People yell at me for letting “my” guinea hens play in the road. But these birds, as I have pointed out before, are the property of Sagaponack—not the village, but the place: they came with the land. It has been one of my family’s jobs to assist in the birds’ survival, even against the odds.Like everything in the world, Sagaponack has changed around the birds. Guineas, unlike chickens or even horses, are hard-wired to defend. Running away almost never occurs, and now that they are living in the wilds of suburbia, their assertive, combative behavior has many fatal pitfalls. With the advent of the automobile and the landscaping trailer, the range the guineas know—fields bisected by occasional pavement—was transformed into a fatal gauntlet.
For the flock, maintaining critical mass has been hard ever since. I’ve seen a male, in a bid to impress his lady, step from the grassy verge right into the path of a cement-mixing truck. In a matter of rapid downshifts and good brakes, the massive truck came to a harmless halt. We bowed and threw roses to the careful driver, who smiled with annoyed relief as he handily climbed the gears again.
It does not usually go this well: High-ranking males are the first to die, because they are the ones most likely to throw themselves against a $75,000 sedan’s rear wheel. Similarly, we lose the alpha females when it is time to set. She sits on a pile of eggs, laid in a secret place, not in the coop, and a nighttime predator gets her.
So, this year, we were thrilled when the guineas began building their nests inside the chicken coops. We surmised that they finally understood the danger of the outdoors and are adapting.
Two birds began to set, but then, for reasons we couldn’t understand, both abandoned their nests. We had one broody chicken to spare, and so employed her naïve benevolence to finish the term. Last week, she hatched out 15 little keets. Her old hen eyes are wide and watchful, her mothering stance is huge, but these devils are not bumbling chicks—they are speedy and slippery as mice. We wonder how long the surrogate mother will hang in there as we assess that this job is twice as difficult as rearing chickens.
Also interesting, and treacherous, is how the rest of the bird population is reacting. Any of them would like an opportune moment to surround and kill the little flock. The chickens are a threat because they are carnivores. The adult guinea hens can’t be trusted because it is likely that they already see this orphan brood as a threat.
Guinea hens and chickens do not speak the same language, and we speak neither. Negotiation is impossible, but once you intervene, you’re more likely to intervene again. So a pen is built to protect the amalgam family. It buys us time. Because with time, avian tempers will shrink, their confusion will erode, and feathers will grow.