Unique to the arid and semi-arid regions of Australia, the Malleefowl has a lifestyle and body covering that make it perfectly adapted for the Aussie bush.
The Malleefowl belongs to a group of birds known as “megapodes” (meaning big feet). This ground-dwelling bird is a bit bigger than a domestic chicken and unlike other megapodes, inhabits the drier areas of Australia. It is perfectly adapted to life in the bush, with a mottled grey-bronze plumage and white belly. Due to the variability of its environment, the Malleefowl is an opportunistic or generalist feeder and will eat herbs, seeds, invertebrates, fungi and fruit as is available. This bird is particularly shy and will spend time seeking refuge in the trees. The only times the Malleefowl flies are when startled or when it roosts for the night.
Whilst Malleefowl were previously considered a relatively common bird, they are now threatened with extinction at both state and National levels. In fact, in NSW it is listed as Endangered. The primary threats to Malleefowl include habitat destruction and predation by foxes. Taronga Western Plains Zoo supports a captive breeding program for Malleefowl.
Distribution & Habitat
Once widespread throughout their range, Malleefowl can now only be found in isolated populations within the arid and semi-arid areas of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. They prefer woodlands and shrublands which are dominated by Mallee eucalypts (hence their name) or acacias, but will also live in coastal heaths. Malleefowl also require access to sandy substrates and leaf litter within their habitat. They require this substrate for building their mounds and the leaf litter also provides a wealth of insects for the Malleefowl to feed on.
Unfortunately, there has been very little research undertaken and therefore little understanding of the habitat associations of this bird. Having a diversity of plants and shrubs which provide dense cover seems to also be an important feature of Malleefowl habitat.
Malleefowl are renowned for their nest building abilities. In fact their mounds are so elaborate that Malleefowl are also known as ‘incubator-birds’. The Malleefowl spends a significant amount of time, 9-11 months of the year in fact, building and maintaining their nest! The heat to warm the incubating eggs is generated from the composting leaf litter in the mound.
The mound is generally used for many breeding seasons by a pair of Malleefowl which mate for life. The mound is so sophisticated, that the temperature is maintained at approximately 32 degrees, with the male bird assessing the temperature using its beak as a thermometer. They can alter the temperature of the mound by doing things such as adjusting soil cover to achieve maximum sun exposure or adding or subtracting leaf litter. The Malleefowl mound can be up to 1 metre high and 22 metres in circumference. The female will lay approximately 18 eggs per breeding season, laying one every 3-7 days. The pale pink eggs have thin shells, changing to dark beige by the end of the incubation period. After 50-100 days the eggs hatch. Upon hatching, the young must struggle upwards through the mound, receiving no parental care from this point. The young are able to run within an hour and fly within a day.
Due to the variability of its environment, the Malleefowl is an opportunistic or generalist feeder and will source herbs, seeds, invertebrates, fungi and fruit as is available. Their favourite food is the seeds from acacia trees.
The Malleefowl is perfectly adapted to life in the bush. The mottled grey-bronze plumage and white belly, of the Malleefowl, is perfect for blending into their environment. This camouflage suits the shy and secretive nature of the Malleefowl, allowing it to blend with its landscape. The Malleefowl does not tend to fly, unless it is startled. The only other time it flies is to secure a roosting position in the trees at night.
Malleefowl spend their time scratching and foraging through leaf litter for insects or finding other seasonal food including seeds, fungi and fruit.
The majority of the Malleefowl’s time is spent attending its mound. The Malleefowl spends up to 11 months of the year constructing and maintaining its nest. Using its beak as a thermometer, the Malleefowl measures the temperature of the mound and adjusts the levels of leaf litter, to maintain the temperature at approximately 32 degrees.
The primary threats facing Malleefowl today include habitat loss, the introduction of feral species such as foxes and cats, over grazing by domestic livestock, bushfires, and the general lack of community awareness.
Taronga Western Plains Zoo (TWPZ) supports the breeding component of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Malleefowl Conservation Program, by assisting with breeding and rearing of Malleefowl for release in New South Wales. Together with teams from Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, this group has contributed to the National Recovery Plan for Malleefowl in Australia.
TWPZ has been an active participant in the Malleefowl program since 1990, when it assisted with incubation and rearing of eggs from wild Malleefowl mounds, to produce chicks for release to Yathong Nature Reserve in western New South Wales. After this initial release, some birds were retained at TWPZ to form the first breeding pairs, which would in turn produce chicks for future releases. Chicks hatched and reared at TWPZ are released regularly and over 500 chicks have been released to date.
Since 2001 a total of 231 Malleefowl bred at TWPZ have been released to the wild in two NSW Reserves. In 2005 a project to monitor survival of released Malleefowl chicks was undertaken by Charles Sturt University, Griffith Campus. A further 34 chicks were released in Nombinnie Nature Reserve in October 2006, where Charles Sturt University is continuing its research project.