There are four cryptically plumaged ‘partridges’ (francolins) in South Africa, all with white throats and difficult to tell apart, but there are a few key differences to look for when encountering any of these in the field.
The Grey-winged Francolin is by far the most widely distributed throughout South Africa. While it favours high altitude montane grassland, such as the Drakensberg escarpment, where large coveys occur, distribution extends all the way down to the coastal belt through to the indigenous ‘strandveld’ of the southwestern Cape.
A secretive gamebird usually encountered by surprise practically underfoot when it explodes into flight accompanied by its distinctive loud ‘squealing’ alarm call or on occasion observed feeding unobtrusively within the roadside reserve early in the day or towards sunset.
It calls at dawn and dusk triggering a spate of reciprocal melodious responses from adjacent coveys in the immediate vicinity.
Then there is Shelley’s Francolin, which most superficially resembles the other three white-throated ‘partridges’ with a narrow black and white necklace and, with the noticeable exception of the Grey-winged Francolin, conspicuous ‘russet’ coloured wings in flight.
Almost geographically exclusive, favouring open savanna grassland with a penchant for rocky ridges and scattered acacia thorn trees to the east of the country as the habitat type of preference.
Similar superficially to the Shelley’s Francolin in appearance, with a more pronounced black and white necklace extending below the conspicuous white throat patch, is the Red-winged Francolin found mainly in open high altitude perennial grassland of medium height and density as the preferred habitat, but also recorded at lower altitudes down to sea level as far as the Overberg in the Western Cape.
Central to the distribution of the cryptic suite of four lookalike ‘partridges’ is the Orange River Francolin, essentially an open grassland gamebird favouring the Kalahari savanna to the west, with a preference for salt pan and cropland edges and hardly ever found in the vicinity of trees. Optimum habitat is open perennial grassland dotted about with termite mounds. Loss of open grassland to large scale commercial agricultural practices constitutes the main threat to future survival outside of protected environments.