Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Malleefowl feed on herbs, seeds, flowers, fruit, fungi, tubers and invertebrates (2). They create a nest for breeding, though this is no ordinary nest, for they have developed a highly sophisticated method of temperature control for egg incubation (5). In the autumn, males dig a large hole, which is up to 5 meters wide, and 1 meter deep, and during the winter they fill it with twigs and leaves. In spring, when it rains, the vegetation in the nest gets thoroughly soaked. It begins to rot and, like compost, produces heat. The male covers the nest with sand to keep it warm, and when the female lays her eggs on the mound, the male buries them under the sand and vegetation, and leaves them to incubate. Throughout the summer the female may lay up to 35 eggs, one at a time on the nest mound. The male, meanwhile, keeps testing the temperature of the mound by dipping his beak into it. If it is too warm or too cold he opens up the mound or adds more sand and, in this way, is able to keep the nest at a constant temperature of 34 °C. When the chicks hatch, one at a time, they dig their own way out of the mound (5). This may take up 2 - 15 hours, after which they make their way to the protection of low lying vegetation. They receive no parental care; within one hour they are able to run and, after just 24 hours, they can fly. Instinct leads the chick away from the adults' home range to fend for itself (2).
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Description

Malleefowl are large ground dwelling birds, belonging to a family of 22 bird species known as 'megapodes' meaning 'large feet'. Their name originates from the type of habitat (mallee eucalypts) that they are most associated with. Adult males and females are alike in appearance, with a predominantly pale grey-brown colouring, and broad black markings on the throat (3). The upperparts have black, white and chestnut barred feathers and the legs and large feet are grey in colour (2). Juveniles are a dull grey-brown colour, with barred cream on the upperparts (4). This bird emits grunts and crooning noises, with the males' calls being louder (4).
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Distribution

Range Description

Leipoa ocellata was formerly widespread in Australia, but its range appears to have contracted by about 50% during the 20th Century (Benshemesh 2000). It now occurs at scattered locations throughout southern Australian, with the largest contiguous expanse of habitat stretching east from the Western Australian wheatbelt (Garnett et al. 2011). Estimates in the 1980s suggested there were only 750 pairs in New South Wales and less than 1,000 pairs in Victoria. Numbers in South Australia are probably higher, perhaps several thousand pairs. However, data from protected areas suggests that densities in this state have typically declined by 75% since 1989-1990, with populations in New South Wales probably declining at about the same rate (Priddel et al. 2007). The species' population in Western Australia is believed to exceed the total in all other states, although records from this state generally represent less than 40% of all current and past records, despite efforts since the 1990s to encourage reports of sightings (J. Benshemesh in litt. 2007). By 1989, the range and abundance of this species was judged to have contracted dramatically in the arid areas of South and Western Australia (Robinson et al. 1990), but since then it has been found at numerous sites in these states (J. Benshemesh in litt. 2007). The species is judged to be in a continuing decline across its range (Priddel et al. 2007). It has not been recorded for several decades (and is probably extinct) in the Northern Territory (Benshemesh 2000). Despite the availability of survey data from sites across its range (J. Benshemesh in litt. 2007), an accurate recent estimate of the total population size is lacking. Garnett and Crowley (2000) estimated the population size at around 100,000 based on a density of 1–2 pairs per km2 over an AOO of 40,000 km2. There is some evidence that over the last decade there has been a general increase across south-west New South Wales and Victoria and that numbers may have levelled out in South Australia (Garnett et al. 2011). For instance, at 34 sites in Victoria, counts in 2010 were higher than they had been for 15 years (J. Benshemesh in litt. in Garnett et al. 2011).

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Range

Scrub and heath of sw and s Australia.

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Range

Malleefowl used to be widespread across Australia, but their range appears to have been reduced by over 50%. It has not been recorded in the northern territory for several decades and is thought to be extinct there. Most populations occur in fragmented areas across Southern Australia, New South Wales and Victoria (3).
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
It is found principally in semi-arid to arid shrubland and woodland dominated by mallee eucalypts Eucalyptus and/or wattles Acacia. It requires a sandy substrate and abundance of leaf-litter for breeding. It occurs in higher breeding densities on better soils with higher rainfall and prefers habitat that has been unburnt for several decades. It feeds opportunistically on locally or seasonally abundant food (Harlen & Priddel 1996), taking herbs, seeds, flowers, fruit, fungi, tubers and invertebrates, and also in stubble on adjoining agricultural land. Its "nest" is a mound, comprising an inner core of leaf-litter buried under a thick layer of sand. It may lay over 30 eggs in a season but, on average, each breeding pair produces 8-10 chicks each year (Frith 1959).


