Chickens of the bush

Che-che-chirra! che-che-chirra!” It was an explosive and excited call just outside my tent that shattered the quiet before dawn.
Issue date 13 June 2008

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Che-che-chirra! che-che-chirra!” It was an explosive and excited call just outside my tent that shattered the quiet before dawn. I rolled onto my side and pulled the blanket over my head. t was a crested francolin and when it called again its mate down by the river joined it in a duet. It was an ear-splitting call that couldn’t be ignored. Uttering a word didn’t learn from my mother, threw the blankets off and sat upright in my bed. was still dark outside, but when the harsh “graa-che-che-che! graa-che-che-che!” of a Natal francolin drifted through the mist over the Kafue River, knew daybreak wasn’t far away. As with the farmer’s rooster, the field sportsman has his own alarm clock in the bush, which heralds the coming of dawn.

After getting dressed and pouring hot coffee, got my fishing tackle ready. My fly box was loaded with flies tied from francolin feathers and as soon as it was light enough for the hard-fighting Nembwe and other large-mouth bream of that magic river to see my flies, the day-long fun would start. A mixed bag part from guineafowl and quail there are twelve species of fowl-like birds, previously all known as francolin, which occur throughout Southern Africa. The order to which they belong to can, from the human point of view, be considered the most important group of birds on earth.

Not only do they include gamebirds which played a major role in human survival throughout ancient history, but all domestic turkeys and chickens also originate from them. The wild jungle fowl was domesticated in India and has provided the world with one of the healthiest and most readily available sources of protein, and that has ensured its descendants are found in every country. Four species of wild jungle fowl still exist today. The red, the green and the grey jungle fowl occur in India and Indonesia, and the Ceylon jungle fowl is found on the island of Sri Lanka.

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They all have the body shape of domestic chickens and have red dangling wattles and fleshy “combs” on their heads, beautiful long neck hackles, and the roosters have vaulted tails with long, sickle-shaped feathers similar to those of most domestic breeds. It was therefore not only the flesh of these birds that was important to humans, but also their feathers.

Chicken feathers have for centuries been used in feathered quilts and pillows, and as personal decoration. It is, however, to the sports fisherman that the feathers are indispensable and it’s important to realise that without chickens, flyfishing would probably never even have been invented. Catching feathers Since the advent of trout and salmon fishing, flies have been partly or entirely made from the feathers of chickens. Even in the relatively new sport of saltwater flyfishing, chicken feathers are still extensively used.

The feathers of wild species of fowl such as francolin were equally important, while most of the classic salmon flies were finished off with crest feathers of that avian gem, the golden pheasant. n SA every trout fisherman knows that one of the most famous local trout flies is the “Walker’s Killer” fly, which is almost entirely tied from local francolin feathers. The most highly prized and famous fly-tying feathers are the well-known “jungle cock” feathers used for over a century to imitate the eyes in top-quality trout flies. They come from the remarkably decorated neck hackles of the fast-disappearing wild grey jungle fowl of India. In demand t is, however, not trout fishing that has brought about their population crash, but the relentless forest clearing for agriculture to feed India’s population-explosion of humans. Nowadays artificial eyes have largely replaced jungle cock feathers in trout flies.

The order Galliformes includes birds with exquisitely beautiful feathers and one can hardly imagine how they survive in the wild. Not only does the order include the blue and the green peacock, but a remarkable variety of breathtaking pheasants such as the Great Argus pheasant, whose 1,5m tail has the longest feathers of any wild bird. Unfortunately none of these remarkably beautiful birds are indigenous to Africa; they’re almost all shy inhabitants of Asian forests. But there are groups of colourful, medium-sized, shy terrestrial game birds that occur in many countries. In SA our pheasants and partridges were previously all known as francolin, but in stark contrast all our species are compact, short tailed birds that survive on grassland, savannah or even in semi-desert conditions on a continent with the world’s greatest variety of raptors and other predators.

The result is that they are all cryptically coloured in drab shades of brown and grey to enable them to remain unseen against the usual background of rock, soil and grass. When they take flight their short, rounded wings and powerful breast muscles give them great speed to escape natural enemies, except the fastest hawks, falcons or eagles. This rapid flight and tasty flesh ensures that, together with ducks and geese, they’re the most challenging and favourite quarry of shotgun hunters all over the world. Numerous species have been introduced to countries where they didn’t previously occur. Naming the birds About the recent changes to the common names of birds I will not comment, but laymen and old-timers can’t be blamed for ignoring the changes and sticking to some of the names of yesteryear. To keep things simple, one can say there is first the robust, cocky group of francolin, the fisante.

They have typically harsh calls. Swainson’s francolin gives the “gok-gok-gokr-kor-kor-korwr-kowarrr-kowarrr-kowarrr”, often uttered from a regular calling site such as a termite mould or fence post. When approached they run fast and snakelike through the grass, staying well ahead of the hunter. When they eventually fly they are usually out of shotgun range, which makes them difficult to hunt without a good gundog to flush them sooner.

There are five other species of large francolin in Southern Africa. Of the Natal and the Cape francolin, only the latter is endemic. There are also the red-necked and red-billed francolin, as well as well as the desert-dwelling Hartlaub’s francolin in Namibia. They are distinguishable by their breast-feather pattern and the colour of their legs and bills, and whether they’ve got bare, red skin on their faces and throat.

The five species of patryse or smaller partridge-like francolin sit tight and don’t run when hunted. They are distinguishable by their facial markings and call. The Coqui is not only the smallest species, but the only one where the sexes differ and the male has a uniform yellow-brown head. The beautifully marked, bantam-like crested francolin stands alone in habit and appearance and seems to be an aberrant species. It can cock its tail and often takes to the trees when flushed. Unlike larger francolin, which cause agricultural damage, partridges don’t.

Their numbers are in decline and they need careful management and conservation. To my mind it’s shortsighted of conservation authorities that francolin have not been bred on a large scale for their meat, which is sweeter-tasting than guineafowl. The domestication of guineafowl from other parts of Africa has been done abroad, but some of those strains escaped and the gene pool of our local population has been contaminated.

The same is true of the exotic mallard duck that has interbred with our yellow-billed and black ducks, which will eventually lead to their disappearance. Anyone is allowed to keep and breed exotic species, but not indigenous species. Just how stupid can one be? – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected]. Skype Name: abrejsteyn. |fw