Sunday, November 2, 2008

Poultry Politics: Part 1

The guineas are in jail.

If no one wants to buy them, they will be moving to permanent quarters in a big white humming box in the basement. Unlike Ted Stevens, they are not getting a vote.

Before I bought the guinea keets, a number of people warned me that they can be territorial and aggressive towards people and dogs. Hah! We tremble in fear at the prospect of a two-pound bird getting cocky. No issues with respecting people or dogs here.

But I was also told "Put 'em in with your chickens. No problem!"

For three months, no problem.

Then, quite suddenly, big problem.

At first, I figured the chooks were just getting more standoffish. Most of them didn't come running when I showed up with scratch or kitchen scraps during daytime free-ranging. The guineas were right there, though.

Then I wondered why a couple of them seemed to be hanging out in the coop most of the day, often up on the roosts at midday.
Bad Flock Owner! Pay attention!

Then one night last week, I heard the commotion in the coop stall as I did chickie bedtime barn chores -- guineas attacking my Orpingtons, who were cowering in the corners. Buff Orps are, in every way, the golden retrievers of the chicken world -- fighting back was not in their repertoire.

I identified two main culprits and employed the Broom of Instruction on them. And, somewhat to my surprise, that settled it. For that night.

The next night, they were back at it, this time targeting my New Hampshire pullets as well. Two of the New Hamps are special pet lap chickens. I came running to the shrieking to see a guinea with a red and black New Hampsire tail feather in his beak. Oh, hell no!

Caught the culprit in a net and hung him upside down while discussing moist-heat cooking methods. Invited the pullets up on the roost to peck him for emphasis. Chelsea A. Arthur, my white alpha chickie, got it right away, and took a few shots. And that settled it. For that night.

Next day I was cutting a dog door into a barn stall at midday. With more or less unlimited pasture, the guineas were choosing to chase and torture selected chickens -- the buff, red, and white chickens. Basically, any bird that was not colored or patterned like a guinea.

Moe, who is rapidly becoming indispensable in his roles as Director of Homeland Security and First Farm Hand here, diligently interrupted all attacks. He is gentle, but birds respect him.

That night, the guineas started in as soon as everyone came in to the coop. I closed the door to the outside pen, put a roost pole in one corner, and kicked their speckled butts out for the night. The pullets mobbed me, chucking and purring quietly.

I asked for advice on a guinea message board, which has hundreds of members and hosts a lively discussion on such topics as the best treats for guineas, guinea color genetics, what to name guineas, etc. That was a week ago. I've not received a single answer. Thanks guys, so helpful.

So I posted the same questions to the backyard chicken forum -- was this a teenage thing? Was there a way to correct the bullying? (The birds have plenty of coop space, free-range all day, are the same age and raised together, get plenty of fresh green food and free-choice pellets -- so none of the usual causes of intra-flock aggression seemed to apply.)

Answers -- once they start, there's no stopping it. They'll escalate. They'll kill your hens.

On Wednesday I opened the pop door in the morning, all the guineas ran out, and all the pullets stayed on the roost.


Closed the pop door, locking out the monsters, and all the pullets leaped down and attacked the feeder.

That's it!

I left the door closed and built guinea jail in the next stall.

Then the task of catching the beasts. There was an unseasonable snow squall blowing all day. Moe was indisposed, as he often is on the first nasty days of winter. He was upstairs in the warm bed.

So I asked Rosie.

I've never let Rose "work" the poultry. All her training re: poultry thus far has been about leaving them alone, respecting their space, not being too rowdy in their presence.

I asked her to flank me while we gently herded the easily-panicked birds into the small run off the coop. This worked okay; I went in after them with my handy landing net, closed the gate -- and the entire flock exploded upwards, bursting through the bird-netting roof.

Oh damn.

We spent the next half-hour trying to corner the flock while I "controlled" my little dog with obedience commands and body language, trying to keep her back off the birds, keep her quiet.

She had real trouble understanding what it was I wanted. The situation was too fluid, and my reflexes too slow for me to tell her exactly where to be, and how fast to move, and when to stop. What were we doing? Rosie had no idea. Certainly not catching guineas. She whined and groused and pouted, one of her specialties.

Did I mention that it was blowing 30 mph with a wet snow?

After the last of dozens of disheartening failures, I gave up. I just told Rosie to go get 'em and stood back.

Theory? She'd run the little bastards to exhaustion and I'd pick them off with the net. And she'd vent some of her boiling frustration. And I'd deal with the fallout of allowing her to chase poultry later.

She ran them for about five minutes. Chased them around the barn. Repeatedly split the flock and ran down singles until they flew. Treed them, and I'd push them off with a stick. I just kept egging her on.

And then it happened.

Rose had just run them all the way around the barn and was chasing them towards me out in the pasture.

The flock of seven made a 3-4 split.

