam.
Deer ticks were infesting our acreage, thanks to a Malthusian proliferation of their white-tailed hosts, and we were assured that the guineas would make short work of the little bloodsuckers. An organic solution! We never got a chance to see if it worked, because when our rambunctious flock of 25 was turned loose, the birds proceeded to defy all predictions of guinea-fowl behavior—that they would not wander far from the coop; that they would establish a predictable daily routine; that they would return to the safety and warmth of the coop every evening; that they would fly up to a tree branch to avoid danger …
Down on the Farm With Mark Bowden The Atlantic's national correspondent shows off his home and his guinea hens.
Ours made haste to their own demise. They showed no skill or even inclination to avoid the onslaught of neighborhood carnivores, and were thus dispatched, one by one, by foxes, hawks, and that most deadly scourge of local poultry, Amber, the ever-cheerful chocolate Lab who lives next door—a course of events that I documented for this magazine (“The Great Guinea Hen Massacre,” December 2009).
By winter our hand-reared flock had been cruelly whittled down to just two, one white and the other gray (the type is called a “pearl”). We decided to keep our two survivors safely cooped up, and then give them away come spring, hopefully to someone in a more peaceable spot.
It turns out to be hard to give grown guineas away. When the weather grew warm, the two survivors clamored ever louder each day to be turned out. They are insistent birds, and they can make themselves very loud, as in scare-the-horses-and-annoy-the-neighbors loud. We relented one morning, and against our better judgment opened the coop door and bid them adieu.
Then an amazing thing happened. They came back! Not just the first evening, but the next, and the next, and the next. They stayed right on our hilltop property, just as all the books and Web sites promised they would, and just as all their more headstrong feathered brethren had not.
Intelligent behavior in guineas, it seems, is an inverse function of their number, a truth long known about human beings. The large flock was good at only one thing: panic. Confronted with a threat, its members acted out a perfectly choreographed charade of a nervous breakdown, full of fluttering feathers and high-decibel clatter, and then succumbed to whatever had alarmed them.
Our survivors still panicked, but they also evaded. When one of our dogs took off after them, they would squawk with annoyance and fly to the nearest roof or high branch, hurling fowl invective down at their tormentors. Conscious of danger from above, they would move swiftly when crossing a pasture or yard, and mostly keep to tree lines, tall grasses, or brush. These two, the white and the pearl, almost a year old, seemed to have figured things out.
We still refused to name them, anticipating their certain extinction, but despite ourselves by early summer we had grown quite attached. I loved to see their wattled, bobbing heads pop up unexpectedly from our gardens, or watch them flee in loud panic when the lawn mower scared them from a thicket. There is something innately comical about them. Sure, two birds weren’t enough to be useful for tick control, but they were a charming and (in their own way) beautiful addition to our farm.
Then the pearl stopped coming back. One night it was just the big white waiting outside the coop, and we assumed the worst. It was a sad but unsurprising turn. Except, the next day, the pearl reappeared, frantically racing around with the white, as if feeding in double time. That evening, again only the white waited outside the coop. The answer was apparent. The previous summer’s massacre had fortuitously left us with a male and a female. Our pearl was a girl. She had built a nest somewhere in the woods, filled it with eggs, and was now sitting on them.
Every scrap of intelligence about guineas, who are native to much of Africa, assures you that their offspring are not likely to survive in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Eggs and newly hatched keets need a steady dry temperature of 95-plus degrees, the experts say. Besides, the hen, exposed outdoors overnight for weeks on end, is, to borrow an expression, a sitting duck.
So we stalked the pearl one afternoon, crawling through underbrush and lurking behind trees, following her to the hidden nest. It was on the ground in a deep thicket of grass and brush, so cunningly placed that had we not watched her wriggle into the spot, we might have stood right over it without seeing it. Twenty-two eggs were in her nest.