Posted on | August 11, 2011 | 6 Comments
**Note from the author: OK, so I forgot to post Part 2 and Part 3 of my article for Farm To Table. There have been some complaints whining questions from people who want to know how it all ended. So I am posting the article in its entirety below. Please be aware that this article revolves around events that took place in May and June, so it’s a bit out of sequence with the rest of the blog. Especially since I wrote about some of the guineas’ antics in my earlier post, “Circumstances.” I tried to fix that but after 30 minutes of trying to display this post under June archives while simultaneously having it be current on Facebook, I got pissed off weepy bored with it and decided to leave it as it is. Please enjoy. And if you have any further complaints whining questions, please feel free to email them to complaints whining questions@my[spam]farmblog[spam].com. If you don’t get a reply, I apologize. Sometimes my spam blocker has a mind of its own and deletes legitimate emails. Go figure.
Guineas Gone Wild.
It began in May when their already exploratory nature became practically nomadic. Instead of 13 guineas roosting comfortably in the barn each night, I began to find only 10. Or 8. Or 5! Occasionally one would stumble in just as I was finishing the evening chores, disheveled and shaking his head as if to say, “You would not believe what went down underneath the cedar tree today, boys. You would just not believe.” Their usually tight knit group broke into ever-changing cliques, the males took to chasing each other, the females, and even a stray hen or two around the barn yard, and I think I found a few tags scrawled on the backside of the chicken coop. Although that could have been the rooster stirring the pot a bit.
This behavior resulted, as this type of behavior always does, in disaster. You can only spend the night huddled under the rose bush, too exhausted from procreational activities to drag yourself home, once or twice before the fox catches on. Setting up a love nest on the backside of the pond with your latest sweetie is charming, cozy, and right in coyote territory. Deciding to cross the road in search of new stomping grounds means, well, crossing the road. The road with logging trucks and soccer moms late for practice going at least 10 miles over the speed limit. Of course, flying over the perimeter fencing into the neighbor’s yard isn’t a better choice. The neighbor harbors a shotgun and an extreme hatred of guineas. I tried telling him that guineas eat ticks. Deer ticks. Deer ticks that carry disease. Deer ticks that carry disease and are dropped by the deer that gather in his yard. Deer ticks that carry disease and are dropped by the deer that gather in his yard because he actually FEEDS THE DEER. But just the fact that he actually FEEDS THE DEER tells you what kind of crazed and unreasonable person he is. I bet he has kinfolk that put out those corn on the cob feeders for squirrels. Feeding deer and squirrels….I mean, really. Who does that?
So by the time June rolled around there were only 8 guineas remaining. Meaning that their frenzied attempts to reproduce had actually resulted in fewer members of the flock instead of more. Which made me wonder, not for the first time, how in the world guineas managed to live in the wild. Sometimes it seemed like each guinea’s only plan for survival is to simply hope that there’s someone in the flock dumber than him or herself. Although, I admit that’s how I got through math in high school. Too bad there’s no curve in real life as generous as the curve in Mr Greer’s calculus class.
Of course, this all meant I had to step in to preserve my remaining birds and replace the ones I lost. Around here, it means you have really messed up badly when I have to step in. Since my own ratio of wins to losses is pretty shaky, my intervention is like going on a talk show to repair a relationship. Scary, scary stuff. As soon as the goats saw me surreptitiously gathering guinea eggs from the nests, they knew there was going to be trouble. Brianna, my herd queen, muttered to her daughter, Magenta, “This kind of behavior is how we ended up with kids being born in December last year when it was 20 degrees outside.” “Don’t I know it,” commiserated Magenta, “Don’t I know it.” As if it’s such a big deal to make a mistake on the goat gestational calendar. As if I didn’t pay for that mistake by having to run heat lamps and hair dryers and invest in kidding coats. Jeez.
With guinea eggs stolen and safely tucked into the incubator I started on the second part of my plan. Hatching my own keets was smart (Plan A), but I’ve learned over the years that having a back-up plan (the infamous Plan B) is even smarter. Plan B involved locking 4 guineas in the garden and had the huge bonus of letting them patrol the garden for their own food. Since guineas don’t scratch or eat lots of greens like chickens, this allowed me to have natural and organic bug control (the guineas eating garden pests) while simultaneously maintaining at least 4 members of the flock in a safe and controlled environment. The bonus bonus was no more coming up from harvesting vegetables covered in little seed ticks. The bonus bonus bonus was that if I put in 1 male and 3 females, then I knew any eggs laid would be fertile and at least one hen would be likely to go broody and hatch out some young. The bonus bonus bonus bonus was having guineas corralled in the garden right next to the house adjacent to our property line that was foreclosed on earlier in the year. Prospective buyers were sure to hear the guineas’ loud raucous alarm calls when they viewed the property, politely decline to make an offer, and sooner or later the bank would get desperate enough to accept our puny proposal of 1/3 of the house’s asking price. Pure evil genius. Mwahahahaha.
