Africa’s Chicken

Africa’s Chicken

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)

Their black feathers with white spots, as well as the almost luminescent blue head, are distinctive.

Contrary to our past few newsletters, the Helmeted Guineafowl is not at all endangered. In fact, this species is categorised under “Least Concern”. They are widely distributed in southern Africa, occurring throughout the whole of South Africa, with a small population towards the Northern Cape. They tend to avoid arid areas and rain forests, preferring prefer grasslands, thorn veld or agricultural land. Many are domesticated too, with people around the world keeping a mixed flock of guineafowl and chickens. 

These birds were (and are) traditionally hunted for sport and are popular as a game bird for the table. In fact, if you Google “Guineafowl”, hundreds of recipes come up! Their black feathers with white dots are a very common motif in African art, pottery, on materials etc. 

During their non-breeding season, they form stable flocks of 15 to 35 or so birds – and are often a familiar sight in parks and gardens too. They are very sociable birds that can be territorial and very protective of their young. They often roost in trees at night to avoid any predators, much the same as chickens do. As a rule, they only ever fly when in danger or to get up to their roosts. Each flight is seldom more than 100m.

Guineafowl are ground scavengers and can walk up to 10 km a day foraging for food. They live mostly on seeds and insects. Using their short beaks and feet, they scratch around in the soil and debris in search of food (you often see them carefully dissecting elephant dung). In summer, they focus mainly on insects and during the winter period, they subsist on seeds and bulbs. Guineafowl consume vast numbers of insects – especially ticks. In fact, many rural folk keep guineafowl primarily to control ticks and other problem insects.

A flock of guineafowl quietly foraging together in the Chobe region.

They make a harsh, loud sound during breeding season to attract a partner. After mating, the males will spend most of their time defending and feeding the female (this ensures that the female will be strong enough to breed successfully) and will lose a lot of weight and condition. The females choose the nesting site, usually just scraping twigs and grasses, which is then lined with soft plant material and feathers. These nests are always concealed. Occasionally, females will lay their eggs in another nest to be incubated by another female. This process is called egg-dumping. Guineafowl eggs have a very hard cover to protect them from predators, and they also hatch roughly at the same time thus stacking the odds against predation. The incubation period last 25 to 29 days. Baby guineafowl (known as “keets”) can leave the nest immediately. These birds can live up to 12 years.

Guineafowl live in large communities and are very social birds. Males rule the and settle differences by chasing each other – the male with the highest endurance and fitness becomes the highest-ranking individual. Males will guard the eggs before incubation but leave as soon as the incubation period starts – to find another female and start the process again. He does, however, return as soon as the eggs have hatched, playing a major part in teaching the keets what to eat. A large number of the keets die if the father doesn’t return, as the mother does not have enough time to look after both them and herself, after the incubation period. In large flocks, groups of keets are sometimes raised by different parents.

So , whilst they are “common”, they are also most interesting! That said, they are a great nuisance on the roads, and hitting one at speed can cause great damage to your car. So, keep an eye out for our spotted friends!!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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