I haven’t posted in a while. I could give you a thousand spurious reasons for this, but the truth is that I’ve been avoiding it because I need to do a post about birds. I’m not a birder. But if I’m trying to cover the entire ecosystem of the Lowveld, I will have to deal with the birds at some stage, because there happen to be quite a few of them.
I have managed a couple of bird posts, and now it’s time for another one. But I’m not really sure what to call these birds. Lurkers maybe. Skulkers. They are sometimes referred to as game birds, since there is a particular sort of person out there that prefers shooting them with shotguns to a nice, quiet round of Scrabble.
I have reason to suspect that this group of people is made up almost entirely of people who have played Scrabble with Mrs 23thorns, and realised that sometimes Scrabble is neither nice nor quiet, and that hailing down hot lead on defenceless little birds and pretending that they taste nicer than roast chicken is an infinitely more relaxing pastime.
This is a rather varied group of birds, but they all do have a few things in common. They are drab, earthy colours, and spend most of their time down on the ground. They lurk around quietly in the undergrowth with various degrees of success, and specialise in not seeming very clever.
When it comes to skulking, these guys are the undisputed champions. Although I’m not a birder, I have spent a great deal of time out in the bush, and I can only remember seeing these guys a handful of times. This is not because they are particularly rare. They are just very hard to see. They skulk around in the grass, and blend almost perfectly into their chosen environment.
They are very hard to flush out. Their survival trick is to hunker down and freeze when approached by a potential predator, not to fly away. When they do fly, they don’t go very far, relying instead on their ability to disappear completely when they touch down, even when you know they are there.
And that would be all for the common buttonquail, except for one thing. The writers of bird guides have a long and hilarious history of trying to write down the sounds that birds make, and they have hit one of their high points with the call off the common buttonquail. So the next time you find yourself feeling awkward and at a loss for words at a dinner party, you can tap a fork on the side of your wineglass, clear your throat, and announce “The female Common Buttonquail calls with a deep hoom-hoom-hoom, and the male replies kek-kek-kek”.
You will be remembered and admired by all who have the privilege of dining with you.
The Double-Banded Sandgrouse.
The entry for these guys should be almost exactly the same as that for the Buttonquails. They, too are master lurkers. You tend to see them more often, though, since they tend to favour more open, sandy areas.
This gives you a chance to see just how committed they are to that whole “freeze instead of fly” thing. If you chance upon a pair of them (they always seem to come in pairs) next to the road, they will hunker down instead of using their perfectly serviceable wings, and you can drive a two-ton, growling, rattling Land Rover to within a few feet of them.
And that (are you recognising a pattern here?) would be all for the Double-Banded Sandgrouse, except for one thing. Sunsets. A proper Lowveld sunset is a wonderful thing indeed. The continent’s valuable topsoil blowing off into the sea allows the sun to paint the whole sky red and yellow, and the twisted, gnarled trees become stark, black silhouettes. And if you’re lucky enough to be sitting at a dam while as this happens, the sandgrouse come.
Double-Banded Sandgrouse drink only once a day, just as the bush is descending into darkness. They have also come up with a rather clever little trick; they have soft, absorbent feathers on their chests that they use to soak up water to take back to their nests. For that one, brief moment every day, they set aside their lurking. It’s a party. They come flapping in like low-flying beetles, sometimes in their hundreds, and as they do so, they call.
If your dinner party announcement went down well, you can follow it up with the fact that Double-Banded Sandgrouse go “weep-weeu, chuk-chukki, weep weeu”. God only knows how they learned to use commas. If you’re feeling a bit more poetic, you can say it as “Oh NO, he’s gone and done it aGAIN!”
They land a little way off from the water and scurry down to drink, looking more like a seething pack of rats than birds, and then, as darkness proper closes in, head off into the bush to skulk for another 24 hours.
Here’s a clip of them having their party. You will also, should you never have been lucky enough to meet a real one, have a chance to hear what white South Africans sound like. The government puts valium in our drinking water to make us more manageable.
Francolins. Or Spurfowl.
It is a sad truth that not everyone can be a superstar. Francolins suck at lurking.
They shouldn’t. They have all the right attributes to be master skulkers. They have drab, cryptic plumage. They live on the ground. But they have an Achilles heel. Sound.
Francolins (and spurfowl) are miracles of survival. They simply shouldn’t exist. They are plump, juicy, and phenomenally stupid. And clumsy. And noisy. Very, very noisy. And they are everywhere.
Against all odds. I’m going to take a deep breath and rattle off an incomplete list of the things that eat Francolins. There are pythons, leguaans, civets, genets, honey badgers, jackals, caracals, ambitious mongooses, servals, African wildcats, eagles, falcons, owls, crocodiles, leopards, and people who have played Scrabble with Mrs 23thorns.
And through their midst blunder the Francolins (and spurfowl). Hundreds of them. And not just one kind. There are Coqui Francolins, Crested Francolins, Shelley’s Francolins, Natal Spurfowl, and Swainson’s Spurfowl.
