Game birds

 

Common Name:
Game Fowl
Scientific Name:
Galliformes
Diet:
Omnivore
Average Life Span In The Wild:
5 to 8 years
Size:
5 to 6 inches (king quail) to 98 inches (peafowl)
Weight:
1 ounce (king quail) to 24 pounds (wild turkey)

What are Galliformes?

Galliformes include 290 species of quail, pheasants, turkeys, partridges, grouse, peacocks, guans, curassows, and guinea fowl. Prized as game birds and reared for their meat and eggs, these stout-bodied birds often have short, rounded wings because they spend most of their time on the ground. Their thick legs and big feet are adapted to regular walking, and suited for shallow digging to forage for seeds, roots, and insects.

Some gallinaceous birds, like the turkey, sport ostentatious fleshy wattles that hang from their necks, or combs on the tops of their heads in bold colors like red or purple that can signal a male’s health and desirability. These features are especially common in this ancient bird lineage, suggesting these traits could be evolutionary holdovers from the Galliformes’ dinosaur ancestors.

All Galliformes can fly, though when they do, most launch explosively with a quick burst skyward and then travel only a short distance—a useful skill for escaping danger. A few outliers make longer flights, including Old World quails, which migrate from Europe to Africa and back again.

Habitat and diet

Galliformes live on every continent except Antarctica. Ptarmigan inhabit a frigid, barren Arctic landscape year-round, foraging vegetation under the snow, while the Congo peacock lives in African rainforests eating fruits and insects. The scaled quail lives on seeds from grassland desert plants of the American Southwest, and wild turkeys thrive in forests—and in suburban neighborhoods with plentiful bird feeders.

Most species nest on the ground although, when possible, they may roost in trees at night. Some of these birds can be found in huge numbers, like the common quail found in the millions across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Reproduction

Some gallinaceous birds live in flocks or pairs, but most prioritize mating over enduring bonds. Galliform males often use brightly colored plumage and elaborate ornamentation to attract potential partners for the short term. For example, the peacock’s famed eyespot plumage has been naturally selected to please the opposite sex. They’ve proven so successful at helping males procreate, that several other Galliform species have evolved to display this plumage, including pheasants and peacock-pheasants.

Males also use a repertoire of seductive moves to make an impression. Prairie chickens, for example, gather in groups to strut their stuff. “They sing, dance, and have sex,” says Kevin McGowan, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “That’s basically it. The females do all the parental care, and the males are good for sperm and entertainment. There are a bunch of species like that.”

Males and females of other species, like quail, do work together, focusing most of their effort on tending eggs before they hatch. Unlike helpless hatchlings which must be kept alive, Galliformes usually emerge almost ready to fend for themselves. Among Australian brush-turkeys, males incubate eggs inside a compost heap the size of a Volkswagen. “When they hatch they basically run off into the forest and never see their parents again,” says McGowan. “It’s a weird system, but they are entirely self-sufficient.”

Threats to survival

More than a quarter of all Galliform species are classified as at risk by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In many cases, habitat loss is to blame, but it’s not the only factor. “A lot of it is the fact that they are game birds, and they are food birds,” says McGowan. “People definitely do overhunt them simply because they taste good.”

Most Galliformes’ chests have big flight muscles optimized for short bursts, and leg muscles rich with blood vessels to provide them with oxygen and endurance for walking. Because their chest muscles are used less than other flying birds, like ducks, they have more white meat for white-meat loving consumers.

Humans keep many gallinaceous species for meat and eggs, including chickens, which were originally domesticated from South East Asia’s red jungle fowl as long as 9,500 years ago. Today, an estimated 50 billion chickens are harvested for food each year.

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