Monday, 12 March 2012

Hysterical Shouting and Screaming

Until recently, my experience of guinea fowl had been limited to a brief indirect encounter when I was about 8 years old. A work colleague of my father’s invited him to a trout fishing weekend in the Eastern Transvaal and for some reason my mother elected not to join him. This meant I was allowed to go with him. The weekend party was made up mainly of adults and save for one, I was in the minority. The only other member of the group my age was a pasty hysterical boy called Colin. Colin was known for almost incessant noisy outbursts, tantrums, screaming and tears. My most vivid memory of Colin was his face - red and blotchy, tears and snot-caked as he let rip emotionally about whatever was worrying him that moment. And there always seemed to be something worrying him. Colin’s behaviour might have had a lot to do with his rather unusual family circumstances. His parents were both on their second marriage (to each other) and each brought from their previous relationships, three daughters all in their late teens which meant that when Colin arrived he essentially had seven mothers under one roof. This may have explained his rather unique perception of the world and constant state of hysterics although I can think of a number of advantages of being poly-maternally endowed.
Throughout the weekend Colin and I studiously avoided each other. I found his emotional outbursts embarrassing. I had no idea of what he thought of me and nor did I care.
On the last morning of our weekend, breakfast commenced without Colin and I must say it was rather pleasant - peaceful and relaxed. Not to last of course because half way through, Colin burst into the kitchen totally hysterical, screaming and crying. Eventually the group managed to extract from him what the problem was this time. Colin appeared to have gone wandering across the veld on his own where he came upon a guinea fowl hen on her nest of eggs. She did what any self-respecting mother-to-be would do and defended her budding brood by setting up a terrible screeching racket and attacking Colin, giving him the fright of his life.
I was totally unimpressed. I remember glowering at him over the breakfast table as he sniffled into his cornflakes muttering “if I had a .22 you all would be eating guinea fowl now” and thinking what a prat.
Fast forward 44 years and when James and I went to buy some Southdown ewe lambs, we came across an aviary which contained a number of guinea fowl chicks. “Oh please take them”, said Susan, “I don’t have room for them and they are very cramped.” James said no. Susan, her daughter Gussie and I packed the 11 birds into some boxes and we drove home, the sheep in the trailer and the birds in back of the car. I emptied them into a hen coup and let them get on with life. Five keeled over immediately and kicked the bucket. The remaining seven survived. After a couple of weeks, I let them out of the coup, saying ok guys goodbye, convinced that they would take off, never to be seen again. Not on your nelly. They stayed, integrated with the hens, moved into the hen’s lodgings and generally began taking control of everything they encountered.
That was 9 months ago. Today they rule the roost, moving everywhere an almost solid group, a spotty hysterical Doctor Doolittle’s push-me-pull-you. Fully grown they are big birds, far bigger than the cochin hens and that is saying something. They are somewhat prehistoric looking with their elaborate spots, their turquoise faces and almost bald crenulated skulls covered in a mere hint of odd tufts of bum fluff. To top this weird attire, they sport bright red wattles, the large wattles identifying the males.
And they know that they are imposing, taking great delight in collectively chasing cat Leo in through the kitchen window. He tries to regain composure by settling down in the safety in a patch of sun in the dining room near the glass French doors only to find the seven guinea fowl leering menacingly in at him from the outside. He clearly doesn’t want to lose face for a second time in quick succession so he pretends they don’t exist. He turns his face away from them and by the process of cell osmosis attempts to inch away from them in a way that belies his intentions. They continue to peer in at him tapping their beaks on the glass and chattering incessantly at him. He looks slightly green around the gills.
Once the cat has been firmly put in his place, the birds then go to sit on the farm gate facing the street. They are quite happy to perch there for hours, again chattering nonstop and much of Hawkley Village has witnessed them sitting there like the vultures in Disney’s jungle book. But then I drive up to gate, returning from home from wherever. I press the remote control to open the gate and it begins to slide to the right. The seven guinea fowl give a shout of alarm and being to shuffle to the left. The gate continues to shift to the right and birds, as they begin to run out of perch space, continue to shuffle to the left until of course the bird on the far left falls off with much shouting and before he reconstitutes himself in the driveway. The gate continues to open, shifting to the right and the remaining birds shuffling in tandem to the left until the next bird falls off the gates and so it goes. The first time this happened, the building contractor from across the road stopped work and watched the process, open mouth before he collapsed laughing.

People had warned me that guinea fowl are very noisy but are great watch dogs. Ours, people noted are the calmest most chilled birds they had ever met but hysterical shouting and screaming is par for the course with guinea fowl. The birds know me and my voice, they follow me everywhere – even across the fields when I am doing my sheep rounds. They allow me to put them to bed at night and even let me medicate two who were injured when a sheep hurdle fell on them. I thought I had them sussed but they continue to surprise me. Bob came to scan the sheep last week and we kicked off early – before I had let the hens and guinea fowl out their coop for the day. Melissa let the birds out while Bob and I got one with the scanning. All was well until the guinea fowl came round the corner and into the barn where they encountered Bob in his black water-proof waders and with his odd looking sheep scanning trailer. The birds took one look and decided in concert and very shrilly: we don’t like this! They went absolutely bananas and set up a screeching racket that was blood curdling and ear splitting; the noise painfully amplified in the barn. The two dogs scattered. Bob stared at me in alarm and mouthed above the chaos: “I have never heard anything quite like this ever before in my entire life.” After about five minutes of screeching which seemed like eternity, I managed to calm the guinea fowl down after which they decided “Oh ok, he’s alright” and they settled on the barn gate to happily watch Bob complete the sheep scan.

As we approach the spring I am aware that the birds are fully grown and about to go into their first breeding season. I pity the two girls in the group, nature conspired against us and the gender ratio is not good. I am told that once the hens are sitting on eggs, I must do everything I can to locate the nest and remove the eggs (our incubator is due to arrive any day). This is because the hen will refuse to leave her nest and will therefore be fair game for the fox. That would be sad. Be careful, came the warning, when you approach the nest, the hen is likely to set up a furious screaming match and is likely to attack you. Yes I know, I said with a wry smile, I have had experience of this before. Irrespective of its gender, I think I our first guinea fowl chick born to Scotland farm will be named Colin.