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.