By Dawn Kovell
You probably won’t find a lot of people using gratitude and guinea fowl in the same sentence, let alone article. FDSA Ranch, where I have lived since February, blends a dog training destination with a nascent holistic collection of other domestic animals. I use the term “domestic” loosely with the guinea fowl.
What we have learned thus far, is that there is tick season, mud season, fly season, foxtail season, sticky weed season (specially designed to adhere to Belgian Tervuren leg feathers) and, most recently, a hornet season. All that and we are only ten months in! Just where does the “gratitude” enter? The facilities are amazing and living in the country transports me back to my Ohio farm country roots. There is just a steep land management learning curve, especially when one tries to employ a working “with” versus working “against” nature philosophy.
Enter the guinea fowl. After weeks of research reading articles with dire titles such as “Are guinea fowl right for you?” and “Guinea fowl, the cons and the cons,” Denise and I focused on the positive (guinea fowl eat ticks and other pesky insects) and voyaged to Kat Piss Ranch in Grass Valley to procure our own flock. Any road trip to a place called Kat Piss Ranch is bound to be a huge success in my book and the lovely proprietress of the establishment did not disappoint. The three of us had a grand time coaxing guinea fowl into crates and we left with 24 guineas, nine chickens and one rooster (Lt. Overkill). But that is another story.
Guinea fowl are not truly domesticated birds so the challenge is giving them enough free roaming space so they can indulge in natural behaviors (read: roaming and tick eating) and keeping them from visiting the neighbors, while ensuring they are safe from predators, particularly at night. Thus began an intensive guinea fowl training program and, oh hey, how about those three dogs? Regular readers might recall Velo’s (Border Whippet) special interest in bird chasing and Baloo the Tervuren is no slouch in the predatory behavior department himself. Dice (Border Whippet), the almost perfect dog, unbelievably has no predatory intent past dog toys, so, that is where the training program began.
A daily program of desensitization and counterconditioning with the goal of habituation ensued. This was coupled with some serious initial discussions involving the “Leave It” cue. Now, I know that some dog trainers think that a “Leave It” cue isn’t particularly useful, but I must disagree. In fact, Velo, who is a sensitive soul, took the “Leave It” cue so seriously to heart that later requests to assist with guinea fowl herding activities met with little success. The fowl, for their part, only had to learn not to run from dogs and a recall cue. We started in the pen with food reinforcement. “Chick, Chick, Chick” – toss some food. In no time at all, I had mealworms on the Amazon “Subscribe and Save” program.
Two months later, I tentatively had three dogs who understood that the guinea fowl fell under the “No Predatory Behaviors” category and it was time. Guinea fowl are terrific bullies and confinement exacerbates problematic behaviors. The gates were opened! Be free! Suffice it to say that there was a learning curve to recalling the guinea fowl into nightly containment. I discovered that, initially, I simply couldn’t do it alone. Dice, my safest recruit, was enlisted into sentry detail. He was posted in “Sit-Stay” where his presence would deter the flock from heading away from the pen as I herded them toward the door with my “goose girl” stick. Guinea fowl are naturally susceptible to rear pressure as a survival mechanism. If they weren’t, the birds at the back of the flock would starve as they forage. The stick becomes an extension of one’s arm from a social pressure perspective.
Good plan. Did I mention the terrain is hilly and treacherous? As I was slipping and sliding and doing the “goose girl” thing, I glanced over to make sure Dice was holding up his end of the deal. The term “overtraining” came to mind as the guinea fowl, having spent two months learning Dice wasn’t a threat, were clustered in a circle, squawking and reaching out to touch him. Dear Dice was holding his Sit-Stay while leaning as far away from them as he possibly could while keeping his butt to the ground. Oh my. The best laid plans.
One might think this herding disaster would be sufficient to inspire a thoughtful reassessment of the plan. But no. It was getting dark and I was starting to panic. I could hear the hunting song of the local coyote pack in my mind, s0 I doubled down. I brought out Baloo, the wolfy-looking Tervuren. On a wing and a prayer he was stationed in the vulnerable sentry position and Dice moved to a less critical, but still useful location. I started herding the fowl towards the open door of the pen. They saw Baloo, stopped, squawked about it for a bit and headed over to check him out. Oh no. I cued Baloo into a position change just to demonstrate his extreme dangerousness. Baloo obliged with a “Sit” and the guineas froze. Great! Just then, I slipped in the loose dirt and spooked the confusion into flight. They flew right at Baloo! I experienced a huge surge of gratitude for Baloo’s Mondio training as he didn’t bat an eyelash when they flew past his face. He clearly thought we were just proofing an Absence!
We managed to get the flock in; no guineas or dogs were [physically] damaged in the process and we have since perfected the nightly routine. I still use one dog each night to block off the obvious exit and the treat compensation is sufficient to make up for my terrible plans.
As the days have grown shorter, it is darker and darker each morning when I leave for work. One morning, I debated opening the pen in the dark as I would be gone for a long day. The guineas are now used to freely roaming the ranch area and I could only imagine the problematic coop behavior if I left them confined. So, I opened the pen and hoped for the best. When I returned much later the ranch was eerily quiet. Normally, the guinea fowl vocally broadcast their ranch location. Crickets. At their pen, I called and called and listened. I called again. I waited about five minutes and with a sinking heart, resigned myself to a futile drive around the neighborhood looking for the missing fowl. As I was rounding the container barn, activity from my peripheral vision caught my eye. The entire confusion of guinea fowl raced down the dirt road from the back 40 acres toward their pen. They were running so fast they kicked up little tufts of dust as they smoked on home! They must have been far away when they heard my call as they were panting, hungry and thirsty as we rejoiced in our reunion.
I truly enjoy developing relationships with animals and am extremely thankful to experience inter-species communication. Though most people consider guinea fowl to be noisy, disruptive, and perhaps not worth the effort, they provide hours of entertainment and many learning opportunities. Observing, interacting with, appreciating, and, yes, loving different critters is an acknowledgement of my place in the wider natural world.