A guinea-fowl at last...
The helmeted guineafowl is certainly one of South Africa’s most common game birds and being so adaptable they are found throughout the country. Although I have seen them feeding next to major highways and in city suburbs, these birds love farming areas and in some they present somewhat of a problem. Guinea-fowl tend to peck at the still ripening cobs of corn and when harvest time arrives all that is left of the maize are anaemic half-eaten mealies. Therefore some farmers do not mind guinea-fowl being hunted on their properties.
But just because there are a lot of guinea-fowl in an area doesn’t mean they are easy to hunt. To me they have always been the most difficult bird to shoot. Although rock pigeons flying at top speed are much harder to hit, getting within shotgun range of a guinea-fowl is far more challenging. That is because a flock of guinea-fowl acts like a single organism. Dozens of eyes are constantly scanning for possible threats and in areas where they are frequently hunted they will flee at the first sight of humans. On a farm near Donkerhoek where we occasionally shoot, even the sound of a vehicle or the opening of a gate leading to the fields will cause the entire flock to
start running. The birds will then take flight before the guns are within range.
Despite my best efforts – studying articles, getting tips from experienced shooters and spending hours in the veld – I have never been able to shoot a single guinea-fowl. It was extremely frustrating and humbling to be repeatedly outsmarted by a bird whose brain could fit into a teaspoon! So I quickly became obsessed by these speckled birds and tried my best to bag one.
These wary birds are often shot during driven hunts when they are flushed over the guns by a number of beaters. Another successful strategy is for a group of hunters to surround a flock and then shoot them when they take flight. These strategies however need quite a few shooters and are impractical for a wingshooter like myself who often hunts alone or with only one or two companions.
I HAD NO LUCK
Time passed and yet I remained unsuccessful in my quest to bag a guinea-fowl. This year I was again in the Settlers area of the Limpopo province during autumn. Oom Maritz and Tannie Liesbet Grobler had graciously invited me to shoot on their farm. The previous months had been difficult for the people on the Springbokvlakte. With rainfall being patchy and arriving late in the season, many farmers did not expect good crops and some fields had not even been planted at all. As in the past, my close friend and wingshooting companion, Jaco, and I were again going to try to shoot guinea-fowl on this property. However, I wasn’t expecting success and thus the plan was to finish the afternoon by shooting pigeons that visit the sunflower fields.
We started the morning with a cup of coffee and some rusks served by Oom Maritz and Tannie Liesbet. Then we were off to the fields. I was carrying my over-and-under Franchi Feeling Steel and Jaco his side-by-side Brno. Both were loaded with 32g No.5 shot. We walked between the fields scanning for signs of guinea-fowl. It was heartbreaking to see the evidence of the drought everywhere. Fields that were planted with maize and sunflowers a year ago now lay barren. We walked a long way but failed to spot any guinea-fowl. And then, at the edge of one of the fields that bordered a piece of open veld, a few speckles were present: Guinea-fowl!
Jaco and I quickly discussed our strategy. We decided to walk away from the birds before circling back through the veld, using some tall trees and thick bush as cover. Personally, I was not very optimistic that our plan would work. I expected the birds to run deeper into the field as soon as they saw us. But he who dares, wins (as the famous British regiment’s motto declares). So, we started our stalk...
We walked through tall grass »
» before turning back to where we had last seen the flock of birds. In front of us were several bushes and trees that provided excellent cover. Using it we could walk upright and managed to close the distance between us and the birds quickly and quietly.
Jaco who was on my right peeked between two bushes to locate the birds. Lo and behold, the guinea-fowl were right in front of us! Three birds saw him and immediately took flight. Jaco shot the one closest to him. The big bird simply folded its wings and fell to earth. I was caught off guard and took a snap shot at the trailing bird. There was an “explosion” of feathers, the bird dropped from the sky and fell into one of the dense bushes.
I was completely unprepared for what happened next. Suddenly the air was filled with birds as the whole flock took off, aiming for the veld behind us. There seemed to be hundreds of them, but in reality there were probably about twenty. In a panic I swung onto another bird, but missed com- pletely. I opened the Franchi and the two smoking shells ejected over my right shoulder. With fingers clumsy from tension I clawed two more cartridges from my ammo belt and reloaded. I snapped the gun shut but it was too late, the birds were already out of range. I turned to Jaco who came walking towards me, all smiles. Apart from his first clean kill he had also brought down a second bird.
I was less than happy with my performance. Like an amateur I fired too quickly on my first bird and completely missed the second one. Worse of all, I had not properly marked the position where my first bird had gone down. I should have made sure of the position before shooting at another. Jaco was also not sure in which bush his second bird had fallen, so we started searching...
We found Jaco’s first bird but despite spending the next hour combing through the dense bush, we were unable to find the other two. All the bushes looked the same, and the search became an exercise in futility and frustration. Angry with ourselves and covered in scratches we gave up. At that point the whole hunt left a bitter taste in our mouths. After years of trying I finally managed to shoot a guinea-fowl but was unable to retrieve the bird.
We knew more or less where the flock had landed and decided to try to stalk them. We walked about 10m apart, slowly making our way through the veld. I was still lamenting my mistakes when two guinea-fowl suddenly flew up a few metres in front of me, banking off to the left. I noted how strongly they flew and how quickly they gained altitude. I shouldered my gun and swung on the second bird. Body, beak... I pulled the Franchi’s trigger. I wasn’t even aware of the gun’s recoil, then I watched as the guinea-fowl plummeted to the earth, stone dead.
This time I kept my eyes glued to the spot where the bird had gone down. Walking over I saw the guinea-fowl lying in the long grass and I picked it up with shaking hands. For a while I admired the beautiful speckled feathers, studied the blue and red face and the strange horned protuberance on its head. Finally, I could say that I have cleanly shot and retrieved my biggest nemesis in the wingshooting world – a helmeted guinea-fowl. I could not explain exactly how I was feeling. Jaco shook my hand and said: “Daai een is vir jou gestuur.” Now we were all smiles.
We continued walking and saw that the birds had again gathered in some short grass. I walked to the right and Jaco to the left, trying to bunch them in between us. The flock flushed and flew straight away from us. I chose a bird, covered it with the barrels, but a millisecond before I pulled the trigger Jaco shot the same bird I was aiming at. He was closer and his shot killed the guinea-fowl instantly just as I pulled the trigger. The flock had now disappeared into a stand of thick trees and after recovering the last bird we decided not to bother them any further. Walking back to the car carrying our birds we were tired. The app on my cellphone confirmed that we had walked more than 7km during the course of the morning.
We made a simple lunch in the shadow of some trees and discussed the hunt. I felt extremely privileged that I could finally outsmart and successfully hunt one of Africa’s premier game birds. The morning’s hunt only increased my respect and admiration for these birds. I would be back to test my skill again against this worthy adversary.
Finally! The author with his guinea-fowl.
Jaco with the first guinea-fowl he shot. Note the dense bushes we used as cover during our stalk.