Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Guineas' Dilemma

by Pa Rock

I remember a discussion in a college psychology class that I was teaching a few years back.  The question arose as to whether animals can think.  The response from the students in the class was unanimous – and almost explosive.  Yes, animals definitely do  think, and each person was anxious to give examples of just how bright their cat, dog, or ferret actually was.

There are currently three dogs in residence at Rock’s Roost, and each of the three can outsmart me time after time, even on my best day.  But when it comes to basic smarts, the absolute brightest critters hereabouts have feathers. 

I’ve always heard it said that there is no animal as dumb as a chicken, but that just is not so.    Ducks can be dense, but chickens figure things out – and they remember.  And when something changes, chickens are quick to adapt.   

I have chickens that start running toward the house as soon as the backdoor opens even just an inch or two.  They know the farmer is on his way outside, and he may have some delicious slices of bread to tear up and throw to them.  He does that sometimes, so it is smart to always run up and check.  (If the chickens had been enrolled in my psychology class, they would know that I am training them by means of operant conditioning - but the name of the process isn't important to the chickens.  It's all about getting fed!)

One of my little hens does not like to go in the coop at night, so she always plays hide-and-seek with me when I go out to close them up for the night.  All of the hens enjoy bullying the three Tom turkeys – each of whom is five or six times larger than any of the hens - and all of the hens seems to know just how far they can go before they trip the turkeys' triggers.

The three turkeys are perhaps the slowest on the uptake of any of the farm critters, but even they have their moments.  The turkeys are always hungry and attempt to eat their weight in rich grain every day.  They are the first ones out of the coop in the morning – knowing that will put them at the front of the chow line.  My son has been having a yard sale on the front lawn for the past several days.   The turkeys have discovered that they like visiting the yard sale where they investigate the merchandise and gobble playfully at the humans who show up to shop.  They are a big attraction!

But it is the little flock of guineas who are the most intriguing creatures on the farm.  I started off last year with twenty baby guineas (keets), but they soon began disappearing to predators.  This year I began with twenty-eight and kept them caged up longer than I had the year before.  As soon as I released them, however, they began disappearing.  They were roosting in small trees and bushes, as is their nature, until nighttime prowlers began to feast on the naive birds. 

My flock was quickly reduced to nine birds, and they came up with a course direction change on their own.  The young guineas began roosting in the secure chicken coop along with the chickens and turkeys.   That smart decision on their part led to their number remaining stable at nine for several weeks.

But then nature began to call, and the guineas, feeling secure, moved back outside to roost in the evening – albeit in taller trees.  I sensed a disaster in the making, and while I was in Alaska, something got one of the guineas as it slept on a limb.   The other eight quickly smartened up again and moved back into the chicken coop.  Now, while they still have the urge to be outside at night, they remain indoors with the chickens.   The guineas face a dilemma.  Should they follow their natural instincts and sleep outside, or should they go with common sense and bed down indoors with the other farm fowl.

One of my major goals for next summer is to establish a large, permanent flock of guineas.   They are great watchdogs, making a racket that can be heard halfway to town when strangers show up,  and they eat their weight in insects.  The past two summers I have had literally no ticks at The Roost. 

So yes, guineas are definitely smart and self reliant - and the folks who share their farms with guineas ain't so dumb either!

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