It's a hot summer in the Northeast — but not as hot as the quirky little market for guinea hens — the latest fad for the monied set looking to do battle against Lyme disease carrying ticks.
These hens, with their patterned plumage and stark white faces, are the latest backyard accessory dotting Hamptons estates and suburban horse farms because of their voracious appetites for all things buggy, including the dreaded deer tick.
Just ask Rob Schuster, whose Schuster's Poultry Farm in Lakewood, NJ, has sold a record 60 guinea hens this year — 10 times the amount he sold all last summer.
"I've got Pearls, Lavenders, French. Every once in a while I grow a Splash," said Schuster, referring to the varieties of guinea fowl that he breeds on the farm his grandfather started in 1942 after fleeing Nazi Germany.
At times, Schuster has had trouble keeping the hens — which run between $6 and $10 per keet, or baby, and $25 or more for an adult — in stock.
The bull market in guinea hens is being sparked by talk of this summer being an extremely bad season for Lyme disease.
Dr. Richard Ostfeld, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in Millbrook, NY, said the harsh tick forecast is caused by a boom last year in the population of white mice — carriers of deer ticks.
The guinea hen craze initially took off after Christie Brinkley ran an experiment on her Hamptons property in 1990. It concluded that the birds eat a lot of Lyme ticks.
More recent Cary Institute research, however, indicates that in a natural setting "there's only a slight effect of reducing tick numbers" with guinea hens, said Dr. Ostfeld.
The trick is getting them to go into wooded areas where the ticks reside and making sure they stay on your property, since they tend to roam.
Still, Schuster said guinea hens are better at eluding predators than other tick-eaters, such as chickens. "They can run and fly at the same time, and they can survive on their own out in the wilderness." But the guinea hens are loud, which can upset neighbors.
One of Schuster's clients told The Post that it was the infection of a neighbor's dog with Lyme disease that led him to start buying guinea hens four summers ago after learning that they eat up to 1000 ticks a day.
A week ago, Anthony Ritossa, the chief investment officer of the Ritossa Family Office, drove to Schuster's farm, some 75 miles from his home in a tony Westchester County neighborhood, to buy four keets after being unable to find them elsewhere.
"If the guinea hens are trained properly, they are probably the most effective tick control out there," said Ritossa, who lures them into bushes with small amounts of feed and places the keets in a coop to train them to stay on his property.
It's a boutique market, with sales often conducted via craigslist and other websites where one can order the keets, which are delivered by Fedex. One site, Purely Poultry, offers 29 colors of Guinea Keets for $3.85 each for a minimum order of 15.
Blue Moon Farm in tony Millbrook, NY, reports selling about the same number as Schuster this year.
When Schuster runs out, as he has periodically this year, he often buys guineas at local livestock auctions. This year he bought them at Harkers Auction in Tabernacle, NJ.