Polkadots are not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the colours and patterns of the African bush. However, there are a fair number of spotted creatures out here. We all know the iconic rosettes of the leopard, or the cracked earth mosaic of the giraffe and even the perfectly spaced circles dotted on the coat of the cheetah. But the more inconspicuous, yet delicately worked of Mother Nature’s designs is that of the Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris). From a distance, this grey bird with a bizarre blue head can be written off as the ‘bush chicken’ which many people do call it. However, on closer inspection the feathers transform from a bland uniform grey to a deep black with tiny, precisely spaced white dots. And the brilliant blue on the head actually extends from the neck up until the eye where a bright red colour takes over on the head with the finishing touch being a yellow to brown helmut directly on top on the head.
This is a special time of year as we start seeing something fascinating happening. As it is non-breeding season for the Guineafowl we see them joining together in social flocks. These flocks can gather to quite a size of 15-40 birds which forage together during the daytime followed by roosting safely together up in trees at night. There is a flock that roosts each night in the dead tree in the middle of Camp Dam just next to Varty Camp. It seems like a safe spot to roost with a moat surrounding the tree, albeit it be a little cold in winter. As we head out on drive in the morning, we see the tree decorated like a Christmas bush as it emerges from the mist covered dam. As the day heats up, we hear the well known, cackling call sounding through the bush as the day begins with an initial drink of water and then a socialising activity where the males begin to display and may even peck at one another. The first-year males have a bit of a hard time as the older birds try to oust them from the flock. Feeding and foraging follows and during the winter months, main food choices are seeds and bulbs, moving onto invertebrates during the spring and summer months when the grasshoppers and termites are most abundant.
If you are visiting the bush during our winter months, look out for the flocks that have formed. There are fascinating birds and if you stop to take the time to watch, they have some rather entertaining interactions. If, however, you choose to visit in the warmer months you will see different behaviour start to occur. As Spring rolls in, the flocks become smaller and smaller as monogamous pairs of guineafowl break off for the breeding season. Studies have reported ringed birds to have remained together for at least four years which is half a guineafowl’s lifetime! Parental roles in nature always fascinate me and the helmeted guineafowl is no exception. Once the female has selected a spot and made a significant ground scraping usually in tall grass, she incubates her eggs, a typical clutch of 6-18 eggs for 24-27 days. This is where it gets interesting. The male leaves the female for the entire duration of incubation, but when the chicks hatch the male then takes care of the youngsters 80% of the time in the first two weeks while the female regains condition. That’s teamwork! This all happens in our summertime between October – March so look out for either nesting guineafowl or a little line of chicks following behind an adult as they forage for the day.
Whatever time of year you choose to go on safari, these birds are always up to something and with their iconic pattern and coloration are always worth a photo or two!
Written by : Andrea Campbell
Photographed by: Trevor Mcall- Peat