Gushing for guineas
Raising a few guinea fowl is no easy task, but for Connie Marshall, keeping an eye on all 26 of these energetic birds, and then some, is all part of her daily routine. Marshall began what can only be described as a healthy obsession roughly a year and a half ago, when she was caring for an ill friend who had raised guinea fowl.
“I had never really paid much attention to them at first,” she said, but with each visit, she’d become more and more mesmerized by the enthusiasm of the birds. “I would watch them whenever I was over, and after a while, I just became so taken with them,” she said. “I’d look out a window, and they’d be zooming this way and zooming that way and up in the air, and all over.”
Marshall, a former avid equestrian, decided that she needed a change of pace, but didn’t want to stray from her love of animals. “I had always grown up with horses,” she said, “but a 2,500-pound animal would hurt me now. I’m not 14, and I’m not going to bounce right back if one bumps into me.”
Marshall did her research and determined that her 9.5-acre property off Double Bridges Road would be a perfect homestead for these creatures. After speaking with a guinea fowl farmer in Gumboro, Marshall brought 10 of the birds into her life, and was encouraged to take two roosters as well. “At that point,” she said, “I was off to the races without a horse.”
Marshall allowed the birds to have full range of the land, leading into the woods and around her house, but found out the hard way that a close eye is often needed. One day in March of last year, a fox came into the yard and had eliminated both roosters and eight of her 10 guineas.
Only a day later, Marshall returned to Gumboro to replenish her flock. The count of guineas has since increased to 26 and Marshall has accumulated a collection of 20 bantams, or miniature chickens, as well.
It is the guinea fowl, though, that bring her the most joy. “After [the incident with the fox],” she said, “I didn’t want as many, but now I want more. It gave me the awareness that things like that could happen, and made me realize that I needed to change me. I just need to be aware.”
Foxes aren’t the only predators Marshall now has to be on the lookout for. Hawks and coyotes also pose threat to the collection of birds that parade around the yard. “I know I’m going to lose a bird every now and then. I don’t like that, but I accept it.”
Marshall has limited their free range of the property to times when she is able to keep an eye on what’s going on. Most days of the week, Marshall manages her Ocean View nature store, Wild About Birds. “The guineas have enough room here,” she said, “even when they need to get out of bad weather.”
Her birds scurry around the yard, chasing each other, scratch around in dirt baths and every once in a while, jump straight in the air, in what appears to be random, startled fits.
“Watching them just really makes me smile,” Marshall said. “I can’t help but laugh sometimes. It’s almost like watching little kids — they don’t have a care in the world. A lot of us get caught up with so much stress, but these guys just eat and have fun.” Marshall has even given names to a majority of her birds, though it’s not always simple to keep up with each one.
Guinea fowl, native to Africa, are known as the farmer’s watchdog. Though sometimes referred to as guinea hens, they are in the same order as pheasants and turkeys, rather than chickens. They grow very attuned to their surroundings and won’t hesitate to speak up when an unfamiliar or unwelcome person or animal has made their presence.
Marshall’s birds even find difficulty adapting to changes to the yard, such as a newly added water drain. “It could be something that’s been there for weeks, but every day, a group of them will walk up to it and just stare,” she said.
Their calls can be heard throughout the day. “The alpha male will generally start and let everyone else know what’s going on,” Marshall said. “They tend to get pretty loud sometimes. They are very territorial birds.” Newcomers to the property always invoke the screeching “buck-wheat” calls made by these birds.
In addition to serving as a lookout, guinea fowl have been commended for pest control, feeding on pesky creatures such as ticks and Japanese beetles. Their feathers have been widely used in crafts and as a lures by fly fishermen. The eggs are sought-after, believed to be even healthier than chicken eggs. The birds themselves are also considered a delicacy in many places, though Marshall said she could never bring herself to eat one.
“They’re amazing birds with really original personalities,” she added.
Just this past month, she attended the second annual Guinea Fowl International Association conference. “I love these birds, but you should really see how much some of these people get into it,” she said. “It’s really something when you’ve found something to enjoy so much.”