Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Guinea Saga; part 2

So, we were at the point where 1 of 11 birds had just escaped into the outer world.

This was a white bird- and I have little hope for them in the long run.  Seen any white squirrels recently?  There's a reason albinos are rare in the wild- basically, they have a big "EAT ME" sign taped on their back.  (Yes, I know there are populations of white squirrels in several cities- no hawks.)

Spice ordered the guineas, and she was focused on price.  The cheapest way to buy them is if you let the hatchery fill out your order with whatever they have on hand; the hatchery we bought from sells about 10 different breeds of guinea- almost all selected purely for ornamental differences in plumage- and of course it's very common for them to have some hatch out today- with no buyer waiting.  So they sell "we choose" batches, for a discount.  We wound up with about 1/3 white, 1/3 pearl, and 1/3 some kind of brown.  I think next time we order, we won't go the discount route- I really have no hope the white ones will survive in the long run as free range birds.  Not here.

When we first moved here, one of the most common questions (besides the ones about phones, when we were going to get electricity and running water...) was "why don't you have chickens?"  Obviously, if you live in the woods in a cabin, you should have chickens.  :-)

My answer was always this:  "Let's see.  Red foxes.  Gray foxes.  Raccoons.  Mink.  Badgers.  Skunks- 2 species.  Feral cats.  Feral dogs. Weasels- 3 species. Great Horned Owls.  Barred Owls.  Cooper's Hawks.  Sharpshin Hawks.  And I'm sure I'm forgetting some."  The universal answer was.  "Ah."  We really really do live in the woods; it ain't suburbia.  If we wanted chickens, we were going to have to build a fortress of some kind, and we just didn't need or want them that much.

Today I'd add coyotes, and bald eagles- neither were here in 1976, but they're abundant now.  We now have increasing reports of bobcats, too.  You don't usually think of bald eagles as chasing chickens- but the eagles are fantastic opportunists, and they recognize a lazy chicken as easy food immediately.  The coyotes nearly eradicated both fox species when they moved in; but the foxes are adapting now, and coming back- Spice badly twisted her ankle in a well hidden Red Fox hole a couple years ago.

The idea with the guineas is; once established as a population; with adults; they will be able to avoid the ground based predators very effectively, by roosting in trees and being such strong flyers.   But a single white bird up in a tree- is just a target.

I tried to watch where the escapee went, anyway- it wasn't really afraid of me, and let me get quite close, though it never offered to let me catch it.  But the third time I went looking to see where it was now- I couldn't find it, anywhere.  I blocked all the possible escape spots on the pen with heavy sods from the adjacent construction site.

Later that evening, I took Bruce out for a little work with the birds.  He had, of course, been very playful/bouncy when he first met them in the new pen- scaring the heck out of them, and not stopping until I'd yelled at him several times- something that's almost never necessary, and left him pretty embarrassed.  So I took him out, on a leash (also very rare) and walked around the pen with him, requiring him to be calm about it, and not chase.  I swear he speaks English.  He got the idea very quickly.  As part of the work, I walked him over where I'd last seen the escapee- he'd likely sense and flush any hiding bird.  Nothing.  Either hiding very well, or already cat chow, I expected.

We added Bruce to the farm for a very specific reason- protection.  For Smidgen, the farm in general, and- future livestock.  Hence my selection of a dog with a substantial component from a herding breed- collie.  After working Bruce on the leash for only 15 minutes, he was so calm and well behaved I took him off the leash, right next to the guinea pen; and he did not disappoint me; he continued to behave perfectly.  The video shows the pen, half under an apple tree; the almost 4 week old birds, and Bruce, being blasé, looking for mice -

The pen is 12 feet x 8 feet x 4 feet high; the guineas are zooming to eat some fresh greens I just tossed in for them- something else the easily available information does not mention; they eat lots of grass at this point; clover, etc.

That first night, I went to bed with 10 birds in the pen, and Bruce outside, loose, all night; on guard (he's around 60 lbs now- very few coyotes would think of challenging him).

He was fine with being outside on his own; didn't fuss about wanting to come in, when I just explained to him that he was going to stay out.  Did I mention I think he speaks English?

In the morning - ah, here the drama comes in.

I went out immediately, Bruce calmly accompanying, to see how the 10 birds fared in their first night- and immediately found- only 2 birds still inside the pen.

They were huddled together, right against the wire- and huddled against them on the outside of the wire- were the other - 9 birds.  I counted 3 times- because I would really have expected unprotected chicks to turn into predator fodder, very quickly- 9.  +2=11.

Yeah- RC and Nancy M- you were right, the escapee came back and re-joined the flock.

So, that was nice; and encouraging- it looked like the guineas were indeed good at surviving, and staying in their flock; both things I really wanted.  It also looked like they were going to be escape artists- not quite so nice.  

