Fauna March 2011

Rebirth of the Guinea Hens

The author’s fowl defy the blogosphere and stage a comeback.

I shooed her off with a broom, which she pecked at valiantly, while Gail collected all the eggs. The pearl was vocally unhappy about the theft for about 30 seconds, and then promptly went off in search of her mate. They went right back to their old routines. We went to the local grain-and-feed store and bought an incubator.

The pearl built and filled four nests last summer. She laid upwards of 80 brown-speckled eggs. We incubated three of the batches, enthusiastically but inexpertly. I had ambitions for replacing the entire original lost flock, but we ended the season with 14 new birds. The coop was once again a noisy, lively place.

It wasn’t easy. Some of the keets popped right out of the egg after 28 days, as though arriving on time at the train station. Once out, most were hardy and fast-growing. But nature is neither clean nor perfect. Some got stuck in their eggs and didn’t make it, so we listened to them chirp plaintively for days, trapped and dying. We learned the hard way that helping them out is ill-advised—if they can’t make it out of the egg, they are usually doomed.

A few of our hatchlings arrived damaged. One was born with the long orange toes of one foot curled. Taking instructions from a Web site, I straightened the toes and taped them firmly to a small square of cardboard. The keet stomped around unhappily on the makeshift flapper for about five hours, and—voilà! Straight toes! But even after the foot was fully restored, he remained suspect, for some reason, to his fellow hatchlings, a fact that was not immediately apparent.

We now had three groups of birds. There were the older two, the parents. Then came the first batch of offspring, hatched in early July, whom we now considered teenagers. And we had a batch of toddlers, hatched in early September. As with all the other issues we faced in this saga, we turned to our not-so-trusted adviser, the Internet, for how best to integrate younger birds with older ones in the coop.

Some Web sites stated flatly that it was best to introduce the younger birds when they were still small, because they would naturally submit to the authority of the teenagers and adults. If you waited until they were more mature, the new birds would be more likely to fight back, which could get ugly.

Others argued that the right way was to place the smaller birds in the coop inside their own cage, so that the flock could get used to them over time without being able to attack them.

We initially opted for the first approach, which went fine for all except the one white keet whose foot I had straightened. There was nothing different about him anymore to my eyes, but the teenage birds attacked the little guy mercilessly. I found him one afternoon jammed into a corner of the coop with his head hidden in a narrow opening between a pipe and the wall, where the other birds could not get at him. I rescued him and nursed him back to health.

I then attempted, with him, the second approach. I put him back inside the coop in his own cage. He was in with the rest of the flock, but they couldn’t attack him. This apparently just built resentment, because when, after a few weeks, I decided to let him back out, the teenagers waited until I left and then pecked the poor little guy nearly to death. I found him bloody and unconscious, with what looked to be a hole pounded into the top of his head.

He survived, and I ended up giving him away with the one bird that hatched out of the third batch of eggs we recovered. The newly hatched sibling seemed to think his older brother was hunky-dory, and they got on famously. Both are reported thriving.

As for the dozen new guineas we kept, we don’t plan to let them leave the coop until the spring, when they will be about the same age their parents were when they demonstrated a knack for survival. We are hoping they will follow the example set by their elders—the eternal hope of parents everywhere.

The two adult guineas, the male white and female pearl, have names now. Our son Ben dubbed them Adam and Eve, although we prefer the more pedestrian Mr. and Mrs. They are inseparable. Next summer, when we turn their offspring loose, we do not plan to hunt down every last nest and egg, nor do we plan to go through the sordid business of incubating and integrating another batch.

We are instead going to test the theory that guineas cannot successfully breed in the wild in these parts. Internet advice has been iffy about everything else. My money is on the birds.

Presented by

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Best Game Ever, about the 1958 NFL championship game. 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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