Guineafowl – The racketeers

Everybody knows a guineafowl. When Nature wanted to design a bird able to survive in the harsh African bush this is what it came up with. Shaped dynamically to slip through dense grass and scrub as slick as an eel through seaweed, it can fly like a bullet but prefers to hide and run except in emergency. A flock of hundreds can simply vanish in all directions in the African veld. Its smooth hard feathers are so tough a blast of shotgun pellets that would fell a pheasant simply rattle off it unless the range is close.

And it is not easy to spot. Among ordinary chickens it stands out like a camel among horses.

Almost everyone knows what a guineafowl looks like: the narrow smooth body with short tapered tail, tight-fitting black feathers patterned with rows of white polka dots, everything carried on short strong legs. One of the commonest birds in all Africa south of the Sahara, possibly the most common, it has spread world-wide since the Romans and Greeks brought it to Europe and in some countries it is today farmed like domestic fowls.

But Africa is its true home. The helmeted is one of about seven kinds of guineafowl and of only two kinds in Southern Africa and particular to our neighbourhood.

The other is the much prettier crested guineafowl. Both have the highly distinctive rows of white polka dots on black background but the crested’s are smaller and finer and its feathery crest is attractive.

This is where the daily calls of the guineafowl are truly iconic, one of those early morning and sunset sounds typical of the vastly diverse continent. They have a wide range of calls, the most common is a metallic chattering – krrrrrrrrrrrrr – as they gather in flocks sometimes numbering hundreds. The most painful to the human ear is that of the males feeling horny or announcing to all and sundry that this is MY territory and these are MY females.

It is impossible to accurately replicate this racket in words and letters. It is a short, harsh, very loud rattling like a crowbar dragged across iron railings, culminating in bursts of explosive cackles loud enough to waken the pharaohs. As a friend tried to describe it, “ . . .as if Samson was tearing up sheets of corrugated iron with his bare hands and banging them against the Eiffel tower”. Or: “Imagine a SWAT team opening up with their Heckler and Kochs on full automatic followed by stun grenades RatatatatatatAKAKAKA! I can’t get it right.”

When I first heard it from the main road early one morning I thought it was a truck driver changing gear without benefit of clutch. When we had scraped ourselves off the ceiling we looked out to find a dozen helmeted guineafowl placidly prospecting the patch of grass there.

Except one. The male and master. They must just have arrived and he was shouting the odds to anyone who may want to challenge his authority.

I did. With a bellow that almost matched his volume followed by a pair of old tackies. They all departed at a run to the garden of an empty house nearby where he resumed his machine-gun clatter.

He subsided as the day passed and they became an attractive addition to our wildlife population. Eventually the male’s voice-boxing subsided to tolerable mutterings which didn’t seem to work because his flock steadily dwindled. The dozen became ten, then seven, then five until only he and two females remained. Nobody had a clue where they went. Maybe in search of food. Down a caracal’s throat, I suspected.

Feeling sorry for them, we helped the last three by scattering handfuls of maize once or twice a day. It made them as familiar as barnyard fowls. And that led the male to demonstrate yet another bad habit which put him at the bottom of my popularity list: attacking himself.

Coming close to the house he discovered glass – in the front door, in a couple of low windows, in glass panels at ground level in the studio. And in the glass he discovered another male guineafowl.

They were his reflections but being a dumb bird he didn’t know that. This was invasion! An intruder! War!

He attacked. The clamour was deafening. First a rapid series of slamming blows wih his heavy beak so hard I’m amazed the glass didn’t break. Then a pause to emit a string of his machine-gun guineafowl cusswords. Then another bout of battering himself in the glass.

His wives, meanwhile, ignored this macho performance for the more important business of gobbling maize kernels.

It was too much. The first defence against the persistent invader gave us a hell of a fright because it sounded close to pistol shots.

We chased away all three and spread their maize afar. But no, our male had his blood up and was determined to repel boarders. Maybe the boarder’s failure to strike back boosted his courage. The bursts of guineafowl warfare came at any time of the day. I’m having an afternoon nap when a knock at the front door signals a visitor. It’s our arrogant male again.

I confess there were moments when I recalled those wonderful guineafowl dinners of my youth.

Their last stay was for about a fortnight. It ended well. One afternoon we saw the three emerge from the next-door jungle and cross our lawn. Behind them in single file marched, or rather ran with mini-steps, a dozen tiny, stunningly beautiful chicks, lovable little toys with furry feathers fluffed in all directions.

Our neighbours have an additional problem. They have a large tiled patio outside their big picture windows giving an expansive view of the bay. The guineafowl favour this as a midden and for some reason their droppings are always large and loose. It is entertaining to watch a visitor step outside to take in the fresh sea air and sea view then suddenly skate wildly across the patio, arms flailing as if on an ice rink.