Carefully moving around the pen, so as not to spook the guys on the outside and scare them off, I started looking for how the heck they got out- I have a lot of experience with pens for difficult animals- and was feeling pretty miffed-

Ah- here we are.  Something had, in the night, dug two lovely holes under the fence... leaving loads of room for the birds to duck under.  Bruce digs.  Quite  lot.  I was starting to mumble bad things to Bruce, who was right there- when it finally struck me that the odor of skunk was really really strong, right here...

In fact, I'd been waked up in the middle of the night by the powerful smell of a fresh skunk discharge drifting in the open windows.  But that's not all that uncommon; happens a couple times a year-and it didn't really wake me fully.  No noise accompanying the smell.  Next morning, the whole world smells a bit skunky- it's normal.

Bit by bit- detective deductions at work- what happened became clear.

Sure as heck; my constant predictions for predators immediately moving to chow down on any poultry had come true- on the very first night, a skunk had found the pen, and instantly started digging its way in.

Then, my preparations and plans kicked in, too- and worked.  Guineas are renowned for making a racket when frightened.  Bruce, on patrol, heard the noise; went out, and instantly tackled the skunk- all on his own.  Judging from where the skunk hit back- the spray mostly hit Bruce on the belly and side, we found- Bruce had the skunk down and struggling to get away when the skunk fired.  Given any chance, a skunk will spray a dog in the eyes- not an accident, and they're good at it.  This skunk didn't have that chance.  Apparently the spray did surprise Bruce into letting the skunk go, and the skunk lit out- because we didn't find any skunk corpse.

The skunk was apparently permanently educated; because in the following week, there have been no more attempts to dig into the guinea pen.  Bruce is out, and on guard, all night.  Occasionally he'll wake us; with a burst of serious barking, nearby.  That took a little getting used to- but now, it feels very good.  He's on the job.  Most likely a coon, or coyote, that is now not poking into our world; and we have, in the past gone through all kinds of gyrations trying to keep stuff stored outside safe from raccoons.  That's a crazy hard job- and usually whatever you come up with, they'll eventually find a way around.  But there's probably no way around Bruce.

Incidentally, the remedy for skunk on your dog is not tomato juice- my god, what a mess.  A perfect example of what I'm starting to call Green iManure; cutesy-poo clueless, "back to the land!" malinformation.   

The application of a little basic chemistry will explain what you need.  What is "skunk" juice?  The core chemicals are mercaptans; the sulfur based equivalent of an alcohol; also found in tear gas, and "perms".  What do you need to break down a mercaptan?  Any mild acid; it's a highly reactive chemical bond, easily broken down.  It's precisely that high reactivity that makes it an effective weapon.  Tomato works- because it's acid.  Another household acid- vinegar- works about 1,000x better- and with 1,000th of the mess.  Chem 101.

Put either undiluted vinegar (any kind, stronger is better), or 1:4 diluted vinegar for working around the eyes, in any household spray bottle; and spray it on your skunky dog.  Outside, for heaven's sakes.  Then comb the vinegar through the fur.  Rinse off with a little water.  Repeat, until the skunk is gone, or you can at least stand to have the dog around, or the dog won't put up with it any more (in which case you can do more later.)  If you don't have a spare spray bottle, just get a sponge or rag soaked with the vinegar, and wipe it on, then comb it through.

Bruce put up with the vinegar treatment- cheerfully applied by Spice, who came home just in time for this whole show- with great patience.  It's hard to get it all.  Maybe impossible, even.  But at this point, he only smells a little skunky; just enough to remind us of the whole event; which in fact; feels very good.

Plans, preparations, protections- that worked!  Darned nice, once in a while.

Next step for the guineas will be turning them into free range birds.  According to our information, it's best to wait until they're 6 weeks old before turning them out.  Then do it gradually; a few birds only, on the first day, then a few more the next day.  Working to keep them anchored to this place, as home.

There are more tricks to that.  Coming up soon.  Meanwhile- the birds are growing fast; have been through several rainstorms in the new pen, with no problem, and no further attacks from predators.  And no lost birds.  It's actually encouraging!

Why is all this a "post-peak parable"?  That gets to be a long post in itself.

Let me just ask this question- what was the basis of "civilization" - meaning; cities, etc.?

The usual answer is "agriculture" - but the real answer is - domestic animals.  Oxen, donkeys, camels, and horses for power- the power we now get from oil.  We owe our culture to our animal symbiont/partners- they're fantastic solar energy concentrators and converters.  My guess is- they are about to play a larger role in the world, again.


Anonymous said...

Oh, a happy little tale. I love those wacky birds. But I think you need a cover over at least part of the pen so that they can stay dry if they want to and get out of the summer sun.
Our pens here are shaded.
Also, with any type of pen in a high predator area like yours, you have to bury the cage wire at least 6 to 12 inches under the earth. Seriously. Or make a complete box and set it down in a hole and backfill the bottom.
We have a lot of the white guineas here {mostly females} and tons of red tail hawks and mongeese, but the guineas, even the white ones, survive quite well.
They run around in the fields all day and I know that the hawks can see every damn thing in this valley
and the mongeese are not shy either. But they would rather not mess with the guineas. I don't know why. Maybe the noise.
Guineas are admirable creatures.
They grow on you.

