Of the sixty guinea hens my mother and I raised about fifty-five made it through last winter. This is the largest and most tame flock we have ever had and we are proud of this accomplishment. We treat them with routine and begrudgingly they yield to our habit of protecting them, especially at night, when one after the other they plink over the threshold of their coop and we close and latch the door.
Guinea hens are monogamous and in early summer, as courting season turned to breeding season, some of the flock began to pair-up. Not all. There remains a core of loud and busy bachelors that patrol the neighborhood and fight each other. Those that do find mates however recede from this chaos to embark on more romantic missions. They are exclusive to each other and to a territory. As they make their daily sojourns around the property they are seldom more than a few feet apart, the birds seem as married as constellations.
In addition to this flock of guineas we still have a few from an older and less coddled bunch. These birds have always roosted in the trees and are probably anywhere from seven to twelve years old. The two flocks primarily ignored each other, so we were intrigued when a May-December relationship between a young female and an ancient male began in my parent’s back yard.
A discrepancy in years is nothing for humans where the effort to find a mate can include personal finances and plastic surgery. For guineas the key between the sexes appears to be stamina; they chase each other for weeks. They run and they run and they run, first him chasing her, then her chasing him. This breathless wooing that they do is fierce competition, one testing the other’s fitness and drive. My mother and I marvel at the old man and wonder how his scarred, bent feet could have carried him so fast and so far to earn her.
We finally decide that guinea hens make exceptions too. Like many discouraged and eventually tragic romances, he can be said to have shown her the wider world; they sleep under the stars beneath a canopy of leaves, they graze among dogwood and trumpet vine and take delicious raisins, as the cat birds do, from my mother’s daily offering. They approach the porch gently each time the bag rustles. He is gallant, standing near and protective as she takes the first pieces. Guinea hens mate for life.
We were sad when we found him dead but we were not prepared for how pervasive and emotional the hen’s loss would become. On that first morning, the moment light crept into the sky, she began calling. Before my mother buried him, she had put the body where the hen could see it, hoping she’d stop, but it did not register like that. She kept searching all day and then for the next three—repeating her two-syllable chant several times and then stopping to listen. When nothing comes, as nothing will, she starts over again, slowly in an increasingly plaintive tone. As she visited their favorite resting spots she’d call, hopeful, half-mad, and finally at night, as she flew to her roost alone, she’d try just a few more desperate times before darkness settled. I tell myself a bird cannot feel grief, only confusion. But after two weeks of this lovesick behavior, it began to seem like the kindest thing we could do was put her out of her misery.
It was on the seventeenth day, that dawn began as it had all summer, hot and dry and hazy, now with her mournful voice, I almost believed it had never been any different. It was at about noon that I realized she had stopped. My mother witnessed it all. How she brought a male into the yard, showed him where her nest had been and all about the place, to the birdbath and tiger lilies. There was a great amount of conversation between the two; soft whistling and graceful gestures, while not a dance per se, were steps that all lovers once recognize as air.
Marilee Foster farms and writes from Sagaponack.