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BIRDMEN OF N.J. JAIL RAISING GUINEA FOWL

In a wire mesh cage behind the Cape May County Jail, Michael Foster spends part of his days tending a flock of birds with naked white faces and gray polka-dotted feathers.

Foster cleans the cage. He gives the animals chicken feed. When they've done their time, he helps chase them down and box them up for shipment.He's participating in a project in which inmates raise tick-eating guinea fowl and give them away in hopes of stemming the spread of Lyme disease.

Deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, commonly carry the bacteria that carry Lyme disease, which causes heart problems, nerve irregularities and arthritis. About 10,000 new cases are reported in the United States each year.

Guinea fowl, native to Africa, came to America with early settlers. They've won popularity as a remedy for farm pests. Sometimes referred to as the poor man's pheasant, they can be found on the menu at tony French and Asian restaurants.

But it's their diet - they love deer ticks - that has led to their use as a folk remedy for farmers, gardeners and others plagued by ticks.

In Ocean County, the parks department has used them for more than a year to combat ticks around picnic areas and playgrounds.

"They eat thousands of ticks a day," said Mike Mangum, chief naturalist at Wells Mills Park in Waretown, where 22 guinea fowl were set loose last year. "They pick, pick, pick. They do help with the ticks, no doubt about it."

"It's going to help people with small farms, or people who have ticks in their back yards where kids are playing," Mangum said.

The jail project is part rehabilitation and part public health intervention.

Sheriff James Plousis decided to put his prisoners to work raising the birds. The jail now has about 250 guinea fowl and has given 50 to Lyme disease sufferers and other people.

"We're always looking to have the inmates do something for the community they once victimized," Plousis said.

The project costs about $100 a year, and inmates who help raise the birds get one day off their sentence for every week they work, Plousis said.

"It's rewarding. It's nice to see them grow," said Joe, an inmate who wouldn't give his last name. "It gives you some responsibility."

Still, some are not convinced that guinea fowl are a weapon against Lyme disease.

Birds can carry ticks as well as eat them, said Dr. Martina Ziska, medical director for the Lyme Disease Foundation, a national advocacy group based in Hartford, Conn.

"If it works, it could be a good idea. It's environmentally friendly and it's natural," she said.