Sasha said...


Just wanted to give you the benefit of my experience. We live in Southeastern VA. Some woods but our land is mostly a chopped up farm. Predator pressure waxes and wanes. We started out with 16 guineas (10 grey and 6 white). 10 up and left one day, I don't know why. Of the remaining six, two are left:one white one grey. We've actually done better with the chickens, who now sleep behind an electric wire.

I love the guineas. They are dumber than dirt but charming in their own way. However, they have not really thrived. I still plan to get a few more but I will try to train these to go into a secure space at night. The last two now sleep on the roof of our 1 1/2 story house; I kid you not. They can fly up to the bottom of the roof and then walk up the 12/12 pitch roof to the peak. They make me think of house gods. It wasn't until they got down to 2 in number that they chose such a high spot and they have never roosted in trees despite the fact that we have several to choose from.

jewishfarmer said...

Well, we've got all the predators you listed except the great-horned owls, and only one kind of skunk, plus the bears in the woods, and we've done fine with chickens and turkeys - largely because of the dogs. The coyotes den across the road and we used to see scat on the ground all the time, but the farmcollies (American Working Farmcollies) take right good care of them and run them off. Rufus, our larger male has de-cooned our immediate area - when he was smaller (he's crazy huge), he actually chased one of the raccoons up a tree - and I don't mean the raccoon went up the tree (or rather it did) - Rufus went up after it and killed it. The only bad thing is that whenever we have city guests come, you can be sure that'll be the day that the dogs bring home a half eaten possum or something and leave it in the middle of the walkway. So the conversation always goes..." you know there's a.."

The dogs aren't perfect - we've had to give up on the ducks because they can't help hearing the siren call of the creek and getting eaten by various things, but they will even chase off the eagles, and herd the poultry out of range. A good roo helps a lot too with this - our two usually spot the hawks and eagles before even the dogs.

I'm watching this guinea thing with fascination, wondering whether it would be a plus or minus for us to have more self-sufficient birds than chickens - on the one hand, they feed themselves more and can avoid ground predators - on the other, the dogs can't really work them to protect them. So I'm very interested in your experiences.

I will note that I don't think the tomato juice has anything at all to do with green or homesteading - I learned that one in a mill city in Massachusetts as a kid - we had skunks aplenty there too, and my Dad had heard it when he was a kid. I don't think it is any more or less than a folk remedy that doesn't work well - but folks live everywhere.


Unknown said...

I've enjoy the saga of your Gunineas!

Anonymous said...

I'm just a yard nerd with bird feeders, compost and flowers (ummm and mice, rats, hedgehogs, bats and squirrels) but I love an exciting story PLUS video! Go Bruce! Great Blog!!

EJ said...

Great story and what a lovely ending. Bruce is a hero!
A lot of other lessons to learn, too. Including a reminder that focusing on price isn't the least expensive way to go. Quality and doing things right the first time is something our society has to relearn.

Anonymous said...

Great story, guineas are quite an experience, and yes, they are very different from chickens. We got a dozen guinea keets a few years ago and although they never took to the hen house, they stayed on the property nesting in the trees all winter long. They are incredibly self-sufficient and tough as anything. In the spring, the trouble began. The females (seven of them) all went out to nest in the long grass around the property and as soon as they had laid their 20-25 eggs they started sitting. We never found the nesting hens or the nests until we noticed piles of feathers near abandoned nests. They are pretty predator proof up in the trees, but when they are nesting, they are "sitting ducks". Maybe you having a dog around would help in this area, as long as he does not get a taste for eggs.
I have also read that once the keets hatch out, the mothers tend to lead them through the dewey morning grass which gets them all wet and cold and tends to kill them. We had been advised to find and move the birds to a safe location as soon as they started to brood, but we never found any of the nests until it was too late.
P.S. the remaining male guineas stuck around for another year, but they had decided at that point that we were the intruders, and every time we went outside, they were there, screeching at us as we were gardening, or relaxing in the sun, until we trapped them by climbing up their tree at night and grabbing their legs. They now live at a neighbour's farm where they have more room and other guineas as company.

katykanuk said...

When my dog was skunked I used Baking Soda, Peroxide and soap, worked like a charm and her fur was soft as a babies bum!

Nancy M. said...

I'm so glad your lost guinea came back. Thanks for the info about the vinegar. Although, I hope to never have to use it, lol! I just let my guineas out recently and they have hung around, even followed me around. It's kinda cute!

WILDBLUESbysus said...

You had me hooked on Part 1, watching for Part 2, now anxious for Part 3. What's the rest of the story?