Few things strike fear in a dog owner like finding an engorged tick sucking blood from a favorite pet. Even worse is having to pull one of the nasty bugs off yourself after a wonderful walk along your favorite trail.

Incidents like these, it seems, are rising at an alarming rate.

The question of how to battle ticks has included the use of pesticides, burning the environment where they thrive and the eradication of their hosts, which in many cases is the white-tailed deer. Many, if not all, of these solutions are less than ideal, and some are downright dangerous. A natural – and comical – solution to the problem that we’ve tried with great success is to introduce guinea fowl to problem areas.

Guinea fowl control ticks naturally. Photo by David Swartwood.

As Lyme disease continues to spread throughout North America, the need to control the tick population has never been of greater concern. Lyme is easily transmitted from the host to tick and then onto dog or human. Hosts may include mice, squirrels and the often-blamed deer.

Lyme can be difficult to diagnose, since its symptoms match so many other diseases and include, but aren’t limited to, lack of energy, flu-like symptoms, headache, stiff neck, fever, chills, muscle and joint pain, and swollen lymph nodes. Diagnosis often comes from an observation of the symptoms, which may include a round rash often referred to as a “bull’s eye.”

Treatment for Lyme disease is generally antibiotics, which need to be prescribed as early as possible for the best outcome. Delay of treatments may result in subsequent symptoms lasting for months or even years, so finding ways to eradicate the ticks that carry the disease has been a priority in communities affected by it.

In 1990, a study in East Hampton, N.Y., set out to determine if a folk remedy, used on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass., and Shelter Island, N.Y., helped by simply gobbling up the potentially dangerous bugs for lunch. (“The Wilson Bulletin,” June 1992, D. Duffy, R. Downer and C. Brinkely, Lyme Disease Research Project, Shelter Island, N.Y. 11964.) The study proved without a doubt that the guinea fowl was capable of clearing areas of ticks and many other bugs. They were a safe alternative, causing no damage to the environment, which might not be the case with other solutions.

Guinea hens and keets heading out for the day. Photo by David Swartwood.

Helmeted guinea fowl, or guineas as they’re called, are native to West Africa, where they are known to clean ticks off warthogs. Their diet is 90-percent insects and includes a wide variety of bugs including ticks, leafhoppers, beetles, ants and spiders, along with weed seeds, frogs, snakes, lizards and even small rodents. The birds have been used in the U.S. for several decades for controlling the tick population.

We have owned guineas for nearly 10 years and do not suffer the effects of ticks on our farm. Our current flock consists of approximately 35 adults with 100 eggs in the incubator that will hatch over the next month. This only begins to meet the demand in our geographical region. Calls are coming in from as far as 200 miles away for purchasing “keets” (baby guineas). Last year our orders were close to 300 keets and adults combined. An average of six to 12 guineas can quite effectively scour a property of up to 10 acres, depending on the terrain. They generally scout in small groups and work with a mission.

The birds’ normal color is pearl, a stunning iridescent purple with small white dots throughout. Many other colors are now bred, and everything from white, blue, black, pied (large white markings) and everything in between can be found.

The moms tend to lay their eggs in communal nests used by several hens at a time, and you can find as many as 50 eggs if you are lucky enough to find their well-camouflaged nests. Many of mine will lay eggs in with the chickens, but I have found nests in my garden under tomato plants as well. The hens make good moms and will often come back from the high grass after hatching a brood with 20 or more kids in tow. The mortality rate can be high due to wet grass caused by morning dew, so early in the season we tend to incubate more often than not. Later on, after the initial demand is filled, we let nature take its course.

The guineas provide us with lots of entertainment. They are comical and inquisitive, and often come up to the porch to see what’s new. They are currently checking out a litter of puppies in an ex-pen, and I am not sure who is more confused, the new puppies or the hens.

Some of the keets are hatched in incubators. Photo by David Swartwood.

Both the eggs and birds are delicious. It takes about two guinea eggs to equal an extra-large chicken egg, but the shells are about three times as thick. They need a good “whack” to crack them. However, it’s all worth it when you taste a free-range egg with all its natural flavors. There is nothing better for baking than a guinea egg.

The birds themselves are a well-known culinary delight. In France, when you buy one from the butcher, it will often have the bird’s head tucked inside to prove you are buying this delicacy and not just an ordinary chicken. They are sometimes used in pheasant-under-glass recipes, as the taste is exceptional. It is mostly dark meat and full of flavor, and should be cooked with lots of moisture to keep in the succulent juices and prevent it from drying out. Great recipes are available all over the Internet.

The single drawback to owning these birds is that they can sometimes be noisy. They make a great “early warning system,” and when housed with chickens or other poultry will call attention to intruders coming onto the property. Ours are accustomed to random traffic, so they don’t seem to call out very often. Their mutterings are simply background noise to all the sounds of the country farm. New owners, however, might want to inform the neighbors living close by that guineas are on tick patrol. The benefits the birds provide should be welcome in the neighborhood.

Guineas are also ideal for helping eradicate bugs from vegetable gardens and flowerbeds. They will delicately remove the bugs without harming plants, unlike chickens that scratch and dig. The birds thrive in all climates, and mine tend to roost out on the coop’s doorway until temperatures are well below freezing. Then they go inside to join the chickens.

If ticks are a problem in your area, and you’ve got a bit of space to house these comical workaholics, guinea fowl may just be the solution you’ve been looking for – if you can find them.

(We also have Muscovy ducks to help with the mosquitoes that can carry heartworm disease, but that’s another story…)

David relaxing with some of his Springers. Photo by Thom Nesbitt.

David Swartwood has been training dogs his entire life. He was raised with Boston Terriers and began breeding American Cockers and Lhasa Apsos while in high school. For more than 30 years, his breed of choice has been the English Springer Spaniel.

An all-breed handler for 20 years, David now enjoys judging alongside his partner Thom Nesbitt, and is currently licensed to judge the Sporting, Hound and Toy Groups. David enjoys every moment of judging and meeting new people with the similar interest of preserving the sport of purebred dogs.

In their spare time, David and Thom run a training school and operate a small farm with sheep, goats, donkeys, llamas and a wide variety of poultry, including turkeys, chickens, guinea hens, quail and peacocks.