When I say they are noisy, I mean everything they do is noisy. They scratch through the leaf-litter like chickens. They make comforting “erp” contact calls as they walk around. They also fly like chickens; crashing into bushes and beating their wings like drumbeats. But all this pales to insignificance compared to their calls.
Francolins shriek. They split the peace and calm of the bush with raucous, piercing screams. Each species has a slightly different call, but each of them is capable of cutting glass. It should be awful, but somehow it isn’t. If you have spent any amount of time in the world’s wilder places, you will know that those places have their own sounds. The seaside ebbs and flows to the pulse of the waves crashing into the shore. Forests buzz with the shrilling of Cicada’s. Church Street in Pretoria echoes with the constant hooting of taxis. Take away the sound, and something is lost. It is as important as the smell of salt water on the air or the sharp clarity of a mountain view.
The calling of the Francolins is the sound of the bush at dusk or dawn. It’s easy to go on about the roaring of lions or the whooping of hyenas, but those are rarer than you might think; a treat. The Francolins are always there, as much a part of sunrise as the light creeping softly in through the trees. Here’s one of the noisiest;
Ah, the peace and quiet of the African bush.
It’s not just their noisiness that makes me fond of Francolins. If you feed birds in your garden, you will know that some birds are more confident than others. Some will grow used to you within days, rushing in like pigs to a trough, scattering seeds and crumbs all over the place in a frenzy to be first and fastest, while others lurk in the background, waiting for you to leave before darting in, grabbing a morsel, and dashing off again. In keeping with their razor-sharp survival instincts, it takes Francolins about twenty minutes to get tame. After three days, if you sit really still, they will be eating out of your hand.
They become constant companions around the house when we visit the bush, bustling around the stoep (patio) at our feet or startling us with their unfeasibly loud scratching through the undergrowth, and forming a fundamental part of the ever-present team of mongooses, hornbills, squirrels and go-away birds that assemble every day to entertain our kids. They don’t do this for free. Fully eighty five percent of what we feed to our offspring appears to be passed on while our backs are turned, and if we dare to go inside to lie down and read or nap, entire boxes of rusks or breakfast cereal can disappear in minutes. By the time we leave, the local wildlife is visibly fatter and starting to develop heart conditions and respiratory disorders.
Guinea fowls are definitely game birds. Of all the birds in this post, they are the ones most regularly hunted for the pot. And they are delicious. But Guinea Fowls have broken ranks completely and aren’t even pretending to be lurkers. They’ve chosen to go the other way.
They gather, in the dry season, in large and busy flocks out in the open. They are big; over a kilogram. They are black (or dark grey) speckled with white while the world around them is a mosaic of khaki and green. Their heads are bright blue with red wattles and bizarre horny crests. They do not, in other words, blend in. And they are busy.
To watch a flock of Guinea Fowl is to watch a constant, low-level documentary on civil unrest. Guinea Fowls seem to spend all of their free time chasing each other. They hunch their backs and narrow their bodies like upturned boats and dash after each other in swirling, jinking flurries.
They’re noisy, too. As noisy as Francolins. A roosting flock of Guinea Fowl makes a noise as characteristic of wild Africa as the Francolins. Except for one thing. They aren’t always there. On some visits to the bush they are everywhere, swirling around every open patch of grassland like football hooligans, but on your next visit, they will be nowhere to be seen.
Maybe that’s because they are off plotting to take over the world. Guinea Fowls stand on the brink of becoming the world’s next domesticated bird, after chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. With good reason. They are, as I said, delicious. But they’ve got a lot more going for them.
Guinea Fowls are very easy to keep. They tend to look after themselves far better than turkeys or chickens. And in doing so, they make themselves very useful indeed. Guinea fowls, you see, are omnivores. Voracious ones. On a farm, they eat the insects that damage crops. And they go one better. They love ticks. So much so that Guinea Fowls are proving useful in combatting tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease. And when they’ve got their blood up, they’re even pretty handy at driving off bigger pests. Like rattlesnakes.
They do have one minor detail holding them back. Guinea Fowls, like William Wallace, are rather fond of freedom. This means that they are not ideally suited to being morphed into bizarre, bloated food packets and kept in tiny cages, like chickens or turkeys. Domesticated Guinea Fowls look pretty much like wild ones, except that the occasional one is white.
It’s kind of hard to see this as a bad thing. And besides, in the reading I did for this post, one rather curious fact kept coming to the fore. Most of the people keeping domesticated Guinea Fowls are not keeping them for food. They are keeping them for entertainment. Turns out avian football hooligans are really fun to watch.
They have a cousin. A rarer cousin, which you only find in the Northern part of the Lowveld. It looks like this.
Which is rather silly, in a charming sort of way. Unlike their other cousins, from further north.
Those are just creepy.
So much for the black sheep of the family. Let’s get back to the lurkers. Or rather, in this case, sneakers. Korhaans are fairly big; about as tall as a chicken, although far leaner.
