The birders’ column

A large well-known game bird with blue-grey plumage, and uniformly spotted with white. The bony bare yellowish casque on the crown, naked blue and red head, blue face and upper neck with washed blue-green around eyes, and pennant-shaped blue wattles with red tips, render this bird unmistakable.The iris is brown, with the bill yellowish horn, red cere with legs and feet greyish black. The only difference between the sexes is in the way they walk. The male walks erect on his toes, while the females walk flat-footed and appear slouched in posture.
The Helmeted Guineafowl  is common in savannas, mixed with farmland. They are naturally absent from the dry western regions of Southern Africa that lack permanent drinking water and elevated roosts. Their preferred habitat is grassland, broad-leaved woodland, thornveld and agricultural land. In these habitats they are common residents and may flock in hundreds. They are highly gregarious, especially when not breeding. Prior to 1875, they did not occur south of the Orange River or west of Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. However, through translocations and agricultural expansion, it has undergone probably the greatest expansion of any game bird specie in South Africa.
This game bird forages in flocks in open ground, scratching for food with its feet or bill. Males constantly chase each other. They run fast when disturbed and fly well, taking to trees when hard pressed and roosts communally in trees at night. They become very tame when not persecuted, otherwise they are very wary. Generally walks in single file to waterhole, inhabits open country terrain, forest edges and bases of high mountains. Particularly common in savannas interspersed with maize and wheat agricultural regions. During the day the flock moves into thick bush and remains under cover until late afternoon. Two hours before sunset, foraging recommences, followed by movement to a watering site to socialise and drink. Just before sunset, it returns to roost site, flying up into roost 30 minutes after sundown.
Their diet consists of bulbs, roots, seeds
(including fallen grain) and various invertebrates. Other items are berries, insects, snails, ticks (gleaned from mammals) and millipedes.
Breeding takes place during the summer months. Birds pair in spring, following much chasing by males. Female lays six to 12 eggs in a well-concealed scrape on the ground, usually in tall grass at base of tussock or under a bush. The nest is lined with dry grass and feathers. The eggs are deep creamy white to brownish yellow, with large brownish pore marks, sometimes finely speckled. Only the female incubates the clutch for 28 days. For two weeks after hatching, the male cares for the chicks. Without the male the chicks would likely die if not helped with finding food, and brooded at night. Parents are aggressive and drive animals such as jackals, baboons and even humans away from their young, with wings arched and spread. By three weeks old, the chicks can fly to join their parents at the roost.  They are often prey of Martial Eagle, Bateleur, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Cape Eagle Owl and Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. Since the 1980s populations in Gauteng, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal have declined, largely due to decease, predation by feral carnivores, and snaring and poisoning by humans. Habitat degradation associated with crop farming involving the elimination of weeds and insects, with herbicides and insecticides has also destroyed nesting cover and food. Widespread local extinctions in the former Transkei are the result of severe habitat degradation and injudicious hunting.
In the Hartbeespoort area they are fortunately fairly common and numerous.

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