Every morning, even occasionally on his days off, Denis Carpenter begins his day by stopping by a small chicken coop at Squiretown Park in Hampton Bays and visiting its five little residents.
A maintenance mechanic with the Southampton Town Department of Parks and Recreation, Mr. Carpenter is responsible for tending to his feathered friends: five helmeted guinea fowl all eagerly awaiting their release and morning feeding.
Mr. Carpenter lures the 2-foot-tall, brown-speckled birds, which are native to Africa and closely resemble partridges, out with feed. They leave their coop squawking, walking single-file and in a line, ready to take on another day of tick hunting in the park.
“It’s not in his job description,” said Jonathan Erwin, the parks maintenance supervisor for Southampton Town, of Mr. Carpenter and his extra morning duty. “But he is a team player.”
The five guinea fowl, which never leave each other’s side, were introduced into the park on Red Creek Road last spring as an experiment in tick control because they mainly prey on ticks and other small insects. Originally a flock a 10, half of the birds have been killed by raccoons, possums and other predators in the park.
Still, parks department employees seem to think that the experiment is working.
“They eat bugs like you wouldn’t believe,” Mr. Erwin said.
Mr. Carpenter said he has suffered 16 tick bites this year, but that all happened before the birds were released into the wild in May.
“Ever since I’ve been letting them out, I haven’t been getting bit,” he said.
Guinea fowl are a social species and frequently stay together in groups of about two dozen. The have large, round bodies, small heads and generally grow as big as the ones now roaming the park in search of ticks. They can live up to 12 years in the wild.
The baby guinea fowl, known as keets, were first brought to the Southampton Town Parks Maintenance Department, a division of the Parks and Recreation Department, last spring when they were just three days old. The department purchased the keets from Talmage Farm Agway and Garden Center in Riverhead for about $3 each.
The fledglings were kept at the office on Old Riverhead Road in Hampton Bays, where they ate protein-packed bird food known as “baby mash” and grew a little bigger and stronger every day.
“They were as small as a golf ball with legs,” said Andrew Kuroski, a crew leader in the town’s Parks Maintenance Department.
When they were deemed ready, the birds were transported to Squiretown Park and have been able to roam free ever since—at least during daylight hours.
Mr. Carpenter said he has never been responsible for taking care of an animal as part of his work responsibilities, adding that he is enjoying his newfound duties. It appears that the birds feel the same way.
On a recent Monday afternoon as a photographer tried to take pictures the birds inside their coop, they huddled into a corner and shrieked with fear. It was not until Mr. Carpenter began to lure them out with bird feed that they began to relax, quiet down and venture outside.
“They love Denis,” said Mr. Erwin, smiling.
Although Mr. Carpenter vigilantly tends to his feathered friends, he said that he has not named any of them. “It’s tough to tell them apart,” he admitted.
Mr. Erwin said he hopes to purchase more birds next spring and continue the effort in providing environmentally friendly and cost-effective pest control at Squiretown Park. If all goes as expected, town officials will likely consider expanding the program and releasing the birds in other town parks.
He noted that the birds can naturally reproduce, but that there are complications. For instance, when a female guinea fowl lays an egg, she does so away from the flock and will sit on the egg for hours, making her an easy target for predators.
Mr. Erwin said he got the idea to purchase the birds after his cousin, Mike Erwin, who lives next door to him in East Quogue, purchased some of the birds to eat the ticks near their homes. Jonathan Erwin said he was astounded by their effectiveness.
“Now, if I get two ticks off my dog in a year, I’m amazed,” he said.
Although the guinea fowl are great at fighting pests, Mr. Erwin noted that some people might find them a tad obnoxious. Mr. Carpenter said that they frequently wander onto people’s property and let out their signature ear-splitting screech.
“They like to hang their nails on somebody’s deck and hang there all day,” Mr. Carpenter said.
Mr. Erwin added that one of the biggest complaints about the species is that guinea fowl are messy birds. “They poop a lot,” he said.
Another problem with them is that they frequently wander into traffic and, instead of taking cover, freeze when a car approaches.
“They are not the smartest birds,” Mr. Erwin said. “But they are just so cool.”