Saturday, 23 August 2014

Wildplace 3: Guineafowl

The next exhibit along the path is the Malagasy village and lemur walk through. The first section is linked to a project that Wildplace and Bristol Zoo support on the Sahamalaza peninsula in the remote north west of Madagascar, where the researchers are investigating the endemic Blue-Eyed Black Lemur and Sahamalaza Sportive Lemur among other species of this little-known region. As with all the habitats on Madagascar there is grave human pressure from subsistence farming and bushmeat hunting, and so the consortium of organisations also support local education, improvements in farming practises, and healthcare in order to simultaneously increase local support and hopefully reduce pressure on the environment. For this reason the visitor first passes through a village exhibit, with a open-fronted primary classroom like the ones that the zoo supports, and typical farm animals that one might encounter. The first of these is a small flock of chicken-sized domestic poultry, guineafowl.

The guinea fowl that are now in the Malagasy village are one of the few domesticated animals to originate in Africa, where their wild ancestors, the Helmeted Guineafowl Numida meleagris can be found all through sub-Saharan Africa as far south as the Cape. When it was first domesticated is not clear, but it was long enough ago to be featured in the wall paintings of tombs in ancient Egypt. As well as the Helmeted Guineafowl, there are five other species found in Africa, including two little known species (the Black and the White-Breasted) which prefer primary rainforest rather than open grassland and woodland that are used by the other species. The most dramatic of the wild species is the Vulturine Guinea Fowl, which may be seen in some zoos.

Domesticated guinea fowl are mostly raised for meat, although they will lay up to 100 eggs a year as well. They are more predatory than chickens, although the main diet is still grain and plants, and in the US they have been promoted as a means of keeping down the ticks that carry the debilitating Lyme Disease. In a garden or farm setting they tend to be valued as predators on crop pests as well as slugs and snails.

Young guinea fowl are called keets, and in the UK are rather sensitive to cold and damp conditions, which is unsurprising considering where they originate from. They are mostly hatched from eggs collected and incubated artificially – this also avoids the heavy losses when they are hatched under the parent. Perhaps as a result of domestication, guinea fowl do not make very good mothers and many chicks will die as a result of being abandoned by the parent. They do however grow fast, and can flutter into bushes to roost by the time they are only a week old. Guinea fowl prefer to roost in trees in the wild, and will often roost on the beams of barns on farms if they have access.

They are very alert birds, and they make good watch dogs as they will call loudly if disturbed. This can have its drawbacks though if being kept as back garden poultry – neighbours will complain at being woken by their calls! They can roam a fair way from their homes, although once settled they usually return to the same roost site each night. As they tend to roost off the ground they are mostly safe from foxes and other terrestrial predators.

In cooking, guinea fowl are treated the same way as chicken, which they resemble in taste but with a stronger flavour. There are numerous recipes on line, but obtaining them may be more difficult in the UK– speciality butchers are the best bet.

Next time, I will cover the other domestic animal on show in the village, one that has probably the worst reputation of all in conservation circles – the goat.

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