PRINCETON, MASS. — After several futile attempts to enter her flowers in the county fair flower show in Warren, Ohio, Jeanette Ferguson resorted to an old-fashioned solution. "I didn't have a flower worth picking. Either grasshoppers destroyed the leaves or Japanese beetles destroyed the flower buds," she laments.
Instead of dousing her garden with pesticides, she tromped down to the post office and picked up her mail - a peeping box of keets (baby guinea fowl). She added them to three others hatched from an incubator, and the following year, free-ranged the 13 "masked" fowl through her gardens. That year she was able to enter her unblemished flowers in the show and won 18 ribbons and three rosettes , including "Best of Show."
Ms. Ferguson now has 107 awards from four different flower shows in three years hanging on her wall. "I commend my guineas for winning these ribbons," she says proudly after having observed them gobble up aphids, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, and weed seeds in her gardens.
In addition to having a voracious appetite for bugs, these eclectic denizens of Africa produce rich-yolked eggs that aficionados say make tasty egg noodles, ice cream, and angel-food cake; have pheasant-like meat served in some of the finest restaurants worldwide: sport polka-dot plumage used in everything from crafts to couture gowns; and are called the "farmer's watchdog" for their ability to warn of potential danger.
Such versatility is one reason hatcheries are selling them in record numbers. "There's been a strong demand the last three to four years. But there is an almost extreme demand this year," says Ralph Winter, owner of the Guinea Farm in New Vienna, Iowa, probably the largest supplier of guineas in the US.
Mr. Winter has genetically engineered many of the new hues sported by these eccentric birds - his hatchery offers 24 colors, including purple, lavender, sky blue, chocolate, and pewter. He expects to sell about 100,000 guineas this year (keets cost $2 to $4) and attributes his growing sales to their reputation for controlling bugs - especially ticks.
Guinea sales are up 10 percent over last year at Stromberg's Chicks and Gamebirds Unlimited in Pine River, Minn., says Janet Stromberg. She agrees that concerns about deer ticks are driving sales, but also believes Y2K has fostered a greater interest in self-sufficiency.
Ferguson compares their growing popularity to old-style clothes that become the rage years later: "Years ago everyone's grandparents had guineas and everybody's grandparents knew they ate bugs and helped control weed seeds," she says.
In her recently published book "Gardening With Guineas" and on her Web site, Frit's Farm (www.guineafowl.com), Ferguson refers to the fowl as the gardener's helper. "Chickens destroy flower beds," she says, but guineas leave the plants intact while plucking bugs off the leaves. And they're low-maintenance: They roam freely, returning home in the evening to roost, eat very little feed (90 percent of their diet is bugs and weed seeds), are cleaner than chickens, and lice usually aren't a problem, she adds.
But not all is roses in the world of guineas: They have a reputation for being the loudest and pushiest "kids" on the block. "Guineas rule," is a term she's coined to describe their dominance on the farm. And if the UPS truck arrives, you'll be summoned, says Ferguson, who recalls the day her guineas went ballistic when a hot-air balloon floated over her property. Although guineas sound their collective clatter when anything unfamiliar crosses their path, they're rarely aggressive with people.
Steve D'Aquila was concerned about the racket raised by his semiwild guineas in his rural neighborhood in Holden, Mass. But much to his surprise, his next-door neighbor told him, "We love them."
"She no longer checks her kids regularly for ticks," he explains. He purchased the guineas in 1995 when he discovered an abundance of ticks on his newly acquired property. He was picking an average of 30 off his two dogs per week. Now, he says, "If I've picked five the whole season, that would be a lot."
But other guineas haven't left such virtuous impressions in their communities. Cindy Murdoch of Marcola, Ore., revels that her flock selectively harasses her neighbors. "They'll go down below us at 7 o'clock on Sunday morning - and they only go on Sunday and they only go at 7 in the morning. They circle the house ... and scream at the top of their lungs," she says sheepishly.
But she's quick to note the "enormous difference" in the bug population on her property. "We used to have those big black fly gnats - we haven't seen one this summer. Last year we had less than we had the year before.... I think they snap them up before they lay the eggs," she says. "They eat mosquito larvae - I have a pond and you see them picking them off the top."
And she's convinced they have saved her cats from cougars, coyotes, and bears by sounding their alarm.
Winter also recounts stories from his customers of guineas crowding around, screaming at, and pecking snakes, coyotes, and foxes. "They'll actually kill rattlesnakes," he says.
"They're probably the most personable and least damaging [farm] birds," Ms. Murdoch opines, before launching into a discussion about her first guinea, Zelda, who is house-trained and croons when petted. "And there are a lot of uses for them without killing them."
She sells keets for $6, adults for $18, and the wing feathers (10 for $3.39) to craftspeople who use them to fashion earrings, weavings, and dreamcatchers. Eggs can also fetch $18 a dozen.
Anyone who is considering buying guineas should make sure farm animals are allowed in their community, Ferguson advises. Keep them confined for at least six weeks before allowing them the run of the property or they could run away, and ask neighbors if they mind a wayward gang of boisterous fowl occasionally roaming their land.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society