Colours of Wildlife: Crested Guineafowl

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Crested Guineafowl

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Crested Guineafowl by Willem

Continuing with the multi-spotted wild chickens! This is a Crested Guineafowl, Guttera pucherani. At least, this is the form found here in South Africa. A couple of other variants occur further north, with the same curly feather crest but with different blue and red coloration of their bare facial skin. Ours has a mainly bluish-grey face, with a whitish patch at the back of its head. The crested guineafowl is chicken-sized, like the Helmeted Guineafowl, and similarly spotted white on dark grey, but the crested one has an additional, beautiful bluish tint to its spots, especially on the wings. It also has pale brown secondary wing feathers, normally hidden by overlying feathers but visible as a pale patch in flight. You can just make them out in the photos I include here. The first shows a single bird in a walk-in aviary, the second shows a group of birds in the Schoemansdal nature reserve. Though wild, they've been fed by the owners for a long time and are now quite approachable.

In South Africa, this is a rare and infrequently-seen bird species. I've glimpsed it well, in the Hanglip forest of the Soutpansberg mountains, in the Lake Saint Lucia area, on the Schoemansdal reserve, and in another reserve not far from Modjadjiskloof. They are, unlike the helmeted guineafowl, birds of forests, thickets and dense bush. Normally they are very secretive, skulking in the shadows and rapidly diving into dense vegetation as soon as they're glimpsed. Their presence is often first given away by their alarm calls, a combination of deep, resonant clucks and squeaky high-pitched whistles. If you hear that sound, your best chance of seeing them is to become very quiet and still, creep towards their location, peer through the dense branches and leaves and thorns and stuff with eyes in maximum guineafowl-discernment mode. If you've binoculars, as in many cases it's best to first locate them with the bare eye, and then put the binocs in front for a sharper view. If you're lucky and they don't run away further still, you can enjoy them, in brief glimpses, going about their daily routines. They live in flocks typically much smaller than those of the helmeted guineafowls, more like intimate extended-family groups. They're more reluctant to fly, preferring to run away from danger, heading to dense shelter. They might fly up into a tree if surprised. When not feeling threatened, they calmly and methodically walk about the forest understory, picking up fallen fruits and seeds, pecking at juicy caterpillars and grubs, and scratching in the leaf mould for bulbs, tubers, corms and small digging critters. They've been noted as following troops of baboons, going after titbits discarded by these monkeys. Their snazzy curly feather crests, their large, deep crimson eyes, and the white patches of bare skin on their napes, provide visual foci for each other as their heads bob up and down in the dim light. Males and females, as in helmeted guineafowl, look similar. They also utter soft clucks and churrs as contact calls, reassuring each other and keeping their flocks close together. You'll often find them walking in single file down shady forest paths, whether walks used by humans, or trails made by small antelopes or other wildlife.

Forests in South Africa are regions of high rainfall, with much less scarcity during the dry season (winter) compared to savannah. Nevertheless, the crested guineafowl breed during the bountiful summer. They hide their nests very well in the dense undergrowth, scraping out a small hollow, often underneath a fallen log. Their clutches are smaller than those of their helmeted cousins, typically numbering four to six eggs. These hatch in about 23 days. The chicks are open-eyed and immediately able to accompany their parents; they can fly at the age of a mere 12 days!

As I've noted elsewhere in this column, true closed-canopy forests are very scarce in South Africa, occupying just a fraction of a percent of the land surface. Crested guineafowl are distributed according to the presence of forests, but do go a bit beyond these, into dense shrubbery and thickets at the edges of and beyond forests, also extending into drier country through the corridors of lush vegetation that grow on the banks of rivers. They're only found in the very far North and East of South Africa, from north-eastern Kwazulu-Natal northwards. They're widespread in Mozambique, present in the east and far north of Zimbabwe; from here they extend into East and Central Africa, and into western-equatorial Africa. They occur somewhat patchily, with some populations limited to small regions of forest amidst drier savannah territory. The species as a whole tends to be not very mobile, each family group sticking to its own particular patch of forest. This separation and isolation has likely helped boost the genetic differences between different crested guineafowl populations. There are at least three broad groups: the southern ones as portrayed here; the eastern ones who have extensive red skin around their eyes and on their throats, and the western ones, that have a blue face and wattles, but a red throat. There are likely some differing sub-groups amidst these broad three types as well. Given enough time and isolation, these might eventually evolve into fully different species.

Crested Guineafowl groupCrested Guineafowl

Unlike helmeted guineafowl, crested ones are not hunted, being protected by law due to their rarity. They are often featured in bird parks and aviaries, and these, as well as that amazing group of semi-tame birds on the Schoemansdal reserve, afford people the opportunity to appreciate their unusual handsomeness up close.

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