Yet in spite of all these detractions we enjoy our guineafowl visitors who seldom stay more than a week or two, scouring the neighbourhood of bugs and seeds, good and bad, before they move on.

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Dassies 7 – Bum to Bum

 The pro side outweighs the cons, to us in our mini-reserve. Just one reward is the faces of children dropping pieces of bread at their feet while dassies mill around them expectantly. And when they see Ma, Pa and Junior mongoose staring through the window pane early on an icy winter morning. And when the long-tailed sugarbirds and tiny sunbirds, brilliant as gems, flutter around and even settle on their heads in their haste to get at the feeder filled with honey-sweetened water.

Watch the eyes of an apartment dweller when a genet pair or a porcupine family arrive on the lamplit stoep, sample the offerings and go their way without a sidelong glance at us.

All of this gives unequalled opportunity to study much of the behaviour and great detail of the appearance of these creatures that otherwise would be unattainable.

Above all, it teaches us and our friends and visitors to respect and admire our wildlife. That makes it worthwhile.

Feeding dassies began a process which continues to this day. We have achieved a kind of non-aggression treaty: when we spot them inside the fence they run like rockets; when they see us outside the fence they come running for food. They keep chancing it in the garden at the risk of getting thoroughly soaked by my wife, Doreen wielding a hose jet.

We began the feeding experimentally by depositing a bucketful of discarded lettuce and cabbage leaves, carrot, potato, pineapple and avocado peels, and other kitchen odds and sods which otherwise would have gone on the compost heap. We would examine the leftovers to check their preferences.

There was no need. They gulped the lot.

After scattering the offering on grass between house and sea next to a dense thicket of canary creeper my wife beat on the bottom of the bucket to arouse the dassies’ interest and we retreated to watch.

They were tentative at first. Curiousity slowly overcame caution and they approached warily, emerging from tunnels in the canary creeper and peeping around corners. As they came closer to the somewhat noisome pile of rubbish the smell reached them and they threw caution to the winds. They charged. In moments the food was hidden by chubby brown bodies all chewing like manic machines, almost inhaling it.

Mostly they concentrated on eating but sometimes this led to conflict. Two dassies would start chewing from the opposite ends of the same piece of banana peel. As they came rapidly to the middle, each trying to out-swallow the other, it became an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

The actual fight was almost always brief and harmless at blinding speed. Swift jerks of the two heads and a snapping of jaws equipped with sharp incisors. It rarely lasted more than seconds before they used a tactic that if humanity adopted it might lead mankind to non-lethal wars. The dassie getting the worst of it would turn its fat backside to the other, presenting an unattractive and somewhat pointless target. When the attacker turned away, thinking victory was his, the defender would spin around to bite and get the same treatment – a large bum in the face. It always ended with the contestants standing bum to bum.

Dassies 6 – Passing in the night

Another dassie characteristic, which endeared them to the early white settlers in South Africa and long before that was appreciated by the Bushman and Khoi people, is the dassie’s fussy toilet hygiene. The whole colony always uses the same middens in the boulders to dump their droppings and empty their bladders. Some middens are centuries old with crystallised urine a metre thick. The settlers learned from the indigenous folk that this clear amber crystal has medicinal value, which we have not tested.

I once had a personal demonstration of a dassie’s hygienic ablutions. We were staying with an old friend who runs game reserves in Swaziland and whose home is a rambling two-storey pile of cement brick that could have been designed by Dr Seuss. In the living-room is a massive fireplace with a rough-built chimney of rocks stones running right up one high wall. Dassie squatters have taken this over as their residence.

At an early hour one morning I had to use the loo just down the passage from the bedroom and made my way, half asleep, with a torch because there was no electricity in the house. The loo door was half open. I pushed it wide and aimed the torch beam in.

It shone on a dassie blinking at me. He sat on the open loo clinging with his forefeet to the front edge of the seat and his backside hanging over the bowl, doing his thing.

He ignored me and I wasn’t going to chase him. So I leaned against the door jamb and politely waited until he finished, jumped down and ambled sedately past me back to the chimney. He didn’t bother to flush.

In their normal boulder residences they gather in deep, narrow crevices and holes out of reach of all but the most long-armed predators. In the cold of winter they sleep in heaps, piled up to four deep on top of each other for warmth.

In the mornings they wait for sunrise before they emerge to sit in its warmth. First out is usually a female who becomes the family sentry. One of the most familiar sounds in the mountains and rocky koppies of Africa is the their emergency alarm, a sharp harsh bark like a poodle’s with a sore throat. At that dassies for fifty metres around vanish instantly.

Sometimes the bark might continue for minutes from some dassie perched on a high boulder, opening its mouth wide as regularly as a clockwork toy. This might be an early warning of something seen in the distance – there is nothing wrong with their far sight – or of a passing predator such as a cobra too obvious or too slow to be an immediate threat. Or it be a statement by the dominant male of the colony: stay away, this is my territory.

