By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
You are waking up from a dream where you’ve been trapped in a maze. Every turn you took, voices were screaming at you to “Go back – go back!” As you lie there in bed feeling relief that you are safe at last, suddenly there they are again – those voices admonishing you – and you realize it’s the guineahens outside. They’ve been out there admiring their reflections in the cellar window glass and squawking away. They are a tough love.
Most everyone on Nantucket has a feeling about these birds. If you want to start an animated conversation at lunch or cocktails, just mention their name. People love them or hate them. Let’s see why.
This bird is another alien invader, but it requires much more help than the starlings do, because it can’t fly more than a few hundred yards. Humans have planted them here, like pheasants and bobwhite.
Of course, most of you have looked at the picture and know this bird well. The official name is the ‘Helmeted Guineafowl,’ Numida meleagris. The Genus, ‘Numida’ refers to their original home in North Africa. The Greeks and Romans were the original tamers of this fowl. Folks know them as ‘guineahens.’
When Edith Andrews and I first put out our Nantucket bird book, one of the decisions we had to make was whether to include this bird. It’s classed as an ‘exotic game bird’ and, as such, isn’t countable on real birder’s life lists. Still, they are birds and they are seen on the island, so we figured there would be more questions if we left them out. So in they went.
Also, they are hard to miss – literally! These are NOT shy retiring birds. They are chicken-like, about two feet from beak to tail and generally gray with little white polka-dots. The head is featherless with a casque or horny growth at the top – the helmet.
To most humans, they appear eminently stupid in the way half a flock will bumble out into the road, leaving some on both sides. Then they seem to forget where they are going. If a car approaches, each one decides which side of the road to head for and often collisions occur. Particularly in summer when drivers are impatient, the result is a flat guineafowl.
You could substitute them into the old joke – “Why did the chicken cross the road? To prove it was possible to the guineafowl.” Unfortunately some Nantucketers are so fed up with these birds that they actually aim for them. For here is the gist of our love/hate relationship.
As most of you know, Nantucket is virtually the Lyme Disease capital of the known world. The vector of this horrible malady is the Deer Tick. Our guineafowl have the reputation for eating these little buggers, so many people want to have them around. More on that later.
Then there’s the other side of their personality. Like me, these guys just don’t seem to be able to shut up. As our summer sunrises become distressingly early, these avian alarm clocks start squawking sooner and sooner.
In David Sibley’s “Guide to Birds” he innocently describes the call as “raucous notes in rhythmic series.” Sounds harmless enough. What many of us hear though is an almost ‘chalk on the blackboard,’ repeated, “go-back,” or “buckwheat,” or “too quick.” This goes on until you are about ready to fly out of your bed and strangle them.
A friend of mine (a bird lover) said, “They would make the most extraordinary noises from the branches just outside our bedroom windows as if to remind us to go out and fill the bird feeders.” The other factor that she noticed was soon after these gray fluff-balls arrived in her neighborhood, all the bobwhites and pheasants disappeared. The neighbors who originally brought them seemed glad that they had relocated, and had little sympathy for their early rising.
Well, do they eat ticks or don’t they? There is a very detailed scientific analysis of this in the Wilson Ornithological Bulletin from 1992 that seems to say that they do. They very carefully measured tick population densities in controlled areas where the birds were allowed to forage and where they were restricted and by gosh, there were a lot fewer ticks where the birds were.
This said, it doesn’t mean that the seek them out. Ticks apparently are not very tasty. But if presented with a tick, the birds eat them. Edith Andrews has had experience with them both scientifically and culinarily. She found almost no ticks in their stomachs but also reports the dark meat to be quite tasty — under glass even.
And that is another reason they are kept around. Although there is no open season on them, they do seem to end up in island stew pots from time to time. Also two of their eggs equal one large chicken egg. If you are lucky enough to find a guineafowl nest, they lay about two dozen eggs before starting to brood them. There is breakfast!
Like other ground nesting species, these bald-faced birds are suffering from the predation of Nantucket’s feral cat population. They wouldn’t be here at all except people keep bringing them in, thinking that they will be making a dent in the tick population.
It seems likely that guineahens will be part of our Nantucket life for years to come. They are fun to watch if they don’t live too close to you. If they do, you must contend with their continuous squawking. But perhaps you have less chance of a tick bite. And who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and stumble on two dozen eggs.
Check out the ‘Birding Nantucket’ series at: http://k-blackshaw.com/BN/BN.htm
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, March 11, 2006