Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

In praise of guineafowl

There are a lot of birds I love. There is the spectacularly coloured Bateleur Eagle — quite possibly my favourite favourite — with its red face and feet, chestnut back and underwing markings that conveniently distinguish male from female; the eccentric, snake-killing Secretarybird; the beautiful Lilac-breasted Roller, a rare blaze of colour in the winter veld; and the gloriously odd Ground Hornbill with its magnificent eyelashes and basso profundo call.

But none is so strangely appealing as the Helmeted Guineafowl, inspiration for countless pieces of curio kitsch — presumably some of our World Cup visitors will be taking some home with them — and perhaps the most African of them all. I love the way they dart about like prissy Victorian ladies in bustles. I love their beautifully spotted feathers and Avatar-blue heads and, most of all, I love their squeaky, chucking calls. The sound of guineafowl chirrrrring at sunset is the quintessential sound of Africa.

When I was preparing to emigrate to Australia, the one thought that pained me above all else, strangely enough, was the thought that I’d never get to have guineafowl in my dream indigenous garden.

I was thrilled to see so many in the Lowveld this winter. Usually we don’t see them in these kinds of numbers; clearly they bred in profusion during the summer months, a good sign because large numbers of game birds means that the grass sward is in good condition. They were everywhere: pecking in the grass, running down roads, drinking from waterholes, sunbathing in the dust. No matter what they were doing, they seemed perfectly happy doing it, even as a resident pair of jackals snored under a nearby thorn tree.

Say what you like, but I firmly believe that guineafowl have character. Compare them to the francolins, which all appear to be thoroughly stupid, and you will see what I mean.

Guineafowl are very widely distributed in South Africa and can be found virtually anywhere. In Sandton, their numbers have been much reduced by habitat destruction as a result of encroaching development. To hear them is now a very rare pleasure (unlike the honkquackhiss of Egyptian Geese, which seem to be becoming more and more common in Jo’burg and everywhere else. They’re rapidly becoming as annoying as the ubiquitous Hadeda). I’m lucky enough to see a flock of them congregating on the sportsfields of Wendywood High School when I leave the office before sunset, and occasionally you’ll see them crossing the road with their chicks.

For those who are especially fond of guineafowl, you can download a Guineafowl call ringtone from the SA National Parks website. Sadly, it is incompatible with the iPhone, or I would have downloaded one immediately. I will simply have to console myself with my Birds of South Africa DVD (part 1), which also contains such gems as the Red-crested Korhaan, the Pearl-spotted Owl and the Gorgeous Bush-shrike.

If only I could enjoy the sounds of guineafowl serenading the sun as it dips below the horizon every evening, my heart would be filled with gladness.

  • Jennifer Thorpe

    And they mate for life. I love them!

  • Richardm

    If you do a bit of Googling you’ll find that you can install virtually any sound file as your iPhone ringtone. There are a number of free software tools that will do this.

  • Dave Harris

    Another nice read.
    Thanks for pointing out that link that shows a wonderful collection of sounds of our national parks. I’ll bet that makes some SA ex-pats a tad homesick eh?

  • Atlas Reader

    “Die kruiwawiel se skreeugeluid
    Kerm hy droefgeestig uit – die tarentaal…”

    (The screeching noise of a wheelbarrow wheel
    Is the forlorn wailing cry of the guineafowl.)

  • Mark Kerruish

    Soak in wine for ages before cooking or the meat is too tough. I love them too.

  • James Hatfield

    I have moved to Australia – and I do miss them!
    Thanks for the ringtone link!

  • Peter Win

    Hey ! Lay off the Hadeda ! They’re quintessential SA too !

  • Grant Walliser

    Time to replace that chicken, it seems you love another… 😉

  • Red Panda

    Guineafowl are indeed very nice, but I prefer francolins. Viva francolins viva!!

  • Ben

    Nice article Sarah, we stay on a small holding where I feed about forty or fifty Guineafowl every morning and I can tell you that that is the highlight of my day.

  • Shelley

    I too love francolins. They are fearless (ie, they steal lemon creams off the kitchen counter) and so neatly speckled. They also usually win in staring competitions.

  • Chico

    Don’t know how many people realise that their egg shells are incredibly tough.

    As kids, we used to collect bird eggs. The eggs would be pricked with a needle on either side and the contents blown out. This was not possible with a guinea fowl egg—we had to use a file to make a neat hole in it.

  • http://deleted karien jordaan

    I treasure a Crested Guineafowl feather in my birdbook – to me they are even more special – with their crazy tuft of curly black feathers on the crown.

  • Stephen Davis

    I love guinea fowl too!

    Not that I’d be intending to give you any incentive to emigrate, however on a recent trip to Australia, I was surprised to find that the same helmetted guineas we have in southern Africca are found in Australia too. Exactly the same species (although in the bird book they had a less elegant helmet than our local ones). One morning, camping next to an estuary in the east coast of Oz, I heard the familiar cackle in the distance, and saw some of the unmistakeable feathers, so the bird book was accurate. It did seem that the birds were slightly out of place with all the Kookaburra’s, rainbow lorikeets, and sulfur-crested cockatoos and other odd Australian birds flying around as though the the local pet-shop had exploded! Somewhere along the line another adoring guinea fowl lover must have imported them to Oz as they are not indigenous.

  • Stephen Davis

    Guinea fowl are actually found in Australia (the same helmeted species we find here, but with a less elegant casque than ours), however they are not indigenous to Oz. A homesick South African immigrant must have had something to do with the importation.

    On a recent visit to the east coast, lying in my tent in a trailer park south of Sydney, I woke up to the familiar sound of a meat cutter grinding though bones, and almost thought I’d been transported home in my sleep.

    I love them too!

  • Yawar

    They are brilliant. When I lived in South America, Guyana, I saw them gang up on an Pariah Kite. One of them lay down pretending to be dead and when the Kite came down the others ambushed it and it barely escaped with its life. They are absolutely beautiful birds with tremendous character.

  • Mark R

    The best indian curry i ever had was in London. Spiced guineafowl in yogurt and chillied cumin. Was devine.

  • Bovril24

    I agree, the Bateleur is fabulous to watch fly. The fact that, species-wise, it is a not an eagle at all, but a member of the vulture family should not put you off!