I love being surprised by what shows up in our yard. I was in my office the other day talking on the phone when I looked out the window as I often do and surprised the person I was talking to by exclaiming “It’s the Guineafowl”! I had to explain that standing beneath one of our bird feeders, casually pecking at the millet on the ground was this prehistoric looking, sort of turkey like bird. I think most people would be hard put to describe this species as beautiful, but unusual for sure.
The group known as Galliformes (geese, ducks, chickens, turkeys, guineafowl, pheasants, grouse, peafowl) are
ground living, large bodied birds that cannot swim, but run well on the ground on their strong legs. At the end of their legs are four toed, spurred feet with hard nails adapted for scratching the ground for their food. Their wings are short and round, good mainly for swift, short flights.
Originally from Africa and Madagascar, they are said to have been brought, already domesticated, to Europe by the Portuguese. They were kept for their meat, eggs and feathers, but also used as “guard dogs” on the farmstead. Guineafowl roost in groups of up to 20 in the trees at night and set up a cacophony of scratchy, squeaky chatter whenever an intruder arrives, whether animal or human.
Because they are omnivores (eating insects, vegetable matter and seeds), they are easy to keep and have become even more popular in recent years because of their diet of ticks – both the wood and deer variety. Years ago we decided they would be a great natural control for the ticks at the Audubon Center where I worked. We bought a dozen of the young (known as ‘keets’) and kept them inside the barn until we felt they were old enough to take care of themselves in the outdoors, unsupervised. We gathered them up at night to put back in the barn, with limited success.
Then they started to disappear. One or two at a time. We had worried about predators and whether these young birds would learn about the dangers of the wild world quickly enough. They didn’t. Before the summer was over, the Guineafowl were gone and the fox family (we assume) was fat and healthy.
I have thought of keeping these fowl at our house as a form of tick control, but figure they’d meet the same fate as the birds at the Center. A neighbor down the road has had Guineafowl for several years and a few have managed to survive, but I have no idea where the bird in our yard came from.
The most commonly seen ones are called Helmeted Guineafowl. Recent research has shown that dinosaurs were more like our birds than reptiles. In them I see features that remind me of that connection. The white featherless skull, with wedge shaped crest on top of its head, and flapping red and blue wattles on either side of its short yellow beak make it look ancient. The small head is perched on a relatively long neck, which is connected to its bulky body (they weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds). The bird is saved from complete ugliness by its beautiful plumage – black or greyish feathers with dense white spots covering all of its chest, back and wings. Some of the birds are being bred into different colors now and this one had more white on its breast than the originals of the breed.
In between pecking at the ground for remnants of the bird seed we had scattered, it would nervously come to attention, its wattles wobbling with the jerky movement. It stepped cautiously, putting one long toed, scaled foot in front of the other, and looking from side to side. The 13-lined ground squirrel that was feeding nearby didn’t seem to notice the presence of this new arrival.
The day after I saw the lone bird a friend came over with his dog and all of a sudden there was a flurry and flapping. I looked from the deck to the yard and saw a flash of white wings and then the awkward flight of a Guineafowl into the branches of a nearby birch tree. The bird was perched on some very weak looking branches, but at least it was safe from the excited canine.
Its quick reactions were probably an example of why this particular bird is still wandering the neighborhood seeking out the finest bird feeders. Darkness fell and we never saw the bird come down or fly away, but it was gone the next morning. I hope it will return. Any bird that eats ticks is a friend of mine.
By Kate Crowley