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.