If they don’t hear the loud cackling of a Red-billed Francolin in the morning, many nature lovers feel that something is missing. Newcomers to Namibia are amazed when they hear the booming call for the first time and can hardly believe that an otherwise very quiet bird is responsible for this wake-up sound. But other francolins are pretty vocal, too, and keep drawing attention to themselves even though it is not so easy to spot those bantam-sized birds with their often multi-coloured patterned plumage which is mainly intended for camouflage.
The Red-billed Francolin is the best-known of the spurfowl. It is found throughout the country, except in the south. As with most francolins, males have hard, pointed spurs which are almost three centimetres long, whereas the females’ spurs are short and blunt. Their orange-red beak, the red legs and feet as well as the yellow skin around the eyes, contrast strongly with the finely-grained brown, white and black plumage. These birds weigh in at 340 to 650 grams and are usually seen only when they move. The plumage offers perfect camouflage.
There are 41 francolin species worldwide, of which 36 are found in Africa and five in Asia. Twelve species inhabit southern Africa, eight of them Namibia. The rarest in Namibia is the Cape Francolin which occurs in patches along the Fish River in the far south and on the Orange River at the border with South Africa. Just as rare is the Bare-throated or Red-necked Francolin which is found only as an isolated group in a small area between Ruacana and Epupa on the Kunene River, the border with Angola in the north.
Hartlaub’s Francolin is near-endemic to the western central parts of Namibia as well as rocky areas in the northwest and similar habitats in south-western Angola. Experts say that about 15 percent of the population is found in Etosha and Waterberg National Park.
Together with Swainson’s Francolin, which occurs in central and northern Namibia except for the arid western parts, all of the above-mentioned species belong to the subgenus Pternistis that consists of a total of 23 species.
The Orange River Francolin in central and northern Namibia is part of the subgenus Scleroptila, whereas the Crested Francolin and the Coqui Francolin belong to the subgenus Peliperdix. The Coqui Francolin, at 200 to 300 grams the smallest francolin in southern Africa, occurs almost exclusively in the northeast. The Crested Francolin is found there as well, but also in the central north right down to the area north of Windhoek.
Francolins eat seeds, small fruit, seedlings, tubers and invertebrates. During the dry season Red-beaked and Crested Francolins in Etosha National Park, especially around Namutoni, can be seen checking the droppings of black-faced impala and elephant dung for insects hidden inside or underneath and for undigested seeds.
The life of francolins takes place mainly on the ground. In case of danger they take off at the last moment and fly just a short distance to get out of harm’s way. Nights are usually spent on trees or shrubs. All francolin species are ground-nesting and only the females incubate the eggs. The well-camouflaged chicks are precocial and have to fend for themselves. Francolins take regular dust baths to rid themselves of parasites.
Author: Dirk Heinrich