Unfortunately, Plan B entailed putting up an 8 foot chain link fence around the garden to keep the guineas in and predators out. Plus hauling the chicken tractor all the way down the farm drive and clearing a level spot in the garden for it so it could be a guinea house. Also putting some rivets into shade cloth and driving stakes to hang it in several locations to provide a break from the garden’s full sun. Never mind spending several nights trying to track down and catch 4 of the remaining guineas when they roosted for the night. Why is it that a guinea will bed down for 3 consecutive nights under the deck stairs, but as soon as you sneak out to capture him you find him 10 feet up in a pine tree?
That joyful procedure went along with my attempts to definitively determine which guineas were male and which were female so that I could choose 1 male and 3 females for the garden. Supposedly guinea males have bigger wattles than females. But when they’re agitated (i.e being chased around the barn yard) all their wattles perfuse with blood making them equally red and enlarged. Furthermore, guinea males make a one note alarm call while females make a two note call which, according to the literature, sounds like “buck-wheat, buck-wheat.” Have you ever heard a bird say, “Buck-wheat”? Yeah, me neither. And if I did I’d have that talking bird in the circus in a skinny minute and never farm another day in my life. In the end I managed to catch 4 guineas, clip their wings, toss them in the garden, and just had to let them work out the gender logistics on their own. What, you thought all those bonuses came without a little sweat equity? Please, this is a farm. It doesn’t come with an Easy button.
I soon had evidence that the Fates were on my side, though. One evening there were only 3 guineas up in the barn yard for dinner. Frantic that the remaining 4 free ranging guineas had dropped in number, I searched the property. Lo and behold, I found a female covering what looked like 20 or 30 eggs in a nest in the back pasture. She had a reasonable position under a pallet and was in an area patrolled by the livestock guardian dog. As long as the livestock guardian dog didn’t start sneakily eating her eggs (something I suspect happens on occasion to broody poultry but have yet to witness), she had a decent chance of hatching her brood. I was sure that other guineas would continue to lay eggs under her, resulting in varying hatch times, but that happens so frequently around here that we’ve almost got that madness down to a controlled science. As long as you use the loose definition of “controlled.” So with a little help from a determined guinea hen, I now had a Plan C.
Imagine my surprise a few days later when I stopped by the feed mill for my usual check-book-defying feed order and was told by the owner that he was expecting a special delivery in a few weeks. “More chicks?” I asked, knowing that his spring orders had sold very well. “Nope,” he said, “Guinea keets.” Oh, sunny, sunny day. A Plan D!! I was confident that at least one of my other plans would work. But I wouldn’t be ashamed to buy keets from the feed mill. No, sirree. Independence and self sufficiency is important in farming. So is realism. Besides, how can we save the economy if we don’t support our small locally owned businesses? If buying guinea keets is what it takes to keep my flock from dying out and support economic recovery, then buying guinea keets is exactly what I’ll do. I’m very patriotic that way. And kind of desperate. Possibly even out of other options. Whatever.
It’s hard to say when things started going wrong. I guess it all began when I found that 1 guinea had flown out of the garden and it appeared to be a female. Leaving me with what looked like 2 males and 1 female combing the bean plants for bugs. Well, combing the bean plants inbetween when the 2 males were trying to kill each other. As it happened, a free ranging guinea was hit by a car a few days later and I found her lying in the driveway with a broken leg. Aha! She was a perfect candidate to go in the garden. Another female and a guinea with not much means of escape. So I had 4 guineas in the garden again and the gender issue a bit more evened out. Until she died. Leaving me with only 7 guineas total and a sinking feeling in my gut. Good thing the eggs in the incubator were due to hatch soon.
