- Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, B.L. Sullivan, C. L. Wood, and D. Roberson. 2012. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.7. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/downloadable-clements-checklist
Habitat and Ecology
Evolution and Systematics
The nests of mallee fowl provide warmth for eggs by use of rotting vegetation.
"One family of birds has, in the most ingenious way, managed to avoid the hazardous duty of sitting on its eggs throughout the incubation period. The mallee fowl of eastern Australia lays its eggs in a large mound built by the male. The core is composed of rotting vegetation and the whole is covered with sand. The breeding season is a very long one, spread over five months, and during all this time, the male has to remain in constant attendance probing the mound with his bill to test the temperature. In spring the newly gathered vegetation at the centre is decaying rapidly and producing so much heat that the mound may get too warm for the eggs within it, in which case he industriously removes sand from the top to allow heat to escape. In summer, there is a different danger: the sun may strike the mound and over-heat it. Now he must pile more sand on top as a shield. In autumn, when the decaying core has lost much of its strength, he removes the top layers to allow the sun to warm the centre where the eggs are and then covers it in the evening to retain the heat." (Attenborough 1979:196-197)
"Scrub fowl attack the daily supervision and reconstruction of their mounds as if the laws of heat distribution were entirely in their grasp. It seems as if, after establishing the interior temperature, they need only choose the proper profile of the breeding plant to maintain that temperature. The mallee fowl considers the existing climatic conditions instinctively (and, it seems, very sensibly) while it proceeds with its regulating activity. In spring, temporary air shafts are used to siphon off superfluous fermentation heat. When fermentation abates in summer and irradiation from the sun increases, the birds prevent overheating by piling up more sand and adding considerably to the height of the mound; they rely on inertia in the warming up of a large mass. Should nevertheless the heat of the sun penetrate dangerously deep, they change their tactics. They dig the breeding mound early in the morning and spread the sand for cooling. When it has cooled off, it is again used to build the pile up...Finally, when both fermentation and irradiation from the sun abate in the fall, the bird operates with a very thin layer of sand only, which quickly warms up in the sun. At the same time, sand is being heated in the sun close to the breeding mound under constant stirring; it is then mixed warm into the pile." (Tributsch 1984:137)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Tributsch, H. 1984. How life learned to live. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 218 p.
- Attenborough, D. 1979. Life on earth. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 319 p.
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
The species's rapid decline has prompted the production of a national research plan (Orsini & Hall 1995) and recovery plan (Benshemesh 2007). The species is the focus of many non-government conservation groups (e.g. the Victorian Malleefowl Recovery Group and the Malleefowl Preservation Group) (Bode and Brennan 2011). National monitoring standards have been established and annual counts of active mounds are carried out at over 60 sites (Benshemesh 2004). Reserves have been declared, some on private lands, and some habitats have been fenced to exclude stock. Goats, rabbits and foxes have been partially controlled at some sites. Further habitat has been secured, protecting links between isolated populations, and wildfire response plans prepared. Community initiatives have been a major force in identifying and supporting research opportunities, and on-the-ground project implementation and management have been successful (S. Dennings in litt. 2004). Captive breeding is allowing population supplementation (G. Baker in litt. 2005).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Maintain or establish habitat corridors between fragments (Benshemesh 2000). Carry out further research into the threat of predation by foxes and the effectiveness of baiting (Benshemesh 2000, Priddel et al. 2007). Continue efforts to control foxes, goats and rabbits (Benshemesh 2000). Establish long term conservation covenant agreements to secure privately owned natural vegetation (Benshemesh 2000). Encourage adoption of suitable fire regimes (Benshemesh 2000). In reserves, close or fence off artificial water supplies and remove livestock (Benshemesh 2000). Foster communication with graziers and farmers about malleefowl requirements (Benshemesh 2000). Minimise the amount of grain spilt on roadsides that pass through suitable habitat and erect warning signs where fatalities are likely to occur (Garnett et al. 2011). Monitor populations in at least 10 sites in each state and assess the size and distribution of populations in fragments and remote regions (Benshemesh 2000). Carry out further research into the species's ecology and demography (Benshemesh 2000), especially the minimum population size for subpopulation persistence (Garnett et al. 2011). Conduct genetic analysis to detect areas of disjunction between subpopulations (Benshemesh 2000). Investigate the effect of agrochemicals on fertility (Benshemesh 2000).
The Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) is a stocky ground-dwelling Australian bird about the size of a domestic chicken (to which it is distantly related). They are notable for the large nesting mounds constructed by the males and lack of parental care after the chicks hatch. It is the only living representative of the genus Leipoa, though the extinct Giant Malleefowl was a close relative.
Malleefowl are shy, wary, solitary birds that usually fly only to escape danger or reach a tree to roost in. Although very active, they are seldom seen as they freeze if disturbed, relying on their intricately patterned plumage to render them invisible, or else fade silently and rapidly into the undergrowth (flying away only if surprised or chased). They have many tactics to run away from predators.
Pairs occupy a territory but usually roost and feed apart: their social behavior is sufficient to allow regular mating during the season and little else.
