As a Ranger, we are often inundated with questions. Personally, I absolutely love this aspect of the job. Questions spark debates and debates lead to understanding different perspectives that each individual may have on a subject. One of the great things about wildlife is that, more often than not, we are not able to say for certain why an animal looks the way it does or behaves the way it does. We are also always confronted with exceptions to the rule and realise that perhaps we don’t always have to have an answer but rather just an opinion. There are, however, some questions that are asked more often than others and sometimes these questions have easy straightforward answers; for others, we have to dig a little deeper to understand the answers. One of the most common questions relates to the small ground birds we see running in front of the safari vehicles on every drive. So what is the difference between francolins and spurfowls?
First, let’s start with Naming Conventions
One of the big frustrations for a lot of birders is the seemingly ever-changing naming conventions of birds. However, the reason for the changes is essential and leads to better classification and standardisation of naming conventions globally.
So how did birds get their names?
Although birds were known to the indigenous people of whichever region the bird occurred in it was only within the past 300 years that the names were officially documented and recorded. During the years of exploration of predominantly European expeditions into Africa naturalists, explorers, hunters or simply people that were interested in what the bird was, collected specimens of them. The names of the birds were generally described based on what the bird looked like, what its call sounded like or the region it was found in. There were, however, some birds that lacking any of the former were named after the person that originally described them e.g. Levaillant’s Cuckoo
Why have the names changed?
As with all fauna and flora there is continued research by experts globally. With the invention of the internet, information is shared far more efficiently. Effectively this has resulted in the understanding that there was either a difference in the name of the same bird in different regions or a better classification of a group of birds into subgroups e.g. Loeries becoming Turacos and Go-Away Birds. Francolins and Spurfowls fall into the latter where although, to the untrained eye, they may appear like the same group of birds there are in fact some nuanced differences.
What do Francolins and Spurfowls have in common?
There are six francolin species and six spurfowl species in Southern Africa, however, only 3 and 2 species are found here at Londolozi, respectively. The most apparent commonality between the two different groups is their appearance. Both are small, predominantly brown birds that spend the majority of their days on the ground. At a first glance, they seem somewhat drab but if you take a moment to look at the intricate details within their feathers that make them incredibly well camouflaged, particularly at dusk and dawn, when not moving around too much.
Both groups are ground nesters and lay their eggs in a scrape usually well concealed in thick vegetation. This is lined with grass before the female lays the thick-shelled and plain-coloured eggs. The clutch size is between 4-8 eggs and the female is the only one to incubate the eggs and will sit tight if approached and will only move off the nest if almost trodden on. Once the chicks hatch they are able to leave the nest almost immediately and can flutter-fly from danger within 6-14 days. This is an important adaptation for birds that nest on the ground as there is far more imminent danger on the ground versus the safety of a tree nest. The young fledglings, in almost all species, are cared for by the parent for the first few months of their lives.
Both francolins and spurfowls eat a varied diet of bulbs, corms, tubers, fruit and seeds, however, this will be supplemented with insects during times of the year where the former is in short supply. We often see them using their feet to kick open elephant dung looking for undigested grass seeds or scratching around in the brush whilst noisily chasing each other early in the morning.
What are the differences between the two?
For a long time, the two groups were collectively referred to as francolins but experts have revealed that they are not even that closely related.
Francolins are smaller and have yellow legs whereas spurfowls are generally larger and have orange, red or black legs. Spurfowls have backwards-facing spurs on their heels which they use during their courtship duelling.
When there is some type of danger detected a francolin will fly off giving off a distress call compared to a spurfowl that will prefer to sit tight or run into the thick brush. They are both particularly useful when trying to find predators in the bush as they each have a distinctive alarm call when they have eyes on a predator. Naturally, being small ground birds they have many different predators and so their alarm call can help us find anything from a snake to a leopard. Their normal calls also differ as francolins have a more melodious call versus the somewhat harsh calls of the spurfowl family. At night, spurfowls will roost in trees as opposed to on the ground that francolins, barring the Crested Francolin, will do.
In conclusion, these two families of birds are an important part of the ecosystem here at Londolozi not only as help in finding predators but they are a popular food source for a plethora of carnivores. Personally, I realize I am back in the bush when I hear the early morning calls of both of these families as part of the dawn chorus. They also always provide a bit of humour as we watch them run frantically in front of the vehicle waiting for the last moment before flying off with a loud screech which quite often give guests and me alike a bit of a fright.