And those eggs seemed to be developing just fine. Well, the ones that were fertile anyway. Candling had already revealed that out of the 36 eggs I set in the incubator, only 18 were fertile. I honestly didn’t understand how that was possible with all the sexual hijinks that had been going on in the guinea flock. I suppose that the males had been too busy posturing and battling for possession and territory to actually consummate their victories. It really surprises me that there aren’t more matriarchal societies in the world. It really does. But the developing eggs had already changed from a black eye dot in a nest of spidery veins to breathing, kicking shadows filling the eggs. Oh, we were so excited when they began to hatch. We were still excited when only 5 hatched out on their own. We were hopeful when we had to assist 3 more out of their shells. Our hope started to slip when 2 of those 3 died. But then a couple more eggs got external pips and finally released 2 of our favorite type of keets—the chipmunk colored ones that grow up to be a beautiful pearl gray. That was it. 8 out of 18. Not a spectacular addition to my record of wins and losses. What is 8 out of 18? Not exactly a strike or a gutter ball. Perhaps, a scratch? A foul? A sign that I should invest more than $20 in a cheap styrofoam incubator where I hand turn the eggs and mist them with a sprayer bottle to adjust humidity?
I felt a little bad as I emptied the incubator of the eggs that didn’t make it and bleached it clean. Until the next day, when the guinea hunkered down in the back pasture hatched out her nest. We arrived in the barn yard for the morning milking and found her strutting around with 3 gray balls and 2 chipmunk colored balls of fluff. 5??!! 5 out of approx. 30 eggs??!! We rushed over to the nest site and found she had made a rookie mistake. She got off the nest with the first early hatchers and didn’t wait for those that were just a few hours behind. We gathered any eggs that were peeping or had external pips and rushed them back to the house. Where I hurriedly set up the incubator amidst much grumbling about how I had just bleached the darn thing and put it all carefully away. When the eggs were safely rescued and placed under the incubator’s warmth, we returned to the morning chores. Pretty and I clucked our tongues and shook our heads at the mother guinea’s dismal results. “At least we did better than she did,” Pretty remarked as we opened the brooder box to put in fresh water. And discovered 2 of our incubated keets had died overnight from pasty butt. Pride goeth before a fall, people, pride goeth before a fall.
That afternoon we returned to the back pasture to escort the free range mother guinea and her young into a separate pen and house where they could be protected and get special feed. “Escort” is probably not the proper term. The incident actually involved a lot of chasing with a net, cursing when she would fly out of our reach, and shrieking when she attacked us. Never mind that these maneuvers had to be carried out while being ever mindful of 5 teeny, precious keets scurrying under our feet. In desperation, Pretty snatched a keet from close to her and held it up for the mother to see. Then she slowly walked toward the pen where we wanted the guinea to go. This is a trick that works great with a duck. A mother duck will see you clutching one of her babies, listen to its frantic peeps, and charge you in a furious rush. You keep moving towards the destination, she keeps coming, and eventually everybody ends up where they need to be. The only tricky part is giving the mother back the duckling without losing your finger in process. Which seems like Easy Street compared to conducting this process with a guinea mother.
The first problem was that the captured guinea keet didn’t peep. He just went still and quiet in Pretty’s hand. So although we had one of the guinea’s babies, she seemed totally unaware of it. Or she didn’t care because she had still had 4 left and, believe me, 4 children is enough for anyone. I’m not sure which. So we decided to grab all the babies and then she’d have to pay attention. I chased her off to the side with the net and Pretty went after the keets. Which is when we ran into the second problem. Unlike ducklings, guinea keets don’t stand still and huddle together for protection when their mother leaves their side. Instead they fan out over the ground, finding a leaf or branch to camouflage themselves against and sit very, very still and quiet. It’s an impressive survival tactic (especially for a guinea). It’s also a very frustrating one. By the time we had tracked down all 4 keets, the mother had gotten bored with the whole process and headed off to eat breakfast with the chickens. And even then all 5 keets together wouldn’t peep when they were being held. Little, who had wandered outside to observe all the hub-bub, was amazed at this. “Mommy,” he called, “They’ve been keet-napped and they don’t even know it!”
