Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis)

Cover image of Cape Spurfowl by Terry Terblanche – Near Lutzville, Northern Cape – BirdPix No. 260909

The Cape Spurfowl is a member of the ‘vermiculated group’ of spurfowls and francolins, with the Natal Spurfowl (Pternistis natalensis) as its closest relative. The Cape Spurfowl is the largest spurfowl in southern Africa.

Identification

The sexes are alike in appearance, but males are considerably larger than females and have larger spurs on the legs.

Identification guide to Cape Spurfowl
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) 
Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Desire Darling

From a distance the Cape Spurfowl appears dark brown overall, and without distinctive facial markings. The upper parts are brown, intricately patterned with off-white chevrons. The crown is distinctly darker, giving a capped appearance. The throat is white with scattered black flecks. The feathers on the underparts, including the neck, upper breast and flanks are brown, intricately patterned with parallel, whitish chevrons. The plumage on the lower breast and belly has additional broad white central streaks. The legs and feet are dull orange-red.

Pternistis capensis
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) 
Rietvlei, Western Cape
Photo by Gregg Darling

Juveniles resemble the adults but are duller overall.

The Cape Spurfowl is not likely to be confused with any other spurfowl due to its large size, overall dark colour and lack of red facial skin. It most closely resembles the Natal Spurfowl (Pternistis natalensis) and the Red-billed Spurfowl (Pternistis adspersus), however the range of the Cape Spurfowl does not overlap with these two species.

Cape Spurfowl
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) 
Langebaan, Western Cape
Photo by Lance Robinson

Status and Distribution

The Cape Spurfowl is a common to locally abundant resident. It is endemic to southern Africa, occurring mainly as a fynbos endemic, with seemingly isolated populations in Namaqualand and along the Orange River to Prieska. It occurs marginally in extreme southern Namibia along the Orange River.

SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Spurfowl
SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis)  – March 2024. Details for map interpretation can be found here.

There is no evidence of range contraction and the Cape Spurfowl is not considered threatened. The species has benefited from habitat transformation because of its ability to colonise alien vegetation and suburban parklands. However, in agricultural lands it is impacted by the severe fragmentation of natural patches of habitat.

Habitat

Habitat for Cape Spurfowl
Typical habitat
Montagu district, Western Cape
Photo by Karis Daniel

The Cape Spurfowl’s preferred habitat is coastal and montane fynbos, especially strandveld and renosterveld. In drier areas in the surrounding Karoo it is found in riverine scrub along drainage lines. It has adapted well to exotic Acacia thickets, as well as farmlands, parks and gardens. Its presence on farms and in suburban areas is dependent on pockets of natural vegetation in which to roost and breed.

Pternistis capensis
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis). Note the large spurs on this male’s legs.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Western Cape
Photo by Neels Jackson

Behaviour

The Cape Spurfowl occurs in pairs or small coveys of up to 20 birds. It is a conspicuous species and its presence is often revealed by its call. They become tame and confiding around people, foraging in the open, and even approaching humans and flying onto picnic tables to scavenge food.

When alarmed, the Cape Spurfowl erects the crown feathers. It flies well but is reluctant, preferring to run into cover when disturbed. Coveys may sometimes perch in trees after they’ve been flushed but are more likely to land on the ground before fleeing into dense cover.

A covey of Cape Spurfowl having a drink
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) drinks mostly during the late afternoon. They often drink in covey.
Koringberg, Western Cape
Photo by Les Underhill

The Cape Spurfowl is very noisy during the early morning and late afternoon. They roost at night huddled together on the ground and sometimes in trees or in reedbeds. The Cape Spurfowl regularly dustbathes in fine dust and gravel. Drinks mostly during the late afternoon.

Pternistis capensis
The Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) readily feeds on fallen fruit.
Langebaan district, Western Cape
Photo by Graham Bull

The Cape Spurfowl forages in the open but is rarely found far from cover. They search for food by scratching in leaf litter and loose soil. Its diet is varied. During summer they feed primarily on invertebrates like insects, small snails, termites and ants. They also readily consume fallen fruit, including grapes, apples and pears. In winter the diet mainly consists of fresh shoots, leaves, bulbs, corms, seeds, berries and fallen grain. It sometimes also scratches through the dung of large herbivores in search of grubs and undigested seeds.

Cape Spurfowl
A Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) scratching through herbivore dung for grubs and seeds.
Witsand district, Western Cape
Photo by Johan Van Rooyen

The Cape Spurfowl breeds from August to January. It is a monogamous, solitary nester. The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground, thinly lined with grass stems and occasionally feathers. The nest is well concealed, typically under dense tangles of scrub.

Pternistis capensis
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) female on the nest.
Langebaan district, Western Cape
Photo by Graham Bull

Four to eight eggs are laid per clutch. Larger clutches of up to 14 eggs are probably laid by two females. The eggs are brownish cream to pale pink.

nest of Cape Spurfowl
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) female on the nest.
Langebaan district, Western Cape
Photo by Graham Bull

Incubation begins once the full clutch has been laid. The incubation period lasts from 22 to 25 days and is performed entirely by the female. Newly hatched young are precocial but chicks are still brooded by both adults, with possible cooperative brood care by related hens.

Cape Spurfowl with chicks
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) with young.
Tygerberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape
Photo by Gerald Wingate

Further Resources

Species text from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Desire Darling, Gerald Wingate, Graham Bull, Gregg Darling, Johan Van Rooyen, Karis Daniel, Lance Robinson, Les Underhill, Neels Jackson and Terry Terblanche is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Cape Francolin (Alt. English); Kaapse fisant (Afrikaans); Kaapse Frankolijn (Dutch); Francolin criard (French); Kapfrankolin (German); Francolim do Cabo (Portuguese)

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. Cape Spurfowl Pternistis capensis. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available Online at https://thebdi.org/2024/03/20/cape-spurfowl-pternistis-capensis/

Bird identificationbirding

Pternistis capensis
Cape Spurfowl (Pternistis capensis) 
Witsand district, Western Cape
Photo by Johan Van Rooyen
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!