Thursday, July 03, 2008

Four Alarm Fowl

The California wildfires have been astonishing thus far and we haven't even seen them. As a pleasant little gay boy from the wetter side of Oregon I was completely unfamiliar with the horrors of a wildfire. But here in NoCal, we've been socked in smoke for over a week. Women have taken their newborns out of state to spare their lungs, and neighbors wear respirator masks.

I imagine the effect is like taking a little drag off a cigarette with every inhalation. In fact I must admit that although I pride myself on superior health and resilience, I feel as though I am becoming victim to the plague of wildfires. My throat is scratchy, I wake with a cough, and Head Chef and I have both fallen into a sort of inexplicable lethargy. Are we just especially lazy, or is it something more?

Lying around deprived of oxygen has given us plenty of time for contemplation and conversation. Among the many revelations we've had is that guinea fowl is a suitable substitute for pheasant in fine restaurants throughout Europe and North America. Who knew?

Guineas are actually a wonderful multi-purpose bird. Although they look like decorative chicken-vultures and are capable of incredible amounts of noise, they are also effective organic alert systems. Anything out of the norm causes them to raise the alarm. Furthermore, they are ravenous insect eaters. They can consume so many of the ticks that cause Lyme disease that some rural counties give them away in pairs to help people control ticks. All this, and delicious too?

Were it not for their potential delectability, we might not have even considered it. But in all the haze and apocalyptic gloom of the fogs of wildfire smoke, we started picturing a few of ours as roasted, dressed, and presented on a platter a la Bugs Bunny.

It's not that smoky environs make us hungry. No, we had other reasons.

At first, we couldn't quite put it together. Before the smoke was even detectable by mere humans, the guineas were raising a mighty cry. And they did it for all their waking hours. Unceasingly, from 4:30am to when they went to roost in their tree for the night. Then the smoke became visible, and then we could smell it. And still, the guineas called.

They gave themselves dust baths in the drive, screaming the alarm. Not acting frightened. Just screaming. If they had been a baby, we would have shaken them. So we went to town and bought a pellet gun. All the better to silence them.

As we drove, we talked about why this sudden change in behavior might have occurred. Were they reaching maturity and establishing their territory? Were they trying to keep the flock from wandering too far apart? As African prairie birds, we knew their instincts to stay close together would be strong, but this was ridiculous. Frankly, it drew a lot of attention. An animal attempting to avoid predation doesn't do that just for fun.

And so, in between coughs and while trying to peer through the drifting smoke at one another, it occurred to us that perhaps they were staying on high alert because of the smoke. That would be one reason they might not mind making themselves noticeable. If the prairie's on fire, predators are probably a secondary concern.

So we put the gun away, and decided to wait for Cal Fire to put a damper on the flames. Today we have nearly clear skies. We can see each other from across the yard, and can even spot the mountain across our valley.

And the guineas? Well, they have quieted down significantly. They shall live to be eaten another day.

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