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THE HELMETED GUINEAFOWL

4 September 2014

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The two subspecies of the helmeted guineafowl in South Africa, Numida meleagris meleagris and Numida meleagris cornuta, are both large terrestrial birds that are some 53 to 58 cm tall and weigh around 1.4 kg, although the latter is limited to the Eastern Cape province. The name meleagris refers to Meleager, a mythical Greek hero. The first specimen was described as a type of pheasant Phasianus meleagris by Linnaeus in 1758 based on a specimen from the Upper Nile River in Sudan. There are nine subspecies of the helmeted guineafowl of which several occur in southern Africa. Although they mostly move around on the ground they can fly well. The helmeted guineafowl has brown eyes and a characteristic bare, bony helmet or comb on the head which is surrounded by bare, red and deep blue skin. This differentiates it from the crested guineafowl Guttera edouardi which looks similar to the helmeted guineafowl but has red eyes, a thick top-knot of curly black feathers on the head and a ring of black feathers around the base of the neck. The crested guineafowl is limited to the north-eastern parts of South Africa. The largest type of guineafowl is the vulturine guineafowl Acryllium vulturinum that occurs in north-eastern Africa. It is 61 to 71 cm tall and has a bare head. However, this type of guineafowl is only a distant relative of the helmeted guineafowl and inhabits open savannas and grasslands.

The helmeted and crested guineafowl have feathers with characteristic white dots on a blue background. Before 1990 the helmeted guineafowl most likely did not occur south of the Orange River in the Northern Cape province. The habitat includes open terrain from semi-arid to forest edges, but it prefers open woodlands. There is an interesting sex difference in adult birds because the female has flat feet and walks with a hunched posture while the male walks upright on his toes. The main food source consists of invertebrate animals and the seeds of grasses and weeds. Flocks of up to 2000 guineafowl are known at an abundant food resource.

Breeding pairs are formed from January to March in the bushveld, but earlier in the winter rainfall regions. The female selects the nest site, usually in tall grass at the base of a grass clump or under a bush and often at the ecotone between open grasslands and woodlands. The nest is a simple scrape in the ground, measures 200 to 320 mm across and is 50 to 80 mm deep. It is lined thinly with feathers and grass stems and is well concealed. Laying occurs in late summer and a clutch consists of two to 41 broad, oval, slightly pointed, white to pale brown, deep-pored eggs with darker specks. Several females may lay eggs in the same nest which accounts for the large clutch sizes. Incubation lasts 24 to 27 days and only the female does the brooding. The chicks have downy, striped, brown feathers which they lose when they are three weeks old. Moulting occurs following the breeding season and up to 50% of all guineafowl can die in the dry season.

Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (Eds) 2005. Roberts - birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Trust, pp. 81 – 83.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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