After yet another Lyme disease infection, my husband and I decided to bring guinea fowl onto Harmony Farm. These attractive birds supposedly eat ticks and we hoped that their presence would reduce our exposure to Lyme. While we’ll never know what impact they’ve had on the tick population, for we continue to pull the little buggers off our bodies, we enjoy watching guinea fowl run around the land.
When male cocks compete for a female, the two birds chase each other around a large area, running rapidly with their heads tilted forward, their bodies seemly still, and their feet moving at an amazingly rapid pace. Round and around they go. Sometimes they take flight for a while, then resume their on-ground race. When one catches up with the other, he grabs onto the other one’s feathers, they scuffle a bit, then resume their race until one finally gives up the chase.
The victor wins the coveted hen, which is quite a prize for guinea hens are monogamous. During mating season, the loyal pair roam around foraging together. I dubbed one particular couple “Romeo and Juliet.”
Living where we do, with predators all around, our once-large guinea flock dwindled down to five – one female and four males. Then one evening, only four males were roosting in their coop when I locked them up for the night. I worried that the female might have met her demise, but held onto the hope that she might be sitting on eggs somewhere.
Unlike birds who nest in trees, guinea hens lay eggs on the ground. During summer months, guinea hens will often make a nest, lay an egg in it day after day, and when a suitable number of eggs are there (usually over 30), they “go broody” – which involves sitting on the eggs both day and night with a short break now and then to eat and drink.
As a broody hen is like a “sitting duck,” she often falls prey to animals and hawks searching for a tasty meal. And if she hatches her brood, they readily succumb to a variety of fates. We’ve never had a flock born in the wild survive more than a day or two.
A couple of weeks ago I saw the guinea hen, and heard her distinctive sound. “Yea, she’s alive” I thought, “I’ll keep my fingers crossed.” And when the males dashed out the minute I opened the door to their coop, I assumed they were off to visit the mother-to-be.
Then yesterday, mother hen appeared with her brood. She was sitting outside the locked-up coop, waiting. And many tiny little bodies – white ones, speckled ones, various shades of black and white ones – poked out from underneath her body, came out for a minute, then popped back under. Quite a sight to behold!!
I let the males out of the coop, and something amazing happened. They gathered around mother hen and sat. When I returned a little while later, I saw the baby keets moving from under one bird to another, to another. The males were caretaking the keets, keeping them warm. And not just papa. All the males.
In all my years on the farm, I’ve never seen such a cooperative caretaking effort. The baby keets trusted the males, seemed to already know them. And the males adjusted their bodies to accommodate the little keets moving around beneath them. They also pushed them under their bodies, just like a female hen behaves.
As the day progressed, I watched the whole flock move around just a bit. Like mother hens, the males called the keets over when a morsel of food was found. The keets ran back and forth between all the adults, under them, and between them. Often the mother hen was up and about, preening and eating, while the males were caretaking the babies, giving her a break.
Reflecting on this unusual behavior, I think about the Great Turning, where partnership and cooperation will hopefully replace competition and strife. I wonder, could these guinea fowl be figuring this out? Could they be demonstrating that the path to survival lies not along the road of individual separateness, but on the path of harmony, of cooperation, and of sharing?
Whatever its reason, I hope that this cooperative approach might bode well for the adorable little newborn keets. Dare I hope that these babies will survive?