Rebirth of the Guinea Hens

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

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.

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.