This post does not follow my usual format. I have written this post to share some fascinating insights into Spurfowl, particularly Swainson’s, which I gained from the last few trips with long standing friend, Nic Dinham. Two weekends ago we went down to an eco-farm in the Free State in South Africa called “Wag n’ Bietjie” run by Andre and Ardri Hoffman. The reason for the trip was to count gamebirds ahead of the hunting season to assess viability. While I am not a fan of hunting, I realise the need to understand the dynamics and context of this activity before making any judgement. Apart from anything else, I have good friends who hunt (some are Falconers and some are Wingshooters). They love the bush and have a great knowledge and appreciation for wildlife, and follow recognised ethical rules related to their sport to ensure its sustainability. Like photography, a crucial component of hunting whether with a sparrowhawk, a gun or a camera is that you have to understand the behaviour of your subject to be able to get into the right position to get the best “shot”!!!!!
“Curing environmental ills requires not a stance outside nature, but a stance within nature, a role not as onlooker without, but as an actor within.” – Valerius Geist
Andre is a very knowledgeable man, born and bred in the area and has a detailed knowledge of insects, birds, game and fishing. The eco-farm is bordered on its north side by the Vaal river. The information I am sharing is ancedotal. I have not done any field studies on the Swainson’s Spurfowl. Whilst not technically rigorous, I thought birders might find some of the information interesting, or thought provoking at least.
Swainson’s Spurfowl was named after English ornithologist and artist William John Swainson. Swainson became the first illustrator and naturalist to use lithography.
Taxonomy involves the description, naming and classifying of species and higher taxa (genera, families, orders, etc.). The Swainson’s Spurfowl is classified in the genus Pternistis within the family phasianidae ( pheasants and partridges, Junglefowl chickens, quail and peafowl). The clade Phasianidae is the largest of the branch Galliformes ( terrestrial gamebirds), comprising more than 150 species. Modern taxonomies of francolins recognise 41 congeneric species, forming the largest genus of terrestrial gamebirds.
Galliformes are heavy-bodied ground-feeding game birds. Most are plump-bodied with thick necks and moderately long legs, and have rounded and rather short wings. They do not fly long distances and prefer to walk or run. Many adult males have one to several sharp horny spurs on the back of each leg, which they use for fighting.
Of the approximately 40 extant species in the genus Francolinus, all but five are endemic to Africa. Twelve of the species which occur in Africa are found in the subcontinental region of southern Africa. Of the African species, seven occur in Namibia. Six southern African Francolins are considered endemic to the subcontinent, of which three are found in Namibia (Hartlaub’s Spurfowl, Red-billed Spurfowl, and Orange River Francolin). The Cape Spurfowl is endemic to the Cape Province of South Africa and occurs marginally in southern Namibia. Greywing Spurfowl inhabit the more mountains and alpine terrain in South Africa and are found at elevations of between 1850 and 2700 metres above seas level.
Francolins and Spurfowls were traditionally placed in one of the largest genera of birds. Research conducted and published by the Percy FitzPatrick Institute has confirmed that based on their anatomy, behaviour and molecular biology that Francolins and Spurfowl form at least two evolutionarily distinct groups, the ‘true’ Francolins (Francolinus sensu stricto, Dendroperdix, Peliperdix and Scleroptila spp.) and Spurfowls (Pternistis spp.). Molecular research has shown distinct differences between Francolins and Spurfowls in the calls and anatomy of their syrinxes (avian voice-boxes). Recent ecological and behavioural studies show that Francolins are relatively small, ground-roosting birds, and Spurfowls (Pternistis spp.) are larger birds which roost in trees.
The Swainson’s Spurfowl colouration is cryptic as would be expected of terrestrial birds. Its plumage is brown overall, with black streaks. Its face around the eyes down to the beak and throat are bare and the skin is red in colour. It legs are black, whereas the Red-necked Spurfowl has red legs and the upper and lower bill of its beak are both red. There is minimal sexual dimorphism either in or outside the breeding season. The only outward difference is that the males are bigger than the females and have large spurs on their tarsi ( just above their ankles).
The bill is short and strong which is needed to dig to obtain food. The upper bill is black and lower bill is red.
Spurfowl are classified as Passerines because of the arrangement of their toes (three pointing forward and one back) which enables them to perch on branches.
Spurfowls, as their name suggests, have spurs on their tarsi. They can have two spurs on each leg. The male’s spurs are usually well-developed. You can tell the age of a male by the condition and degree to which his spurs have been worn down through fighting over territory. In the next image the spurs on this male Swainson’s Spurfowl have been worn down suggesting he is an older, battle worn male.
Swainson’s seem to prefer disturbed areas such as you would find in farming area. The Bothaville maize farming region is a perfect area to find them Swainson’s Spurfowl can be found in the inland areas of Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi,Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa,Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Until I saw English and German Short-haired Pointers (GSPs) working the fields, I never realised that Spurfowl and Francolin had scent. There is no doubt that these birds leave a scent trail through the grass and under small bushes which these dogs can pick up. Presumably, Jackal, Caracal , Mongooses, Leopards and Serval also use scent to locate these game birds. What I find even more fascinating is that these birds lose their scent during breeding season. Presumably, this is an adaptation because they nest on the ground.
“Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators… The land is one organism.”
― Aldo Leopold
I have never seen a Swainson’s Spurfowl nest, but according to “Roberts Nest and Eggs of Southern Africa” by Warwick Tarboton, the nest is usually built in a shallow scrape in the ground lined roughly with grass and sometimes feathers. The eggs are most often laid in the months, December to April, which is why the hunting season does not open before May each year.
The Swainson’s Spurfowl is omnivorous meaning that its feeds on seeds, insects but the food mix is seasonal. The population of gamebirds can vary significantly according to the season where in winter with less food around the population can drop as much as 30% in a season, according to gamebird counters.
The shape of the wing is an important factor in determining the types of flight of which the bird is capable. Different shapes correspond to different trade-offs between characteristics, such as speed, low energy use, and maneuverability. Spurfowl, like most of the non-migratory passerines have elliptical wings which are short and rounded. As such they have a low aspect ratio, allowing for tight maneuvering in confined spaces such as might be found in dense vegetation. This elliptical shape wing gives the Spurfowl rapid take-off capability which is needed to evade both terrestrial and aerial predators. Swainson’s Spurfowl would prefer to sneek away from you through the grass than fly. When flushed, they jump up and flap rapidly to accelerate and quickly reach glide height. From there they glide into their landing point which is not usually more than 100 metres away.
The species are monogamous. These Spurfowl tend to be found in pairs when breeding but outside that period can be found in coveys of up to eight birds. They seem to come out into the open, along the farm roads and open verges alongside the maize fields at first light to socialise and presumably re-establish and maintain their coveys, in much the same way Zebra harems re-assemble after a night where family members have been scattered by Lions or Hyaenas.
“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
― Aldo Leopold
Early in the morning you can often see a male Swainson’s Spurfowl on an anthill or low bush declaring to all who can hear that this is his territory. Once it starts to warm up, the Spurfowl move onto the lands to feed on anything from old maize seeds, to black-Jack seeds and insects.
By midday when it is hottest, the Spurfowl seek shade in among trees and bushes.
Later in the afternoon when it starts to cool down the Spurfowl can be seen moving back onto the lands to feed again. This is often a time of vocalisation, just to remind the neighbours that it is still their territory.
Most Spurfowl, such as Swainsons’, roost at night in either trees or bushes, which ever are available, to minimise predation. When roosting in trees, Spurfowl tend to occupy the lower branches. Guineafowl also roost in trees but they can usually be found at the top of the trees. I am not sure why each has a different roosting level, but it could be just the greater numbers of Guineafowl.
The female Spurfowl can lay between three and 12 eggs in a clutch, which she will incubate for around 21 to 24 days. The chicks are precocial, meaning they can fend for themselves from hatching. Precocial birds are born with their eyes open and have downy feathers which soon grow to adult feathers after hatching. These chicks are able to leave their nest within 24 hours of hatching to find their own food. Many precocial chicks cannot thermo-regulate (regulate their own body temperatures), and depend on their parent to brood them with body heat for a short period of time. Impressively, they are also able to fly short distances after about two weeks and are fully grown, size wise, after around three months.
Like Guineafowl, Sandgrouse, and Bee-eaters, Swainson’s Spurfowl can be seen dust bathing to rid themselves of parasites.
Swainson’s Spurfowl live in coveys of seven to nine birds and are usually family groups. They are territorial. Generally, the younger birds tend to fly first when flushed from their hiding place and are often the first ones taken by predators. These Spurfowl, typical of terrestrial gamebirds, would rather run than fly but if they cannot runaway they will fly.
Gamebirds need three elements – food. cover and water – so when looking for Swainson’s Spurfowl establish the close proximity of these three elements and there is a good chance of finding them.
This post was aimed at giving a popular science angle for interest rather than scientific treatise. The idea was to share information rather than be definitive. Again when delving deeper into a species, an overwhelming factor is that these Spurfowl are perfectly adapted to their environment and each aspect of the bird serves a necessary function.
It is crucial we understand the dynamics of these Spurfowl populations in order to ensure the farming and gamebird hunting communities participate constructively in these areas and do not decimate the gamebird populations. Inevitably, as human activity encroaches more and more on natural wildlife habitats, their wildlife and gamebird carrying capacity is negatively impacted. We do not want to exacerbate the situation.
The more we get to understand the finer details about these gamebirds (and our natural world), the more fascinating they become and more we respect their incredible adaptation to the rigours of their environment. We are only scratching at the surface of these libraries of wildlife knowledge and information. The more we know, the better we understand, the more we respect those creatures around us and more we realise we are part of the whole, an intricate interconnected web of life.
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television.”
― Aldo Leopold
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.