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Malleefowl. Photo Sharon Gillam.
Malleefowl. Photo Sharon Gillam.


Scientific name: Leipoa ocellata

The Malleefowl is one of three mound-building birds in Australia (along with the Brush Turkey and the Orange-footed Scrub-fowl) known as megapodes, and the only one that lives in arid areas.

The Big Malleefowl is a giant corrugated-iron sculpture overlooking the rural Victorian town of Patchewollock . Unfortunately real Malleefowls aren’t 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.

A Malleefowl at our Charles Darwin Reserve, WA. Photo Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.

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.

Ecologist Angela Sanders with an impressive Malleefowl nest in a revegetation area at our Monjebup North Reserve, WA. Photo Amelia Caddy.

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 by 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.


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Malleefowl behaviour

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.

After excavating the nest mound down to the egg chamber, the male watches his mate lay another egg. Photo Kathie Atkinson / AUSCAPE.

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 about temperature control. He adds or removes materials, and can cool material by removing and scattering it in the morning air, then scraping it back onto the mound. Phew! It’s a big job.

Malleefowl. Photo Craig Allen.

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. They 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 predators.

Threats to Malleefowl

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 lifecycle stages (eggs, chicks and adults) are predated by foxes and feral cats.

Malleefowl are 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’s Bush Heritage doing?

Malleefowl are found on Charles Darwin Reserve, Eurardy Reserve, Hamelin Station Reserve and several Gondwana Link reserves. Our ecologists monitor Malleefowl mounds and our reserve managers control fox and cat populations to give Malleefowl chicks (and eggs) a fighting chance.

Lawan Reserve (named after the Dja Dja Wurrung word for Malleefowl) is one of our central Victorian Reserves, and provides suitable habitat for a population of Malleefowl on the neighbouring Wychitella Nature Conservation Reserve to expand its range.

Through fire management , we aim to maintain long-unburnt areas critical for successful breeding, and manage total grazing pressure to improve habitat condition.

Donate today to help us continue this and other vital conservation work.

Malleefowl stories

BLOG 09/12/2020

Malleefowl – these birds like it hot, hot, hot!

Before I started as Reserve Manager at Charles Darwin Reserve, I was an avid volunteer for Bush Heritage – and have been monitoring the Malleefowl mounds here on Badimia Country for the past five years. In 2016, myself and a team of other keen volunteers went bush on one of the annual mound monitoring surveys and visited hundreds of potential Malleefowl mound locations that needed to be ‘ground-truthed’ after LIDAR analysis. Every year since, I have returned to Charles Darwin Reserve to monitor the Malleefowl mounds we identified.

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BLOG 27/12/2019

Annual Malleefowl monitoring

Earlier this year I joined eight other volunteers to conduct an annual survey of Malleefowl activity on the vast Charles Darwin Reserve.

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BLOG 19/11/2019

Red Moort a hotspot for Malleefowl

A plane flew over our Fitz-Stirling reserves earlier this year and on-board was a Light Detection and Ranging device (LiDAR). It uses pulses of light to create 3D models of the terrain. These are then interpreted to identify malleefowl nesting mounds. 

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BLOG 25/03/2019

Mad for Malleefowl

There are around 30 known Malleefowl mounds dotted across Eurardy Reserve's 30,000 hectares, but no active mounds recorded in the past decade - until now.

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BLOG 31/10/2018

Monitoring Malleefowl mounds

Boots? Check. Gloves? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Wide-brimmed hat? Check. Shin and ankle gaiters? Check. Thorn-proof, long-sleeved shirt and trousers? Hmm... is there any such thing? As it turns out, the answer to that question is 'No' - as this year's hardy bunch of staff and volunteers discovered when we were out conducting the annual Malleefowl mound monitoring surveys on Charles Darwin Reserve.

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BLOG 06/08/2018

Malleefowl mound in revegetation

Completely unaware of being watched, a pair of Malleefowl have been practising courtship displays on their new mound. We're very excited that they've made their home in 6-year-old revegetation on our Monjebup North property in south-west Western Australia.

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BUSHTRACKS 27/03/2018

Eye in the sky

On Charles Darwin and Eurardy reserves in Western Australia, the innovative use of a remote sensing technology is marking the start of a new era in Malleefowl monitoring.

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BLOG 28/02/2017

LiDAR mapping for Malleefowl

As part of a collaborative project we used the latest technology – LiDAR – to map new Malleefowl mounds in the region and in Spring we went and visited hundreds of these potential mound locations.

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Mature tree at Nardoo Hills.


Nardoo Hills

Nardoo Hills Reserves covers 1007 hectares, incorporating the Judith Eardley Reserve and the Barnett Block. It contributes to the protection of some of the most threatened ecosystems in southern Australia and adjoins the Wychitella Nature Conservation Reserve.

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