When a colony leader is challenged it can lead to ferocious fighting. We have seen battle-torn males come for food with open wounds and patches of skin hanging in tatters. Some are patterned with the scars of previous fights.

 

Dassies 5 – Feeding furore

 Then came the feeding bit. We knew little about dassie diets except that they ate grass and all the best flowers in our garden, fastidiously eating the blossoms first then the leaves to leave us small forests of empty stalks.

Feeding wild animals is a hot topic in South Africa. It can bring ardent conservationists to ferocious verbal battle. The problem is that there are no guidelines for all wild things.

For instance, everyone agrees wild baboons should not be fed because when they lose their fear of people they aggressively help themselves to anything that may be or contain food.

Try to stop them and they are likely to attack. A baboon’s fangs are as big as a leopard’s. There are few things more frightening than a charging baboon with jaws wide, lips drawn right back and bared fangs aimed like daggers.

They can do serious damage and even kill. It means that when a baboon becomes so familiarised to people it presents a threat, the wildlife authorities have to trap and execute it.

This doesn’t stop our annual flood of international tourists from giving snacks to roadside baboons. We can’t afford to lose some dumb Azerbaijani or New Yorker that way. Bad for the tourist trade.

On that we all agree. But feeding dassies? They have digestions that will conquer almost anything and they are very picky about what they eat. On top of Table Mountain there are fat dassies who sprawl amid the limestone rocks like Roman aristocrats at a banquet, lazily munching whatever they choose from the junk food tourists drop on them, not even bothering to get up from their sand beds to eat.

Certainly nobody in his right mind would attempt to try this tactic with wild lions or hyaenas or elephants. A few specialists do it, like the man in Ethiopia who nightly feeds butchery scraps to a horde of hyaenas. And the man in Botswana who kept several full-grown leopards in a large wire-mesh enclosure they could have bust their way out of any time they wanted – but didn’t because the accommodation included a plentiful supply of meat.

He casually walked around inside the enclosure, once with me when I looked up to see a very big leopard examining me like a pork chop from a branch right over my head. Inevitably, the man was badly mauled by a bored leopard.

But these are freaks dangerously bending the rules.

Yet many game reserves put out food and drink to draw animals close to camps and viewing sites. Waterholes are the biggest and most natural attraction. Some additionally spread fodder and fruit. One in a citrus farming region used tons of reject oranges to attract elephants – a practice that stopped when elephants began breaking into cars where they could smell citrus. Tourists did not appreciate them that close.

To be continued _ 22 August…

Dassies 4 – Endearing Opponent

 

Tree climbing to reach the best leaves.
The balancing act.

 

The dassie has a sense of balance a monkey would envy.

One of its favourite foods is the leaves of our pittosporum trees and it will climb very high to get at them. We have watched, entranced, as a dassie climbs up the main stem of a pittosporum as casually as strolling then moves out on a branch four or five metres above the ground to reach leaves. When it has cleaned out a bunch it moves further out, balancing like a tightrope walker, to where the branch becomes as thin as my finger.

Yet the dassie keeps going. Under its several kilos the branch bends lower and lower until it hangs almost straight down. Still the dassie moves on, chewing vigorously with a far gone look on its face.

Eventually something has to give and it’s the dassie. It lets go and lands on the ground with a soft thump like a bag of wet sand.

It is unhurt. It picks itself up and goes right back.

Stripping trees bare.
Stripping trees bare.

This couldn’t go on. Some of our pittosporums were becoming so skeletal they looked like the fossil trees in the Namib desert. So we decided if we can’t lick the animals we better join them. Make them part of the family but, as in any good family, subject to discipline.

The objective was to keep them out of the garden by fencing it with the compensation of giving them a good feed outside the fence.

Easier said than done. It meant fencing over a hundred metres. Luckily part was already closed with rusty wire mesh so at great expense I bought enough two-metre chicken-wire to cover the rest.

“You raising chickens in town?” the hardware man asked. “Can’t do that, you know.”

“No. I’m fighting bloody dassies.” He stared at me as if I was weird. Ask a stupid question.

With much sweating and cursing and hard work by the hired gardener we got the fence up. Then we saw that an adult dassie can get over a two-metre fence as easily as a cat up a curtain. More fencing was attached on top, loosely so a dassie getting that high would flop over backwards with no option but to let go.

It worked. Frustrated dassies jumped, flopped, fell and glared at us. How could you! Some of the more enterprising found ways in: up a neighbour’s tree then into a tree on our side, over the garage roof, shoving through a rusted patch of old fence. Several dear little babies simply pushed their dear little faces and dear little bodies right through the 50mm holes in the chicken-wire, but they didn’t eat very much and they were sooo sweet . . .

To be continued _  15 August …