In winter, the male selects an area of ground, usually a small open space between the stunted trees of the mallee, and scrapes a depression about 3 m (9.8 ft) across and just under 1 m (3.3 ft) deep in the sandy soil by raking backwards with his feet. In late winter and early spring, he begins to collect organic material to fill it with, scraping sticks, leaves and bark into wind-rows for up to 50 m (160 ft) around the hole, and building it into a nest-mound, which usually rises to about 0.6 m (2.0 ft) above ground level. The amount of litter in the mound varies, it may be almost entirely organic material, mostly sand, or anywhere in between.
After rain, he turns and mixes the material to encourage decay and, if conditions allow, digs an egg chamber in August (the last month of the southern winter). The female sometimes assists with the excavation of the egg chamber, and the timing varies with temperature and rainfall. The female usually lays between September and February, provided there has been enough rain to start organic decay of the litter. The male continues to maintain the nest-mound, gradually adding more soil to the mix as the summer approaches (presumably to regulate the temperature).
Males usually build their first mound (or take over an existing one) in their fourth year, but tend not to achieve as impressive a structure as older birds. They are thought to mate for life, and although the male stays nearby to defend the nest for nine months of the year, they can wander at other times, not always returning to the same territory afterwards.
The female lays a clutch of anywhere from two or three to over 30 large, thin-shelled eggs, mostly about 15; usually about a week apart. Each egg weighs about 10% of the female's body weight, and over a season it is common for her to lay 250% of her own weight. Clutch size varies greatly between birds and with rainfall. Incubation time depends on temperature and can be anywhere between about 50 and almost 100 days.
Hatchlings use their strong feet to break out of the egg, then lie on their backs and scratch their way to the surface, struggling hard for five or ten minutes to gain 3 to 15 cm (1 to 5 in) at a time, and then resting for an hour or so before starting again. Reaching the surface takes between 2 and 15 hours. Chicks pop out of the nesting material with little or no warning, with eyes and beaks tightly closed, then immediately take a deep breath and open their eyes, before freezing motionless for as long as 20 minutes.
The chick then quickly emerges from out of the hole and rolls or staggers to the base of the mound, disappearing into the scrub within moments. Within an hour it will be able to run reasonably well; it can flutter for a short distance and run very fast within two hours, and despite not having yet grown tail feathers, it can fly strongly within a day.
Chicks have no contact with adults or other chicks: they tend to hatch one at a time and birds of any age ignore one another except for mating or territorial disputes.
Distribution and habitat
It occupies semi-arid mallee scrub on the fringes of the relatively fertile areas of southern Australia, where it is now reduced to three separate populations: the Murray-Murrumbidgee basin, west of Spencer Gulf along the fringes of the Simpson Desert, and the semi-arid fringe of Western Australia's fertile south-west corner.
Important Bird Areas
- New South Wales
- South Australia
- Western Australia
- Dragon Rocks
- Dunn Rock and Lake King
- Fitzgerald River
- Karara and Lochada
- Karroun Hill
- Lake Magenta
- Mount Gibson and Charles Darwin
Across its range, the Malleefowl is considered to be threatened. Predation from the introduced red fox is a factor, but the critical issues are changed fire regimes and the ongoing destruction and fragmentation of habitat. Like the Southern Hairy-nose Wombat it is particularly vulnerable to the increasing frequency and severity of drought that has resulted from climate change. Before the arrival of Europeans, the malleefowl was found over huge swathes of Australia.
The Malleefowl is classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
Malleefowl are listed as vulnerable on the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Its conservation status has varied over time, and also varies from state to state within Australia. For example:
- The Malleefowl is listed as threatened on the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (1988). Under this Act, an Action Statement for the recovery and future management of this species has been prepared.
- On the 2007 advisory list of threatened vertebrate fauna in Victoria, the Malleefowl is listed as endangered.
- The Malleefowl is listed as vulnerable on schedule 8 of the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972.
- Malleefowl are listed as endangered on the New South Wales Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.
Yongergnow Australian Malleefowl Centre
The Yongergnow Australian Malleefowl Centre is located at Ongerup, Western Australia, on the road between Albany and Esperance. The centre opened in February 2007 and is intended to provide a focal point for education about the malleefowl and the conservation of the species. There is a permanent exhibition and a large aviary containing a pair of malleefowl. The centre collects reported sightings of the malleefowl.
- BirdLife International (2012). "Leipoa ocellata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- "Malleefowl". Important Bird Areas. BirdLife International. 2012. Retrieved 2012-10-27.
- Piper, Ross (2007), Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Greenwood Press.
- List of threatened taxa on FFG Act, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria
- List of Action Statements, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria
- Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (2007). Advisory List of Threatened Vertebrate Fauna in Victoria - 2007. East Melbourne, Victoria: Department of Sustainability and Environment. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-74208-039-0.
- List of threatened species, Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia
- Mallefowl Description, Department of Environment and Conservation, New South Wales
- Yongergnow Australian Malleefowl Centre - Home Page
- HANZAB list as of 2003-03-24