Good thing that Ingenuity was actually our first choice for the name of this farm. We only changed it when we realized Ingenuity is one of those words that starts to sound made up after you say it out loud a bunch of times in a row. But even if it we ditched it as a name for the farm, we still have it. So we grabbed an empty strawberry basket, put the keets under it in the middle of the pen where we wanted the mother, and backed away to see what happened. Of course, what happened was the keets overturned it and started to escape, but after we rushed back in, snagged them, and put them under the basket with a large rock on top, we quietly took position on the side of the barn. Once the keets thought we were gone, they finally began calling for their mother. I’m not sure but it sounded a little like “buck-wheat, buck-wheat.” (Just kidding! Keets don’t talk any better than adult guineas!!) And when the mother had her fill of grain, she finally lifted her head and warily started toward the pen. Oh, she knew it was a trick because she hesitated for a long time at the entrance. And she went around the perimeter of the pen several times, searching for a less obvious opening. But eventually she wanted her babies too much to avoid it (Or like any other mother she couldn’t stand the whining anymore and just gave in. Kind of like buying a candy bar when you’re in the check out aisle. You know it’s a scam but, for Pete’s sake, if it provides even 2 minutes of peace and quiet it’s soooo worth it!). Voila! After only, well, I don’t know how long it took, but I know it required me to open a bottle of Diet Coke to recover from the stress of it when we got back into the house, we had the mother guinea and her 5 keets safely penned up. The tide was turning in our favor in regards to the survival of the guineas. Or so I thought.
After dirtying up my nice clean and sanitized incubator, only 2 of the rescued eggs hatched out. Which was only worth the hassle of having to clean it all over again because they were both pearl grays. Also, because I didn’t have to do it. Middle was willing to carry off all the rotten eggs, scrub off egg shells and hatching goo, and bleach out the ‘bator in return for 15 minutes on the computer. He used that time to play several rounds of Angry Birds. Which is kind of ironic, don’t you think?
In any case, I added the 2 newly hatched keets to the ones remaining in the brooder box. Watching them all stretch out to snooze under the heat lamp, I sighed. “It’s kind of like 2 steps forward and one step back,” I said to Big, who had come into the barn to see what he could do to earn Angry Bird time. “Actually, it’s exactly 2 steps forward and 2 steps back. Didn’t you have 8 keets this morning, 2 died, 2 new ones were born, and now you still only have 8?” At that point I told him the only chore I had available to earn computer time was scrubbing under the rim of the toilet bowls with a toothbrush. Take that, smarty pants.
It went downhill fast from there. The next morning we discovered that the guinea mother that we had so carefully escorted to her own pen had smothered one of her keets. The next morning she had killed another one. With a heavy heart, I removed her remaining keets, added them to the brooder box, and set her loose. The difficulty with domesticated animals is sometimes they just don’t have enough natural instinct remaining to manage on their own. And around here the only person they have to help them is me. Which is, at least, better than the neighbor with the shotgun. By a smidgen.
To make matters worse, one of the female guineas in the garden disappeared. For the next several days, I painstakingly counted bald grey guinea heads during the morning feeding for the free range poultry by the chicken coop. I was hoping she had just gotten out of the fence and would reappear loose in the barn yard. No. She was gone. Probably picked off by a raccoon or opossum strong enough to climb the chain link and smart enough to realize it was just outside the reach of the livestock guardian. A raccoon or opossum that would be sure to come back again.
By now you’ve probably lost track of how many days went by and how many guineas and keets we had in the barn yard, the garden, and the brooder box. Good. Because we lost track, too. It just goes to show you what an incredible writer I am that you can experience the chaos and confusion with us. In case you didn’t have enough chaos and confusion in your own life. Or if you’d like to feel like your chaos and confusion isn’t even half as bad as ours. You’re welcome.
But I hate to leave my readers in the dark. So I’ll tell you that on the last day of June, a guinea suddenly reappeared, digging with the chickens among the scraps pile. A guinea with 9 fluffy little keets stumbling around her toes. Including 4 pearl greys. I don’t know where she was hiding her nest or how long she had been gone. But she was proud enough to parade them around the barn yard several times, fierce enough to chase off any hen, duck, or goat that looked at her sideways, and smart enough to steer them to the feed trough and the automatic waterers without any assistance from me. She got all her help from Mother Nature, who’s a much better farmer than me.
And seeing that guinea got me to thinking. I went down to the garden and started looking around. But this time I wasn’t looking for the chunk of scattered feathers or bits of grisly gore left behind by a raccoon or opossum. This time I was looking under bushes, beneath the tarp covering the compost, and behind the stumps we use as garden chairs. Sure enough, tucked under a thicket of blackberry canes, was my missing guinea. The one I hoped had simply escaped, but feared had been eaten. All along she had been setting her eggs. Safe. Hidden. Determined to do a better job than me of replenishing the numbers in the guinea flock. So we’ll be heading into July with 8 adult guineas, 17 keets, and even more to come. Just imagine what next spring will be like.