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Reintroducing guinea fowl. (The poultry yard).

Many people are aware of the benefits that guinea fowl bestow--and yet some may remain hesitant to introduce the species to their homestead. Such ambivalence is understandable; no other "domesticated" creature is subject to the many misconceptions that have surrounded guineas since the days of antiquity. Indeed, as its popularity extends to those previously unfamiliar with it, so also do the "myths" about it grow.

This is tragically unnecessary, and the Guinea Fowl Breeders Association, a group that advocates wider adoption of the breed, has undertaken to dispel the misunderstanding while respecting its origins. The root of these misconceptions is to be found in our muddled assumptions about "domestication" itself. We like our critters to be deferential, if not cozily dependent, and the guinea fowl remains a breed that holds itself somewhat apart from this sentimental expectation.

But this is not by any means to say that guinea fowl withhold affection from their human partners. (By the way, the GFBA prefers the term, "guinea fowl," when referring to the species as a whole, limiting "guinea hens" to the females alone.) There are many among us who have earned profoundly loving relationships with our birds, relationships it should be stressed that are born of patience and training (of both parties), neither of which are foreign concepts to those who have spent much time with any animal or fowl. It should also be noted in passing that guinea flocks vary considerably in temperament; a cuddly group here can be offset by an aloof one there, although this in itself tends to be a reflection of the owners' own personality.

Guinea fowl, despite a long association with humankind, are creatures whose "wild" instincts remain stronger than we are accustomed to in other farmyard animals and fowl. They consent to our governance provided this makes sense to them and we stick to its application consistently. (If we neglect to close the door of their coop too many nights in a row, we may awake to find they have returned to the half-forgotten freedom of the trees! The training required to reattract them to their house may be tedious enough to correct and prevent such absentmindedness on our part in the future.) As we permit our guineas to range freely for the purposes that most of us intend--devouring disease-bearing ticks and other noxious insects; removing multitudinous weed seeds and unwanted snakes--we must keep in mind that we are attempting to harness a free spirit (and a nonindigenous one at that) for our domestic ends. When our flock returns to its shelter, at night, this measures our success at gaining the trust of its members.

Almost every trait that is exaggerated and held against guineas by those who don't understand them can be muted or circumvented by foresight and proper training. Neither of these was much discussed until recently. How-to-do-it manuals were conspicuous by their absence and the sporadic U. S. Department of Agriculture bulletin treated the raising of guinea fowl from a commercial point of departure. A few badly edited publications contributed little to reduce the lack of confidence of those who wanted to install guineas for reasons beyond their mere consumption. But now there are poultry forums on the World Wide Web, and for those who prefer the ready companionship of the printed page, one or two books of real merit are beginning to appear. (J. S. Ferguson's Gardening with Guineas, reviewed in 84/3:84, has become a "bible" among guinea raisers and discusses everything an aspiring guinea keeper needs to know.)

What is perhaps the most widely deplored of guinea fowl characteristics, is that a bird no larger than a domestic chicken is capable of producing astonishingly loud and protracted song, which the unsympathetic call "noise." There is nothing to gain by denying this, but ignorance of how to handle it has turned potential owners away before they make any attempt to keep the noise within tolerable bounds. For one thing, its occurrence and duration can be curtailed by keeping the flock housed at night and preventing too early emergence by these greeters of the dawn. Even during their most vocal first year, they don't sing much in the dark, and shuttered windows can extend the night to permit adequate sleep for neighbors who may insist upon it for their commuting vigor, let alone their recovery from work on the weekends!

It's their penetrating cry that makes guinea fowl more trustworthy as watchdogs than dogs (or geese). The alarm they raise upon the arrival of a visitor is never accompanied by attack upon the same, and despite the belief by some that guinea fowl are "dangerous," this is no more the case than when any creature is molested, or attempts made to remove its young. A broody guinea hen sitting on eggs or with keets beneath her is protective but reverts to her normally comfortable acceptance of her "people" once the anxieties of raising her family are passed. In most cases, a keeper of livestock is at much greater risk from his roosters (or goats) catching him unaware!

Almost as deplored as their noise is the supposed unwillingness of guinea fowl to survive. Any breeder has heard, "Oh, I would love to have a few, but I don't want to have to raise 30 in order to wind up with 6!" The belief is that guineas are more prone to attack by predators than just about anything else. Predators will always look for any easy target first, whether it be sitting ducks or setting guineas, and if the homesteader makes this easy for them, naturally they will oblige. No one who values his chickens, for example, will permit them to hang out all night in the trees or fields and expect them to remain immune to attack by fox or owl. But when it comes to guinea fowl, they too often assume that a half-wild creature can survive in fully wild conditions without human assistance.

The most dogmatic claim we guinea people make is that secure shelter for nighttime roosting is essential. North American predators of plump guinea fowl are more numerous, and climatic conditions harsher, than those found in the African lands of their origin. (And even there the attrition of large wild flocks ensures that only the sturdiest members will survive.) Beyond insisting here that an invulnerable home base is a necessity, advice on how to construct suitable housing and adjoining pens can be found in the works of J. S. Ferguson.

Guinea hens will normally prefer to make nests on the ground in a place of their own choosing, and countering this preference is undoubtedly challenging. While there are many heartening stories of mothers sitting for a lunar month in the brush to emerge unmolested with two dozen or more keets struggling through the dewy grass behind them, the prudent owner will forestall such unwise gambling. Successful guinea raising requires the same amount of conscientious effort as any other worthwhile homestead activity.

Those who don't expect magic but are willing to work with their birds will be rewarded in ways they hadn't anticipated. In a recent survey of its members by the GFBA two striking findings emerged. The first of these was the gratifying agreement that free-ranging guineas do indeed reduce high populations of ticks and other harmful insects.

But it's the other finding that endears guinea fowl to their owners and binds owners to each other. We all discover that guinea fowl are not only the superlative clowns in the "circus" of our yards, but are restorers of lost self-esteem and confidence, reduce loneliness, and are ultimately the twinkling mirrors of our soul. While there are people who remain lost to the possibility of such enchantment, many more are willing to meet the mirror halfway and learn a thing or two about themselves.

A creature that has been described as a holdover dinosaur and accused of having a brain not much larger than a seed, turns out to be our most instructive companion among the other members of the animal kingdom who share our yards and home. When the resolve to understand the requirements of the breed is renewed by those who have been tempted but hesitant before, we believe they will turn their ears once again to the guinea hen's seductive invitation to "Come back! Come back!"

For more information about the GFBA visit our website at
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Author:MacNeice, Dan
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 2002
Previous Article:Raise a pig in your backyard. (The pig pen).
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