Cooped up and freaked out


I can’t quite believe that we’ve been living here for a full year. I had imagined we might even have completed our renovations by now but circumstances have meant we have barely scratched the surface. Which isn’t a bad thing, given our ideas have kept changing, and it’s been good to see the way the light changes in the house over an entire year. But at least one of my plans has come to fruition.

When I knew we were coming up here, I thought about getting some guinea fowl. My father’s family had them when he was growing up and I could imagine how well they would have fitted in at the slightly shabby rectory with its raspberry canes and bee hives. It seemed somehow right to have a little group of them here, too, and when I read how good they are at getting rid of ticks and have even been known to scare away snakes, then I was in no doubt. They didn’t need to know how much I’ve enjoyed eating guinea fowl (pintade) in France.

Getting them was harder than I thought. Lock-downs during the year meant many of the nearest breeders were in Queensland, which had shut its border, and there’s a definite breeding season. Happily I found someone much closer and he put me down on his list. In the meantime I would pass houses in the area that had them and find them enchanting. We talked to a few owners who said they were really easy to keep but very noisy, becoming alarmed at the slightest thing, which can be quite comical. Even James, who eventually delivered my little brood last week, said that his lot freak out whenever he carries a box. I mean, isn’t that sort of charming?

New arrivals

So last week, virtually the anniversary of our arrival here, they arrived. Nine of them. I had everything ready, making the old garden shed into a guinea fowl coop with chicken wire and a tarpaulin over the top to stop them flying out, a bit ramshackle but it was only temporary. They need to be in the coop for three or four weeks so that they get used to the sights and sounds and think of it as home otherwise they just wander off into the sunset. Once they’re established, they will roam free and roost at night in whatever tree they fancy. Unlike chickens, they peck rather than use their feet, which means the mulch of Anthony’s new garden beds won’t get destroyed when they’re foraging.

The Grand Hotel de la Pintade

I hadn’t considered whether they would survive that long, though. And goodness, this is only the first week and already everything’s been very hit and miss.

Normal life

It started the very first day. Guinea fowl can fly but my lot aren’t mature enough yet so I wasn’t really expecting them to do much but run around the coop. Wrong. Once they’d been in the coop for a while, I went in to see that they were fine and they panicked and fluttered about, banging into the walls of the shed. Two of them managed to fly through a tiny gap between the tarpaulin and the roof and spent the rest of the day and that night in a nearby tree, not a chance of being caught. Guineas like to stay together so I didn’t think they would go far, and sure enough the next day they came down to the roof of the shed, where I’d left some food, fluttering away every time I came near. Not too much of a problem, I thought.

The following day everything was just the same – the birds in the coop quite happy, the two on the roof enjoying the sunshine. And then I heard the magpies and butcher birds elsewhere making a huge fuss and realised there was a python about. Not good. When I went into the coop that afternoon to check on my lot I saw with a shock that the python was actually inside the coop. It was a huge one, too. The birds, rather surprisingly, were wary but not in a flap. As the python slid around the floor, they flew to their perches, and when it made its way up to their perches, they flew down to the floor. I didn’t know what to do. I imagined it would end with the python taking a bird and that would be that. But when I phoned neighbours, who keep a veritable menagerie of birds and animals, hoping they might have some advice for getting rid of the snake, David told me the python would kill the lot, even if it didn’t eat them. Certainly, it was fascinating watching the python in hunting mode, and even making a lunge at one and missing, but the idea of my precious brood becoming python-food just days after their arrival seemed awful. And then my wonderful neighbours said they’d come round and catch it for me. Which they did, using a broom and a plastic bin, all very matter of fact, and then told us where we could release it. It was one of those moments that makes me feel very far from Britain.

An unwelcome guest

Added to this was that Anthony and I had gone to get our gardening clothes from the outside bathroom. As we lifted our shirts from the hooks, several tiny microbats flew out. This was turning seriously Gothic. Eventually, dressed in our bat-less clothes, and with a huge pissed-off snake in a bin in the back of the car, we drove to a nature reserve some twenty kilometres away, kicked the bin over and watched the python venture out to explore its new home. Not so much as a thank you. Not even a backward glance. Even better, when we got back home, the two escaped guineas were trying to get back into the coop, and happily made their way in when I opened the door. Success all round!

We had a day of peace, me feeling pretty happy at the sight of my nine little guineas on their perches, all fluffed up and content, knowing their main predator was out of the way. But the next morning, there were only three of them there. No sign of anything having broken in, no mess of feathers, no corpses in the field, nothing. It was, and remains a mystery. Thankfully three of them reappeared later, missing their flock. So now I have six guinea fowl and another two or three weeks before they can leave the coop. Dare I hope they will make it?

Well, this is country life. And what with the awfulness of Ukraine and, closer to home, the recent  floods that have devastated nearby towns and villages, leaving many homeless, the little dramas of my coop don’t really count for much. I’m optimistic my guinea fowl will make it to become a happy, resident flock working its way around my place, seizing every tick. But who knows. As the past couple of years have shown and recent events continue to show, the only certainty in life is uncertainty. And isn’t acceptance one of the biggest life lessons of all?

Do you have experience of rearing fowl?

Categories: Australia, memoir, natureTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 comments

  1. Oh my goodness Colin what a ripping yarn! That python! I do hope your new babies survive to complete the vision of bucolic bliss in these tumultuous times.

  2. Foxes Foxes Foxes. Your coop surely must be fox proof Colin. Good luck.Linley whose children have chickens and ducks and foxes unfortunately .

    • Thanks, Linley. Yes, there are definitely foxes around – they nabbed a neighbour’s chickens recently. My coop is pretty tight, I think, but snakes might be the biggest issue. Here’s hoping they make it out alive!

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