Guileless Guinea Fowl? Not a Chance!
By Ken Bailey
The guinea fowl is often dismissed as the simpleton of Africa’s gamebird world. They are, by all accounts, an odd-looking creature, sporting a weird horny helmet atop a red and blue bald head. Preferring to walk, or run, rather than fly, they have a peculiar bouncing gait that contributes to the impression that they’re less brain than birdbrain. They’re also remarkably common across southern Africa, further leading to the belief that guineas can’t be much of a sportsman’s quarry.
For those who’ve taken on the challenge, however, the reality is diametrically opposed to this impression. Guinea fowl are a classic example of why you should never judge a book by its cover, for lurking within that strange head is the mind of a cunning survivor, and if you’re going to best a guinea, you’d better bring your A game.
I’m not talking potting guineas on the ground, a popular pastime when hunting big game in an unabashed effort to put some meat in the stew pot. I’ve done that myself in Zimbabwe, plinking away from a distance with a .22. It was a simple and effective way to collect our dinner. Getting within shotgun range of guinea fowl, however, is a whole different story. You’re up against a foe that seemingly has the eyes of a falcon and the hearing of an elephant, and will bolt for cover at the first whiff of danger. And trust me, you’ll never catch up to a guinea on the run; I’d put my money on a guinea fowl in a 100-metre race with a wild turkey, and not think twice about spotting the turkey 20 metres.
There are two distinct methods for successfully wingshooting guinea fowl, with each having its pros and cons. No matter which you choose, it’s important to think through your strategy before you begin your hunt. To some extent guineas are creatures of habit – they have preferred locations for feeding and watering, and even for routes to escape cover. A little pre-hunt investment in time to discover the likely locations and preferences of the flocks you’ll be hunting can go a long way to increasing your success.
Mike Tyson once said that everybody has a fight plan until they get punched in the face. This is worth keeping in mind when hunting guineas, because just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they’ll do something totally unexpected. You need to be able and willing to adapt or risk going home frustrated.
Driven guinea fowl
Driving guinea fowl is akin to herding cats. For every time it unfolds as planned there are two times it all goes a little astray. The basic formula is to watch as guineas toddle into cover, plan a route for pushing them out, spread your shooters along the anticipated escape route, then send beaters into the cover to move the birds towards the gunners. The birds will run at first, but eventually they’ll lose their nerve or become annoyed (who knows how a guinea fowl thinks?) and flush. Hopefully they fly towards where your shooters are positioned. It all sounds simple enough but, as Mike Tyson forewarned, you must be prepared to adjust on the fly. Literally.
Hunting South Africa’s Limpopo province last year with outfitter/guides Mark Haldane, Robbie Stretton and Dylan Homes, I discovered that driving guinea fowl is a game of persistence and perseverance. There was no shortage of guineas in the area and we worked flocks as small as a couple dozen birds to more than 70. Over two days we planned and executed a dozen drives or so, some as short as a couple hundred yards, others extending a half mile or more. Despite having lots of manpower and dogpower helping out, those cagey guineas ensured it was a see-saw battle. We’d win one, then they’d win one.
On one particular drive we had nearly 75 guinea fowl trapped in a mixture of dense grass and acacia. I was in the group of gunners positioned in a shallow “U” along the anticipated escape route. Once we were all in place, the team of pushers and dogs moved forward in a quick march, eager to unsettle the unsuspecting guineas. A holler alerted us to the first flush, and in a matter of seconds the air was alive with rising guinea fowl. Unfortunately, they hadn’t read the same script we were following, and squirted through our line with near telepathic insight, between our last shooter and where we’d parked the trucks. Final tally – two guinea fowl down, and a bunch of frustrated beaters and gunners.
But you can’t give in with guineas, so after a quick refreshment for dogs and hunters alike, we regrouped, drove 10 minutes to another area and watched a flock of guineas scuttle across the trail and into the grass. Not having seen the entire flock before the first birds were safely into cover, we weren’t sure exactly how many were there, but it was definitely enough to make a drive worthwhile.
We repeated the routine of reading the cover and planning our strategy. Again I was on the shooting crew, and my expectation was eerily high as I listened to the dogs and beaters begin to work through the cover. This time our strategy worked.
Often the birds rise en masse, but on this occasion it was a series of flushes. I listened as down the line a series of pops told me the shooting had begun, then watched as dark-plumed birds intermittently fell from the sky. Soon enough I saw a flight of about 10 birds swing my way, trading off between furious flapping and peaceful gliding as they searched for distant safety. I raised my double and crunched the first bird as it passed overhead, then swung onto another, pulling it down too. With more birds headed my way, I quickly reloaded. This time I wing-tipped a bird and had to follow-up with a second shot to anchor it. Around me I heard the others continuing to shoot – we’d fooled ‘em this time. I reloaded again, but as suddenly as the barrage began it ended, and we each picked up our birds and reassembled at the trucks. It was all smiles as we admired the growing pile of guinea fowl at our feet. Not only did the plan and execution work to a “T”, but we’d be eating well that night.
It’s difficult to hunt large flocks of guineas by walking up on them; you simply have too many eyes and ears to overcome. No matter how stealthily you sneak up on them, invariably a bird will bust you and, in a New York minute, the whole flock will be hell-bent for safe cover.
You can enjoy success on smaller flocks however, whether stand-alone groups or when following up dispersed birds after you’ve flushed a larger flock. On a hunt in Namibia a few years ago my outfitter and I tried unsuccessfully to close the distance on a flock of about 20 birds. As might be expected, our efforts were fruitless, as the birds simply ran ahead of us each time we got even remotely close. Eventually, however, they ran out of available cover and flushed. That was our cue to become more aggressive, and we hustled towards where we’d seen the now scattered flock resettle. Before they could re-covey we walked quickly but quietly through the grass to where we’d last seen individual and paired birds land. Rather than run as we got close, the still nervous guineas opted to flush again, this time within shooting range. We ended up taking four out of the group before we were done.
It certainly helps to have pointers when walking up guinea fowl. Pointing dog handlers I’ve spoken to tell me that guineas won’t hold well for pointers in sparse cover, like thin grasslands or crops where there’s little base cover, but they have success in dense grass and thornbush where the birds feel more secure.
Whether hunting with or without dogs, you must always be alert. As is typical for guinea fowl they are anything but consistent, and will flush as suddenly as a broken shoelace when you least expect it.
At the end of the day, guinea fowl hunting is among the more underrated shotgunning experiences available to African wingshooters. Those who’ve hunted them with any regularity both loathe and love these curious and unique birds. Either way, if you believe the road to redemption is paved with suffering and frustration, you should put guinea fowl hunting on your must-do list.