18660641911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12 — Guinea FowlAlfred Newton

GUINEA FOWL, a well-known domestic gallinaceous bird, so called from the country whence in modern times it was brought to Europe, the Meleagris and Avis or Gallina Numidica of ancient authors.[1] Little is positively known of the wild stock to which we owe our tame birds, nor can the period of its reintroduction (for there is apparently no evidence of its domestication being continuous from the time of the Romans) be assigned more than roughly to that of the African discoveries of the Portuguese. It does not seem to have been commonly known till the middle of the 16th century, when John Caius sent a description and figure, with the name Gallus Mauritanus, to Gesner, who published both in his Paralipomena in 1555, and in the same year Belon also gave a notice and woodcut under the name of Poulle de la Guinée; but while the former authors properly referred their bird to the ancient Meleagris, the latter confounded the Meleagris and the turkey.

The ordinary guinea fowl of the poultry-yard (see also Poultry and Poultry-Farming) is the Numida meleagris of ornithologists. The chief or only changes which domestication seems to have induced in its appearance are a tendency to albinism generally shown in the plumage of its lower parts, and frequently, though not always, the conversion of the colour of its legs and feet from dark greyish-brown to bright orange. That the home of this species is West Africa from the Gambia[2] to the Gaboon is certain, but its range in the interior is quite unknown. It appears to have been imported early into the Cape Verd Islands, where, as also in some of the Greater Antilles and in Ascension, it has run wild. Representing the species in South Africa we have the N. coronata, which is very numerous from the Cape Colony to Ovampoland, and the N. cornuta of Drs Finsch and Hartlaub, which replaces it in the west as far as the Zambesi. Madagascar also has its peculiar species, distinguishable by its red crown, the N. mitrata of Pallas, a name which has often been misapplied to the last. This bird has been introduced to Rodriguez, where it is now found wild. Abyssinia is inhabited by another species, the N. ptilorhyncha,[3] which differs from all the foregoing by the absence of any red colouring about the head. Very different from all of them, and the finest species known, is the N. vulturina of Zanzibar, conspicuous by the bright blue in its plumage, the hackles that adorn the lower part of its neck, and its long tail. By some writers it is thought to form a separate genus, Acryllium. All these guinea fowls except the last are characterized by having the crown bare of feathers and elevated into a bony “helmet,” but there is another group (to which the name Guttera has been given) in which a thick tuft of feathers ornaments the top of the head. This contains four or five species, all inhabiting some part or other of Africa, the best known being the N. cristata from Sierra Leone and other places on the western coast. This bird, apparently mentioned by Marcgrave more than 200 years ago, but first described by Pallas, is remarkable for the structure—unique, if not possessed by its representative forms—of its furcula, where the head, instead of being the thin plate found in all other Gallinae, is a hollow cup opening upwards, into which the trachea dips, and then emerges on its way to the lungs. Allied to the genus Numida, but readily distinguished thereform among other characters by the possession of spurs and the absence of a helmet, are two very rare forms, Agelastes and Phasidus, both from western Africa. Of their habits nothing is known. All these birds are beautifully figured in Elliot’s Monograph of the Phasianidae, from drawings by Wolf.  (A. N.) 

  1. Columella (De re rustica, viii. cap. 2) distinguishes the Meleagris from the Gallina Africana or Numidica, the latter having, he says, a red wattle (palea, a reading obviously preferable to galea), while it was blue in the former. This would look as if the Meleagris had sprung from what is now called Numida ptilorhyncha, while the Gallina Africana originated in the N. meleagris, species which have a different range, and if so the fact would point to two distinct introductions—one by Greeks, the other by Latins.
  2. Specimens from the Gambia are said to be smaller, and have been described as distinct under the name of N. rendalli.
  3. Darwin (Anim. and Pl. under Domestication, i. 294), gives this as the original stock of the modern domestic birds, but obviously by an accidental error. As before observed, it may possibly have been the true μελεαγρίς of the Greeks.