Fowl play

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
On a peaceful manicured farmstead located between Hillsboro and Goessel, the serenity is broken by a sound familiar to the older generation-the loud squeak of an old pump handle in action.

But the sound isn’t coming from a pump. It’s the screech of guinea fowl belonging to Bonnie Heinrichs and husband Lowell.

“The males will make this high-pitched screech that drives you nuts,” Heinrichs said. “They all start doing this at the same time, and it gets pretty wild out there in the yard.”

Heinrichs described guinea fowl as looking like prehistoric birds. These unusual creatures have a bare neck and head, a protrusion called a helmet, wattles on the side of their faces, and they rarely weigh more than 31/2 pounds.

Although having physical characteristics reminiscent of the wild turkey, guinea fowl are related to the pheasant.

The original domestic stock, whose descendants made their way to farms like the Heinrichs, came from West Africa.

The different colors of guineas fall into five basic color patterns-pearled, partially pearled, solid colored, two-toned and pied.

The guineas at the Heinrichs come from a stock of six to eight chicks-called keets- the couple purchased about 10 years ago at a hardware store in McPherson.

Their original guineas were white, gray, lavender and pearl. The pearl have round white dots covering the entire feathered portion of the bird.

“Then when they would breed, all of a sudden we had some that were white on the bottom half, and the top half were gray,” Heinrichs said. “Now, we have a lot of them that are two-tone.”

Bemoaning the number of grasshoppers in their farmyard, the Heinrichs originally purchased the guineas because they heard they ate a lot of grasshoppers.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we try that once and see how that works,'” Heinrichs said. “And we’ve had very good luck getting rid of grasshoppers, ticks and that sort of thing.”

With this small start, the Heinrichs became guinea breeders-ensuring an adequate guinea population to glean the bugs out of their yard.

Whether new keets or adults, any guineas brought onto a new homestead need to be kept in a shed, chicken coop or barn. This gives them time to imprint on the property before being released into the farmyard.

“You don’t let them out of the building until after four to six weeks so they know this is where they belong,” Heinrichs said.

The adults are fed at least once a day and sometimes twice a day, depending on how much forage is available in the yard. They must have fresh water every day.

“We give them the same feed as chickens,” she said. “But the keets can’t have the medicated chick feed, you have to give them the same thing the chickens eat.”

When they forage, the guineas often walk abreast in a group and comb an area-moving on together to the next spot and continuing to feed throughout the day.

Guinea hens lay seasonally, beginning in about May and ending in June.

“They never will lay an egg in a chicken house or a building,” Heinrichs said. “It’s always out somewhere under some brush or hidden someplace. So it’s very hard to find a nest.”

When she does find a nest, it’s not unusual to discover as many as 30 eggs in it.

“Everyone comes in and lays an egg in there,” Heinrichs said. “Sometimes, these little hens are sitting on 30 eggs, and sometimes there are two sitting together. But not all of them will sit.”

She’s found nests under trees, in the grass, out in their pasture, in the corral and along the hedge rows.

Predators marauding the nests-such as possums, coyotes and dogs-are a concern at the farmstead.

Even the Heinrichs’ dog, Holly, has been known to find the nests and carry eggs out into the yard.

When a nest of eggs is disturbed by predators, the hens will often abandon their clutch and not return again.

The Heinrichs have devised a system to gather the eggs when their breeding population is low, and they want to increase it with successful hatching.

“You can see the male sitting close by,” Heinrichs said. “We figure out how long he’s been hanging around there, and then we start counting to see when four weeks will be-because it’s about 28 days until the keets hatch.”

If the couple decides to incubate the eggs, they gather them and go through the same process as for chicken eggs.

Out of a clutch of 30 eggs, they can count on a successful rate of hatching-about 28 keets.

But for the keets that hatch in the yard, the Heinrichs put on heavy-duty gloves and gather them in a box to take to the chicken house.

“We try to catch the hen and hold her real tight so she can’t bite us,” Heinrichs said. “They’re very aggressive and will peck at you, scratch and defend their nest.”

The keets must be kept in a safe building, such as a chicken shed, until they are about six-weeks old. And if possible, the Heinrichs will put the hen in with them for that period so she can look after her brood.

“The adults are pretty hardy,” Heinrichs said.

“But the chicks need care, and they need to stay out of the wet grass because they’ll die. They can’t stand wetness in the morning. I guess they get cold.”

Once they’ve reached the crucial six-week stage, the keets are released with the hen and allowed to comb the farmyard.

“They’ll be with their mother and she’ll take care of them,” Heinrichs said. “They’re not very good mothers, but most of them do a good job.”

The Heinrichs’ guinea population at one point got as high as 120 by the end of one summer. But this spring, before new keets are hatched, the number is down to about 17 adults.

The amount of guineas on the farm each year depends on predation, but some disappear for unknown reasons.

The Heinrichs’ guineas have been known to routinely wander 1/4 mile away and sometimes, they don’t return.

When populations are high, the Heinrichs will sell some of their guineas to people in the area.

“This isn’t a business,” Heinrichs said. “If we don’t have many, we’re not selling-because we want to keep a bunch for our own use.”

Those interested in trying their hand at raising guineas can get information from the Internet, from the library or rely on the experience of breeders such as the Heinrichs, who have a wealth of knowledge from a decade of raising the birds.

As part of a daily routine of caring for the adult guineas and older keets, the Heinrichs have trained them to go to a building at night.

For safety, they’ll heard the guinea fowl into a structure and close them in until they can be released in the morning to begin their foraging routine anew.

“We like to do that so we don’t lose so many,” Heinrichs said.

The guineas live peacefully beside the farm’s chicken population. But Heinrichs said she likes the foraging behavior of the guineas compared to chickens.

“The chickens scratch so terribly, I can’t have them outside. They scratch everything up so bad, and the guineas don’t do that.”

And the guineas also escape the frying pan at the Heinrichs’ house.

“You can eat the eggs if you want to,” she said. “They’re smaller than a chicken egg and considered a delicacy. But we aren’t interested in eating them.”

She also opts not to eat the meat, which she described as dark meat with a sweeter flavor than that of the domestic chicken.

When asked why she tolerates the screeching noise around her home and the inevitable droppings on the sidewalks, Heinrichs said it’s worth it to get rid of the bugs.

“And they are very interesting birds if you like wildlife on your farm. It’s fun to watch the roosters chasing each other around the yard, and they have funny mannerisms.”

And by June, if the guineas hatch successfully, more guinea fowl will add their chorus to the old-pump sounds coming from the Heinrichs’ yard.

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