“Some of your speckled turkeys got out.”
“What’s that fat, blue-headed bird?”
“Why do you let your weird chickens run loose?”
This is a small sampling of the questions and comments we get here at Safari West every day. While our guests typically travel here to see our towering giraffes or sleek cheetahs, everybody who visits this property experiences at least one run-in with our roving flocks of guineafowl.
If you’ve been here, you’ve seen them; a small army of round, speckled birds sprinting and cackling all around the property. These are our helmeted guineafowl and they do look a bit like pudgy chickens except that their bare-skinned heads are blue and they sport vibrant red mutton chops. Atop their naked heads, the helmeted guineafowl has a protrusion that looks like a single horn or perhaps a yellowish shark’s fin. This is the “helmet” they’re named for.
These birds spend most of the day scratching in the dirt and sprinting on the lawns. True they can fly but only explosively and for short distances; again a bit like chickens. More often than not, when threatened, the helmeted guineafowl simply run. With their clawed feet, powerful legs, and eerily bobbing heads, a guineafowl on the run looks like a comedic version of Jurassic Park’s velociraptors.
The guineafowl at Safari West is startling not only because of their appearance and behavior but also because they are some of the only free-roaming animals we have on the property. Our flock of helmeted guineafowl is expansive and ever-growing and they seem to be everywhere. They duck and weave among the crowds, scamper under the tour trucks, run along the enclosure fences, and on occasion within the enclosures themselves. And they chatter constantly. Absolutely constantly. The helmeted guineafowl is known as a great guard animal thanks to its tendency to sound the alarm when perceiving a threat. It should be noted, however, that guineafowls seem to have a pretty low threshold for what qualifies as “threatening”. Chicken Little and “The sky is falling!” comes to mind when considering helmeted guineafowl.
Helmeted guineafowls are often described as “ubiquitous” and this is an apt description. They are found nearly everywhere in Africa, from the southern edge of the Sahara to the southern tip of the continent. They are only absent from the true deserts and the deepest jungles. They’re even found on mountainsides as high as 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet)! These are some profoundly adaptable little birds.
Helmeted guineafowl does well in such a wide variety of habitats in part because they are voracious generalists, able to scrounge a meal just about anywhere they go. They seem to prefer vegetation, especially seeds, but are known to eat berries and flowers and to dig up all manner of tubers and roots as well. This diet coupled with their prevalence throughout most of Africa has led some in the farming community to view them as pests and to drive them from their fields.
Interesting to note, however, is that the helmeted guineafowl is an omnivore and also an insatiable consumer of invertebrates. It has been widely suggested that the farmers who drive guineafowl from their fields should instead be welcoming the marauding flocks. They’ll certainly eat some grain on their way through a field, but they’ll devour thousands upon thousands of pestilential insects as well. This is not an exaggeration. In one post-mortem dissection, roughly 5,100 harvester termites were found in the crop of a single helmeted guineafowl.
This behavior, in particular, is of key import when it comes to why our flock of guineafowl is on the loose. These very common African barnyard birds provide incredible pest control. As they roam the property, they are devouring fleas and ticks by the thousands. Blood-sucking parasites love deer and coyotes but can you imagine the jackpot a giraffe must represent to the flea that stumbles across it? Safari West houses massive herds of warm-blooded mammals. Luckily for us, we have an army of helmeted guineafowl defending our animal friends.
If you were to step into our large aviary, you’d discover a second species of guineafowl here at Safari West. Called vulturine guineafowl, these are larger than the helmeted guineafowl outside and are in fact the largest of the six guineafowl species. They are very flashy birds with a startling cape of white and cobalt blue hackles spreading from the base of the neck. The vulturine’s name derives from its bald head. In spite of the look and the name, vulturines aren’t known to be scavengers and in fact, share the omnivorous habits of their helmeted cousins.
Of particular note with the vulturines is that they are far less water-dependent than any other guineafowl species. They are found in more arid regions of east Africa and do not appear to require drinking-water. There has been some suggestion that even when water is available in their natural habitat, they rarely drink and instead gain all their moisture through food intake.
Now, until recently, Safari West housed not two, but three of the six species of guineafowl and we’d like to take a moment to remember Elvis, our Kenya crested guineafowl. The Kenya crested guineafowl is a truly beautiful animal. They have the rounded body and speckled plumage typified by the helmeted guineafowl. The skin on their heads is bare and blue in coloration with a great deal of vibrant red surrounding the eye. Crested guineafowl also bear a luxurious crest of fine black feathers. This stylish pompadour is where our Elvis got his name.
Elvis spent almost all his time in the company of one of our male great argus pheasants. While it’s tempting to say the two were friends, it’s almost never a good idea to anthropomorphize an animal like that. It is interesting to note however that crested guineafowl in the wild frequently follow around troupes of monkeys or other birds hoping to scavenge dropped fruits and seeds. Could this tendency toward extra-species association account for the companionship of our argus pheasant and crested guineafowl? Perhaps. Either way, it was always interesting to watch those two pal around the aviary.
We don’t know his exact age, but Elvis came to us back in 2000 making him 16-years-old at the least. Thanks for these many years Elvis, we miss you.