When we moved into our current house about 15 years ago, there were very few houses in the area and there were wide open spaces where guineafowl and other wildlife roamed.
Photo: Sabi Sabi
The helmeted guineafowl walked round in large flocks of about 30 birds. Chicken- like, they scratched and pecked the earth in search of good things to eat – mainly seeds, reptiles, spiders, snails and other insects. Their love for ticks made them ideal omnivores to have around, helping to prevent tick-borne diseases.
The Helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris), also known as a “tarentaal” in Afrikaans, is a handsome bird. It is the size of a largish chicken, weighing in at about 1.5 kg. Like other Guineafowl, this local species has a naked head, decorated with a dull yellow or reddish bony knob, called a “casque”, which is French for “helmet” – hence the “helmeted” in the name. The head is further decorated with red and blue patches of skin and bright red “wattles” hanging on either side of the short beak. The plumage on the rest of the body is black, with white bead-like spots all over.
Helmeted Guineafowl mate for life – but that doesn’t mean that the male bird is faithful. After mating, the hen scrapes out a shallow nest on the ground, camouflaged with sticks, feathers and grass. She lays one egg a day, up to around 12 eggs. Often however, she will end up incubating up to 40 eggs! The extra eggs are laid in the nest by other females that can’t be bothered to make a nest themselves. This behaviour is called egg dumping. While the hen incubates the eggs, the male goes gallivanting with other unpaired females. This is not a bad thing in nature – it increases the breeding success of the flock. After about 28 days the chicks, called keets, start to hatch. Give the male his due – he then returns home to help raise the chicks teaching them what to eat. This is very necessary as the chicks are precocious and can feed for themselves within 24 hours.
But I digress from my story. One day I noticed a bird with a deformed leg. He got around well enough on one good leg and one gammy leg, but was easily pushed off potential food by the other birds. Ever the sucker, I felt sorry for him and drew him aside to give him extra food. I named him Mr Ploppy (a big mistake – if you give a wild animal a name, it becomes personal).
Mr Ploppy caught on very quickly. If he came around without the rest of the flock, he would be fed. Food reward is a powerful training tool. Once or twice a day Mr Ploppy turned up for his treat. Then one day Mr Ploppy brought along Mrs Ploppy (I’m guessing it was Mr and Mrs Ploppy because male and female guineafowl look alike.) That was no problem for me – it was nice to see the couple together.
But the inevitable was bound to happen – the news got around, probably because of their happy vocalisation. Yes, guineafowl have a lot to say, varying from contented “kerrr” sounds to unearthly screeches when startled. (Incidentally, this makes them very good ‘watchfowl”.)
Photo: Greig Farm
So in no time at all the whole flock started to pitch up for high tea. The problem was they also came for their dawn treat at first light at 5 o’clock in the morning.
They would all sit in a row on my garden wall like a gathering of vultures waiting for the next corpse. But they did not wait patiently – they screeched like banshees demanding to be fed. Fortunately I had no neighbours at the time, so I did not incur the neighbourhood wrath. But my feeding folly eventually became too much even for me, and I stopped it. Poor Mr Ploppy also had to suffer food-withdrawal together with the rest of the flock.
I secretly worried about Mr Ploppy. For a year or so afterwards I spotted him together with his flock, foraging in Fernkloof. But after a while he disappeared, fate unknown. Although guineafowl prefer to walk (and can walk up to 10 km a day) their wings work just fine, so he always had the option of flying into a tree whenever danger lurked. In fact, guinea fowl normally roost in trees overnight to avoid ground predators.
The point of my tale? Don’t ever feed wildlife, no matter how sorry you are for them or how cute they are. They get habituated to people and drop their guard, often with dire consequences. Sadly I don’t see the flock anymore.