And the tumbler of some lock in Rosie's brain turned. Sha-shik. Instead of chasing one group or the other, instead of a mad dash to put some of them to flight, Rosie feinted left, circled, and put the flock back together.

Her genetics called her to herself, and she came to them. My petulant little beast became a stock dog. It happens in a second.

She fetched the flock straight to me, and I caught one with the net. Took it in and popped it into guinea jail.

Four more times, she put the flock together, fetched it to me, and I picked one off with the net. Then she'd follow me into the barn and look menacing when I opened up jail to pop each one in.

Once a single bird took flight and landed on top of a 6' fence post. Rose jumped up, bopped him in the ass, and sent him back to the flock, then fetched the flock.

Imagine starting a stockdog pup on fast, ill-natured, panicky sheep that can fly. Not a choice one would make if one had the choice.

When we got down to two birds, they didn't flock, per se, and would not be fetched as a pair. I missed them with the net in the pasture several times. Finally, Rosie cornered them by the barn, and I got one with the net. While we were booking him in the barn, the other disappeared. Just gone.

We had to go to Cranberry to let a contractor into the soon-to-be-sold house.

Came back; still squalling. There was the lone bird, in the mint patch. I had my net in the car with me. Thought I had a chance of sneaking up on the bugger and nabbing him.

No way. Did I mention that, for birds with essentially no brain and no ability to learn, these things are awfully wily about avoiding capture?

Let Rosie out of the car. She'd been watching me. Ran the little bugger out from his hide under the forsythia, around the house, around the swimming pool, and trapped him in a blind corner of the house. Stood back, grinning, and held him there until I arrived with the net.

She's shown no propensity to bother the chickens in the past five days. But I have to keep her away from guinea jail. She'd love to repeat her achievement.

The chooks are happy. They once again come running to me without fear whenever I come down to the barn, whether or not I'm carrying scraps for them. All is quiet in the coop at night, and everyone has her tail feathers.

The pocket camera is not great, and I didn't think to get it before we were down to two birds; here's Rose fetching one towards me. I will once again miss it with the net.


  1. "Buff Orps are, in every way, the golden retrievers of the chicken world."

    I think of them as the show-line Irish Setters of the chicken world. Too small a sample to say for certain, but Harriet my Buff is pretty, pretty, pretty ... and intelligent as a sack of feed.


  2. Oh, and by the way, you don't need a working stock dog. You need a working retriever! McKenzie delivers my chickens to hand when they escape -- without a single feather out of place.

  3. Too bad you're not closer, I'd *LOVE* some more adult guineas- mine got picked off when my dad failed to understand the importance of SHUTTING THE COOP DOOR over a period of two weeks. I don't have chickens at the farm since I'm not down there every day (I'll have some here at the new house in the spring, and OH I'm enjoying my catalogue shopping. :P I haven't decided on what yet though. Polish for sure, and maybe some Dominiques.....) but we (try) and keep guineas since they've been such good tick control. I don't know if we really NEED tick control now, though- Tazzie (QH) and Cassie (springer spaniel) are both gone now of old age and that means the only time that barn is getting used is when we are loading cattle.

  4. Guinea and dumplings - and a couple of raw wings for Ms. Rosie.


    PS If you want to use Gina's method of fowl recovery - a English Shepherd should fill the bill quite nicely. You've seen how gently Rosie's brother fetches fowl.

  5. Gina, I stand by my golden retriever characterization.

    'Cuz the Irish setters are Rhode Island reds. My New Hamps are the field lines -- a bit sturdier, not as stylish-looking, better able to manage themselves out in the brush.

    None of 'em are rocket surgeons. (My smartest chickie is Chelsea A. Arthur, who is a "mongrel" Easter-egger, aka hatchery ameracauna; the most capable out in the brush are the silver-laced Wyandottes and the other three Easter-eggers.)

    As for a retriever -- sure, you can do everything the hard way (one quarter at a time ...)

    But when I want 16 of them into the coop, Moe does the whole fam damly at once. With no spit transfer.

    I wouldn't recommend sending any retriever after a live guinea. They fight like Comanches.

  6. People have told me that guineas are great to remove ticks. Sounds like ticks might be the safer choice.....I have Embden geese. No chickens. Seems these geese are not that adverse to taking out one of their own. It was embarrassing last winter. Did you lose those geese to BEARS? COYOTES? Not exactly....Maybe I should send them against the bear overpopulation....What they don't tell you at geese school!.....
    Heather are you central north PA? Sorry didn't look up your town. I am near Port Jervis/Milford near the Delaware in NJ. Your PAs were out on the corner in Milford this AM with a McSame demonstration....not THAT many cars honking at least. You'd think the Clintons visit to the town in the summer would have had a better effect....
    Victoria and Mara(ES)

  7. Thanks for sharing the story! I really enjoyed it. Guineas were the first thing my ES pup learned to herd also.
    I'll bet if you keep them in "jail" for 6 weeks or so they will return their to roost and leave your chickens alone.



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