They are strange, otherworldly looking birds, with huge eyes and needle-sharp beaks. They look, in fact, like water birds. Waders. With good reason. They, too, move slowly and stealthily through their environment, sneaking up on their prey and stabbing it with those needle-sharp beaks in sudden, darting movements. The only difference is that they are after insects rather than frogs or fishes.
And that would be all. But.
There is one particular hill on the reserve we visit; an ancient old mound of rose quartz, broken up over millions of years into rocks and pebbles and coarse, crystalline gravel, with the occasional huge, glassy pink boulder sticking up through the ground like a fossil skeleton. Driving over it is an auditory experience. The wheels grind and pop over the diamond-hard rock as you weave through the low, tangled, thorny scrub.
But that’s not the only noise you hear. At the right time of year, you might also hear a loud, metallic tapping, like a blacksmith beating on an anvil. It is a Red Crested Korhaan, clacking his beak. It’s time to stop the car and start looking at the noise. You don’t need to see the Korhaan. Just look at the place where the noise is coming from, and wait.
Soon, the clacking will be interspersed with a piecing call, rising in tempo and volume. And then it stops. And if you’re lucky, something pretty damn cool will happen. A Red Crested Korhaan will suddenly rise out of the bush, straight upwards, about twenty metres or so. And pretend to get shot.
At the top of his short climb, he will suddenly throw himself backwards, clasping his wings into his body, feet stretched up into the sky. And drop. Like a stone.
It really is a remarkable thing to see. But for the lack of noise, you have just watched a bird get shot out of the sky. He has, at a rather inopportune moment, forgotten how to fly. He will fall. No flapping, or struggling to right himself. Just falling. And falling. Until, at the last possible moment, he will suddenly snap out of it, spread his wings, and float gently down into the bush. Done. You can drive on again, wheels popping over the quartz pebbles, until you hear that blacksmith tapping again. Here’s a clip of one calling and not pretending to get shot.
It’s a mating display. Presumably, male Korhaans impress the ladies by demonstrating that they are willing to risk death for a bit of nookie. If this all sounds strangely familiar, but you can’t put your finger on why, place a teenage boy on a concrete walkway in front of a group of teenage girls and give him a skateboard. It will soon come back to you.
The Kori Bustard.
I am not, generally speaking, a competitive soul. Until somebody takes out Trivial Pursuit. I used to be able to say the same thing about Scrabble, but then I taught Mrs 23thorns how to play, and came to understand how Frankenstein must have felt about his monster. I do, however, feel a little competitive about our wildlife.
We rule. Tallest? We have giraffes. Biggest? We have elephants. Most ridiculous? Google “baby aardvarks”. Most poisonous? Well, Australia takes that one, but they’re not actually killing anyone. Our puff adders have a much higher body count.
North America has the biggest predator, the grizzly (if you’re not counting the Arctic, which doesn’t belong to anybody), but since it mostly lives on berries and suicidal fish, it loses valuable badass points. India has the biggest cat, but our lions kill the odd elephant.
And birds? I give you the mute swan, heaviest flying bird in the world.
According to the sort of people for whom badgers are the alpha predator. It’s huge. A water-borne behemoth capable of breaking a man’s arm. A girly man. Come on! It’s just a big duck. This is actually the heaviest flying bird in the world;
It’s a Kori Bustard. It’s 1,5 metres tall, and clocks in at 19kg, vastly bigger than the mute swan’s paltry 18kg. It has a sharp beak, and non-comedy feet. And nobody is writing ballets about it.
Truth be told, finding the heaviest flying bird in the world is not that simple. It’s based on finding freaks. Most Kori Bustards weigh about 12kg. And god only knows what mute swans would weigh if people in cardigans weren’t feeding them bread all the time. But Kori Bustards are big. They look more like small ostriches than anything else.
Unlike ostriches, they have feathery necks. Most of the time, their feathers lie flat, and they can keep the whole ostrich illusion going. Until they start to feel a little antsy. Girl Kori Bustards apparently like a substantial neck, so boy Kori Bustards fluff out their neck feathers and inflate their throats. Competitively. Luckily this doesn’t look at all silly.
And the guy with the biggest neck doesn’t get the girl. He gets all the girls. Unlike swans, which, despite their famously long necks, are monogamous. Nerds.
Remarkably, like swallows, Kori Bustards live mostly on insects (although they do take the odd rat or snake to remind people that they are actually quite big), and also eat a fair amount of plant matter, including gum from Acacia trees, which gives them their Afrikaans name “gompou”, from “gom”, which means gum, and “pou”, which is a silly word for a kind of bird.
You don’t see them very often, but when you do, you know that you have seen a bird.
And that, good people, is that, as far as game birds are concerned. Come over and see them some time. Or listen to them. Just don’t bring a shotgun with you. Unless you’re planning to play Scrabble with Mrs 23thorns.