There it stands – The Big Malleefowl, a giant corrugated-iron sculpture overlooking the rural Victorian town of Patchewollock. While it makes a good tourist shot, unfortunately real Malleefowls are not so easy to spot!
Malleefowls are ground-dwelling, shy and seldom seen. Adults reach 60cm in length and weigh up to 2.5kg –about the size of a large domestic chicken. Male and female Malleefowl are similar in colour – their heads are grey, their breasts a cream-white and their wings are a striking mottle of white, grey, brown and black. Put together, they’re well-camouflaged, and they use this ability to sneak away from predators.
Malleefowl are one of three mound-building birds – also known as megapodes – in Australia, and the only species that live in arid areas. (The others are the Brush Turkey and the Orange-footed Scrub-fowl.)
Malleefowl are also known as Gnow, Lowan and the Mallee Hen, and, in the central desert of Australia, by the aboriginal name Nganamara.
Where do Malleefowl live?
Malleefowl are listed as Vulnerable nationally and according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Historically, they were found across a large proportion of mainland southern Australia. During the 20th Century their range contracted by 50%. They’re now limited to arid and semi-arid parts of inland Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and central NSW. It’s believed that Malleefowl are now extinct from the Northern Territory, where there have been no records since the 1960s.
As their name suggests, Malleefowl prefer areas dominated by “mallee” – multi-stemmed, low-growing, Eucalyptus vegetation. They're also found in woodlands and shrublands dominated eucalypt, native pine and acacia species. They need a sandy substrate and lots of leaf litter to build their nesting mounds. They’re mostly ground-dwelling, but – surprisingly given their rotund frame – are also strong flyers, and roost in trees at night.
Malleefowl are omnivorous: they eat wattle seeds, flower blossoms, buds, fruit and lerps (the sugary ‘houses’ of sap-sucking bugs). They also scratch around leaf litter to find insects like ants and cockroaches.
Malleefowl are monogamous – they mate for life, which in the wild is around 15 years. Even outside the breeding season, the male and female spend most of their time together. They breed annually, except in times of drought.
Eggs are incubated in a mound nest that can be more than four metres in diameter and a metre high.
The male is mostly responsible for building the nest. He uses his strong legs to scrape leaf litter and sand into a pile.
Females then lay their eggs in a cavity in the top of the mound, which is then covered with leaf litter.
The vegetation eventually decomposes and generates heat, incubating the eggs. The male maintains the temperature at about 33°C by carefully removing or adding material to the mound. It’s thought that he sticks his head into the mound and tests the temperature with his beak!
The male is pedantic in his temperature-control duties. Depending on the temperature he adds or removes more material, and can cool material by removing and scattering it in the morning air and scraping it back onto the mound. Phew! It’s a big job.
All the while the female helps with the digging and lays the eggs. One egg is laid every four to eight days, with up to 24 eggs in one breeding season.
Chicks hatch, unaided, at around 60 days. They can walk as soon as they emerge and can fly within 24 hours! And luckily so – Malleefowl parents don’t care for the hatched young, who rely only on camouflage for their survival. For this reason, naturalist John Gould chose a Latin name that means the 'spotted egg-leaver’. Few chicks survive: most are eaten by foxes, cats and other natural predators.
The overall number of Malleefowl have declined significantly, even in the past 20 years. Habitat loss was, and continues to be, the biggest threat, with much of their former range cleared for agriculture or substantially modified by sheep, cattle, goats and rabbits. Their remaining distribution is severely fragmented, and isolated populations increase the species’ risk of extinction.
Despite its keen hearing and eyesight, all life-cycle stages (eggs, chicks and adults) are predated by foxes and feral cats. They’re also sensitive to fire – breeding is reduced for up to 40 years in burnt areas because they require long-unburnt habitat with lots of leaf litter to build and maintain their mounds and provide food resources.
What Bush Heritage is doing
Malleefowl are found on Charles Darwin Reserve, Eurardy Reserve, Hamelin Station Reserve and several Gondwana Link reserves. Our ecologists monitor Malleefowls mounds on Charles Darwin Reserve, and our reserve managers control fox and cat populations to give Malleefowl chicks (and eggs) a fighting chance.
Through fire management, we aim to maintain long-unburnt areas critical for successful breeding, and manage total grazing pressure to improve habitat condition.