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 12 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.
  • Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/

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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.
  • Attenborough, D. 1979. Life on earth. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. 319 p.
  • Tributsch, H. 1984. How life learned to live. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 218 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.


History
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Threatened (T)
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