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National Malleefowl Recovery Group

Malleefowl Facts

This page provides some basic information about the Malleefowl, Leipoa ocellata, for more detailed information please go to our Library page
 

malleefowl range
Threatened status;

The Malleefowl occurs in all mainland states except Queensland and is recognised as threatened wherever it occurs. It is listed as;

StateSituation
Nationally; Vulnerable
New South Wales; Endangered
Northern Territory; Critically Endangered
South Australia; Vulnerable
Victoria; Endangered
Western Australia; Fauna That Is Rare Or Is Likely To Become Extinct
   

Habitat requirements and limiting factors(from the Recovery Plan)

The Malleefowl is found in semi-arid to arid shrublands and low woodlands, especially those dominated by mallee and/or acacias.  A sandy substrate and abundance of leaf litter are required for breeding.  Densities of the birds are generally greatest in areas of higher rainfall and on more fertile soils where habitats tend to be thicker and there is an abundance of food plants.  Much of the best habitat for Malleefowl has already been cleared or has been modified by grazing by sheep, cattle, rabbits and goats.  The species has been shown to be highly sensitive to grazing by sheep, and is probably similarly sensitive to grazing by other introduced herbivores.  The effect of fire on Malleefowl is severe, and breeding in burnt areas is usually reduced for at least 30 years.  However, the deleterious effect of fire appears to be mitigated if fires burn patchily.  Predation by the introduced fox is also thought to be limiting the abundance of Malleefowl and in many areas may be a major cause of decline.  The degree of fragmentation of the remaining Malleefowl habitat is of particular concern and presents a major limiting factor to halting and reversing the decline of the species.

General Information

The Malleefowl is one of three Australian species of mound builders (megapode) with large and powerful feet, which it uses to build enormous egg-incubating mounds. They are about the size of a domestic chicken and, like the chicken, spend most of the time on the ground, roosting in trees at night. Unlike any other birds in Australia, mound builders leave their eggs to be incubated in sand or soil heated by the sun or mounds of rotting leaves.
The other Australian megapodes are the Orange Footed Scrub Fowl  and the Brush Turkey. The Malleefowl is the only megapode that makes its home in dry, inland scrub. 
Malleefowl males and females look very similar and will generally mate for life. They breed annually except in drought years, laying eggs in a large mound made of sand, usually 3-5 metres in diameter and one metre high. In the middle of the mound, up to a cubic metre of moist litter is buried.  The construction of this incubator-mound involves several months of intermittent work (autumn to spring) by both members of a pair, but when completed (early spring) the male and female lead mostly separate lives.  The male then spends several hours each day maintaining the condition of the mound and regulating the incubation temperature at around  33°C, while the female spends most of her time feeding for egg production and may only visit the nest to lay.  Early in the breeding season the heat for incubation of the eggs is produced by microbial decomposition of the litter, but late in the season heat from the sun is also utilised. 
Egg laying usually begins in September and an egg is laid every 5-7 days until mid to late summer.  The incubation period of eggs varies with temperature, but is about 60 days at typical nest temperatures.  Average clutch size varied between years and localities, but was often 15-25 eggs of which about 80% hatched unless the nest was disturbed by predators or unseasonal weather conditions.  The availability of food and water balance are possible causes for this variation in mean egg sizes in populations, but the relationships are not clearly understood.
Chicks typically begin hatching and emerging from mounds in November, and although hatching may continue until March in some seasons, most chicks usually emerge from mounds before January.  Chicks hatch buried with up to a metre of sand above them, and their unaided struggle to the surface may take up to 15 hours.  The chicks receive no parental care after hatching, but like other megapodes can run and feed themselves almost immediately and fly within a day.  Mortality of chicks is very high over the first few weeks after hatching, with most chicks succumbing to predators or metabolic stresses such as starvation. 
Observations suggest an average breeding life in the wild of about 15 years.
Malleefowl mostly move about their home-range by foot, and rarely fly except when they are disturbed or to roost in the canopy.  Breeding birds tend to be sedentary, nesting in the same general area year after year.  Nonetheless, a pair sometimes moves several kilometres between nesting seasons for no apparent reason.  Home-ranges do not appear to be defended, although in the vicinity of its nest the male is vigorously aggressive toward other Malleefowl except its mate. Over the course of a year the birds may range over one to several square kilometres;home-ranges overlap considerably.  During the breeding season, males spend most of their time in the vicinity of their nests and consequently male home-ranges are usually much smaller than those of their mates at these times, and may rarely overlap with other males.  The male and female of a pair spend most of their time together outside the breeding season and hence their ranging behaviour is similar at these times.
Malleefowl appear to disperse on foot, and various anecdotal reports suggest they use corridors of relatively thick vegetation when dispersing through open landscapes.