Systems
  • Terrestrial
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Inhabits semi-arid to arid shrubland and woodland dominated by mallee eucalypts and/ or wattles Acacia. This bird species requires a sandy substrate and an abundance of leaf-litter for breeding. It occurs in higher densities on more fertile soils with higher rainfall, and prefers habitat that has not been burnt for several decades (2).
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Evolution and Systematics

Functional Adaptations

Functional adaptation

Nest kept warm: mallee fowl
 

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.
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
VU
Vulnerable

Red List Criteria
A2bce+3ce+4bce

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Taylor, J. & Butchart, S.

Contributor/s
Baker, G., Benshemesh, J., Dennings, S. & Priddel, D.

Justification
This species qualifies as Vulnerable because it has undergone a rapid decline over the last three generations (50 years), based on a decline in its range owing to habitat clearance and fragmentation, and the compounding effects of introduced species. There has been some recovery in parts of the range, but some reserves may prove too small to support viable populations without intensive management.

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Status

Classified as Vulnerable (VU A1ce+2bce) on the IUCN Red List 2003 (1).
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Population

Population
Garnett and Crowley (2000) estimated the total population at 100,000 mature individuals, roughly equating to 150,000 total individuals.

Population Trend
Decreasing
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Threats

Major Threats
Clearance for agriculture has eliminated much habitat and some patches are affected by raised salinity levels, resulting in fragmented populations and a higher risk of localised extinction from starvation and bushfires (Frith 1962, Benshemesh 2000, S. Dennings in litt. 2004). The survival rate of young birds is low, mainly owing to predation by the introduced red fox Vulpes vulpes (Priddel et al. 2007). Small-scale experiments suggest that the level of predation is significant in both disturbed and relatively undisturbed habitats, but is higher in habitats affected by fire, introduced herbivores and plant harvesting, compared to protected areas, and decreases with increasing levels of fox control (Priddel et al. 2007). However, fox control measures can have little impact on reversing declines (Benshemesh et al. 2007). Feral cats Felis catus also prey on chicks (Wheeler & Priddel, 2009) and their numbers can increase after fox baiting (Short 2004). It is highly sensitive to grazing by introduced herbivores such as goats (S. Dennings in litt. 2004) and sheep (Frith 1962), large-scale wildfire (Benshemesh 1990), and may suffer predation by wild dogs (Frith 1962, Priddel and Wheeler 1997). Introduced weed species may also affect habitat quality (S. Dennings in litt. 2004). Other threats include infertility, possibly attributable to agricultural chemicals, and road-kills where birds feed on spilt roadside grain (Benshemesh 1999).

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The success of this bird's reproduction depends on the availability of specific habitats and material. Clearance for agriculture has therefore eliminated much habitat and resulted in localised extinction and fragmented populations (4). It is highly sensitive to grazing herbivores such as sheep, large-scale wildfire, and predation by introduced foxes (3). These threats have contributed to a 25% decline in this species' population in Australia. This trend is thought to continue, especially as reserves get smaller they may be less able to support viable populations (4).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
Conservation Actions Underway
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).

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Conservation

Conservation actions are being directed at securing and monitoring existing populations, maintaining and creating habitat corridors between fragmented populations, reducing threats from introduced species, grazing animals and wildfire, and promoting community involvement in research and management (4).
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Wikipedia

Malleefowl

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.

Behaviour[edit]

Malleefowl camouflaged

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.

Breeding[edit]

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).

Malleefowl mound

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.

Cross section of a Malleefowl mound, showing layer of sand (up to 1 m thick) used for insulation; egg chamber; and layer of rotting compost. The egg chamber is kept at a constant 33°C by opening and closing air vents in the insulation layer, while heat comes from the compost below.

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[edit]

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[edit]

Several Important Bird Areas across southern mainland Australia have been identified by BirdLife International as being significant for Malleefowl conservation:[2]

New South Wales
South Australia
Victoria
Western Australia

Conservation status[edit]

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.[3]

International[edit]

The Malleefowl is classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

Australia[edit]

Fossils of Leipoa gallinacea, the extinct Giant Malleefowl of Australia

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).[4] Under this Act, an Action Statement for the recovery and future management of this species has been prepared.[5]
  • On the 2007 advisory list of threatened vertebrate fauna in Victoria, the Malleefowl is listed as endangered.[6]
  • The Malleefowl is listed as vulnerable on schedule 8 of the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972.[7]
  • Malleefowl are listed as endangered on the New South Wales Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.[8]

Yongergnow Australian Malleefowl Centre[edit]

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.[9]

References[edit]

  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Leipoa ocellata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ "Malleefowl". Important Bird Areas. BirdLife International. 2012. Retrieved 2012-10-27. 
  3. ^ Piper, Ross (2007), Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopedia of Curious and Unusual Animals, Greenwood Press.
  4. ^ List of threatened taxa on FFG Act, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria
  5. ^ List of Action Statements, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ List of threatened species, Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia
  8. ^ Mallefowl Description, Department of Environment and Conservation, New South Wales
  9. ^ Yongergnow Australian Malleefowl Centre - Home Page
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