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The management of terrestrial gamebirds on a wildlife ranch

22 January 2015

Despite their tasty meat, recreational quality and high rate of population growth, terrestrial gamebirds are a poorly used resource on many wildlife ranches. Yet the addition of wingshooting of terrestrial gamebirds will increase the product market of a wildlife rancher.

Because large numbers of terrestrial gamebirds will migrate or die of predation, hunger, cold or disease in the winter, they can rather be hunted ethically annually provided that a core of breeding birds is left for the new wet season. This will also leave more food to ensure the survival of a breeding population during the winter.

The development of wildlife ranches have already re-established healthy populations of terrestrial gamebirds where they were decimated by injudicious management and utilisation on erstwhile livestock units. Nevertheless, more than 50 per cent of South Africa’s grasslands have already been replaced by cultivated lands for crop production. Protected grasslands have an estimated double the gamebirds per surface area as those that are being grazed heavily.

It is senseless to attempt to utilize the terrestrial gamebirds on a wildlife ranch when they are unable to survive in the available habitat. Sufficient cover, food and water are the three basic components of good habitat for terrestrial gamebirds. The cover must satisfy the requirements for nesting, resting and protection against predators. A sound ecological approach will aid all the  wildlife, including the terrestrial gamebirds, on a wildlife ranch. When the habitat has been rehabilitated, terrestrial gamebirds will re-establish spontaneously and artificial re-establishment is unnecessary. In addition, as does other types of wildlife, artificially-bred terrestrial gamebirds are often genetically weak and they will seldom survive their release on a wildlife ranch.

In South Africa, the helmeted guineafowl is the most abundant type of terrestrial gamebird because it has a wide habitat tolerance provided that permanent water for drinking, breeding sites and trees in which to sleep are available. Surplus grain on cultivated lands will help to reduce mortalities during the winter months. Their diet mainly consists of insects and the seeds of weeds and guineafowls usually breed from October to April. By keeping the harvesting level below 60 per cent of the summer population, helmeted guineafowls can be sustained on a wildlife ranch.


www.leopard.tvA wide variety of smaller, terrestrial gamebirds can also be utilized for wingshooting. Swainson’s spurfowl is also widely distributed and favoured by wingshooters. It is adapted to a variety of habitats and is independent of surface water, but it can do damage to lands where grain is being cultivated. Hunting outside the breeding season should not exceed removing more than 30 per cent of the population. Another popular terrestrial gamebird for wingshooting is the grey-winged spurfowl which usually occurs in open grasslands at altitudes above 1800 m above sea level. It is more resilient to over utilized habitats than the red-winged spurfowl with which it often shares a habitat but which also occurs at slightly lower altitudes.

www.leopard.tvThe general diet of terrestrial gamebirds consists of the seeds, bulbs, tubers and the leaves of indigenous plants and the seeds of some weeds. For the guineafowl small pieces of land can be cultivated and planted with grain and peanuts, although they will mostly eat insects when breeding. On cultivated lands the headlands can serve as feeding sites for the guineafowl and Swainson’s spurfowl. In late winter and early spring terrestrial gamebirds eat grain when other food resources are in poor supply. Although the habitat of terrestrial gamebirds should contain a variety of food plants, it is impractical to cultivate food plants for them only, except when it is being done to provide grain as a supplemental food source.

Because terrestrial gamebirds will stay close to cover when danger threatens, the middle of a large cultivated land is usually not accessible to them as a feeding site and they will stay in the headlands and along the sides. Adjacent, large blocks of cultivated land can, however, be separated by unplanted strips of 3 to 5 m wide and a mosaic of habitats can be created adjacent to the lands. The last three to five rows of a cultivated land can also be left unharvested to serve as winter food for gamebirds. These rows can be planted with an equal mix of maize, sorghum, sunflowers, manna and buckwheat at 20 kg of seed per hectare.

On ranches where there are no cultivated lands, strips of land that are 3 to 5 m wide and 100 m long can be ploughed and planted with the above seed mix. These strips can be fenced off to protect them against livestock and wildlife. Another alternative is to plough a strip early in the rainy season, to fertilize it and then to leave it fallow to allow weeds to sprout and seed. Cultivated lands with a variety of Eragrostis grasses are rich in seeds, while lucern lands are rich in insects and both will be used intensively by terrestrial gamebirds. For guineafowls, small patches of land can be cultivated with peanuts and grain. In the winter, grain can be placed in food containers with vertical slits in the sides at the bottom and placed on stands of 250 to 300 mm. Such a design will prevent doves and other birds to feed on the grain from the ground.

In the management of terrestrial gamebirds it must be taken into consideration that they are all in essence ground-living and will only take flight when they are being disturbed. They prefer to hide in dense, tall grass or slink away on foot through the vegetation. Except for the guineafowl, Swainson’s spurfowl, Natal spurfowl and the red-billed spurfowl they sleep on the ground. All terrestrial gamebirds usually stay in their habitat year-round.


The habitat can be improved by keeping the grass sward tall but with open patches between the grass tufts because a dense mat of grasses will impede foraging for food on the ground. Scattered tall grass tufts will provide escape cover when predators threaten. Creating a mosaic of habitat blocks which contain a diversity of grass heights is ideal. Some of the blocks can be mowed or burned every two to three years to create patches of short grass of variable height and density. Human disturbances should be kept to a minimum.


Birds have a poor to no sense of smell and it is a myth that they can smell grain seeds under the soil and then dig them out, although seedlings may be excavated to eat the germinating seeds. However, the seedlings are only under threat for the first two weeks after germination and guards can be set out to chase the birds away at that time. Rodents have a keen sense of smell and at night are responsible for most of the damage to cultivated lands of grain.

With the exception of the guineafowl and sandgrouse, few types of terrestrial gamebird are dependent on open water because they use the moisture content of their food for their water requirements. Therefore they can live for extended periods without open water, but will drink it when it is available. The guineafowl drinks water at least once a day. Any type of drinking site with water of a good quality will be used by terrestrial gamebirds, but rivers with steep and deep shores are avoided because the birds do not feel safe there. Shores with a dense cover of vegetation are equally unsuitable as drinking sites and such shores can be opened up in a patchy pattern for the first 5 m away from the water without removing any large trees. Wildlife waterholes with angled sides are suitable for terrestrial gamebirds. In water troughs it is advisable to build angled ramps of rock or concrete in a trough on which the birds can stand when drinking water.



Viljoen, P J 2005. AGRED’s gamebirds of South Africa: field identification and management. Houghton: African Gamebird Research Education and Development Trust.

Viljoen, P J. & Bothma, J du P. In Press. Game birds. In J du P Bothma & J G du Toit (Eds), Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Wolff, S W & Milstein, P le S. 1984. Limiting factors for game birds in southern Africa. Pretoria: Proceedings of the Gamebird Symposium, South African Wildlife Management Association, Supplement 1, pp 51 - 53.


article by Prof J du P Bothma


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