Mallee Fowl – the Incubator Bird

Malleefowl, Innes National Park Visitor Centre

In yesterday’s post I highlighted seeing six Mallee Fowl in a ten minute period one exciting day last year. This almost doubled the total number of this species I had seen in over thirty years of birding. Previous to that eventful day I had seen seven individual birds on five different occasions. (On two of these occasions I saw two birds at the same time.)

Mallee Fowl – Leipoa ocellata

Other names for the Mallee Fowl include Lowan, Incubator Bird and Malleehen. It looks like a smallish turkey and ranges in size from 55 to 61 centimetres in length. It is sparsely distributed throughout south western Western Australia, southern parts of South Australia, northern Victoria and south western New South Wales where suitable habitat remains.


The Mallee Fowl has a preference for mallee scrub and eucalypt woodland habitats. Over the last century large tracts of this type of habitat have been cleared for cereal production and sheep grazing. The Mallee Fowl has been slow to adapt to these changes and is now extinct in some regions of its former range, and highly endangered in other areas. The widespread occurrence of the introduced fox has also had a devastating impact on the population.

Malleefowl nest, Ferries McDonald Conservation Park, South Australia


Perhaps the most unusual feature of this species is its nesting habits. The Mallee Fowl is one of three mound nesting species in Australia. The male makes a nesting mound of earth, leaves, twigs and bark from nearby trees and bushes. These he scrapes together into a cone shaped mound. The rotting vegetation causes the mound temperature to rise, just like in a compost heap.


The male maintains the internal temperature at about 33 degrees C while eggs are in the mound. The male excavates a hole each time the female comes to lay an egg, usually at intervals of 2 to 14 days. During the breeding season, which stretches from September to April, the female can lay anything from 5 to 33 eggs. Once laid, the male refills the hole and continues to monitor the temperature of the mound on a daily basis.

Malleefowl nest, Gluepot Reserve near Waikerie, South Australia

Nest Mounds

The mound can vary in size from about 2 to 5 metres in diameter and up to 1.5 metres high. In my searches through Ferries-McDonald Conservation Park some 20km SW of where I live I have found seven of these mounds, some still in active use. I have even sat quietly for many hours near a nest hoping to see the birds – to no avail. Finding the nests seems easier than finding the birds!


When the chicks eventually hatch – often after more than 7 weeks – they struggle through the sand of the mound to the surface. This struggle can take hours. They then run off rapidly into the surrounding bush. They are not tended by the adults at all but are left to fend for themselves. The chicks can fly a few hours after hatching.

Amazing Bird

The Mallee Fowl is indeed an amazing bird in its habits and nesting methods. Its status is a major concern. The local zoo, Monarto Zoological Park used to have a special recovery programme. The keepers were given special permission to remove eggs from mounds in the district and incubate these eggs artificially. The chicks were raised by hand and released back into the wild. Some were fitted with radio transmitters and tracked. Most were taken by foxes within days of their release. Farmers in the district often have a baiting programme to kill the foxes (because they kill their lambs) but there are so many the Mallee Fowl is still extremely vulnerable.

I haven’t heard in recent years whether the zoo is still pursuing this breeding and conservation programme. There is currently no information in the conservation section of the zoo’s web page.

UPDATE: this article was updated with photos on 14th October 2011.

This article was updated on October 3rd 2015.


12 Responses to “Mallee Fowl – the Incubator Bird”

  1. Phil Wilson says:

    The article said “The Mallee Fowl is one of three mound nesting species in Australia.” What are the other the other two?

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi Phil – thanks for stopping by and for leaving a question.

    One of them is the Australian Brush Turkey which is common in eastern Australia. It ranges from SE NSW through to Cape York.

    The other species is the Orange-footed Scrubfowl. This bird is found in coastal northern Australia and islands, from nw Kimberley in WA, Arnhem Land in NT and from the Mitchell R north to Cape York in Queensland.

    I do not have any photos of these species. You can see photos of the Brush Turkey here:

  3. peter burger says:

    Eroded remnants of mallee fowl mounds are common across the mulga woodlands of central Australia where the birds no longer exist. Although undated it may be hundreds or thousands of years since these mounds were used. Possible reasons: indigenous egg collection & habitat destruction by fire. Mulga has zero fire tolerance.
    Action required: protect mulga woodlands from fire, regenerate these woodlands & assist bird return. Other pluses: massive carbon storage, cool the interior, drought reduction. Given excellent current season in the Centre, it is imperative protection from fire begins immediately.

  4. […] Fowl – the Incubator Bird Title:Short URL: URL: via @TrevorHampel Twitter:@TrevorHampelStats about this user:TrevorHampel #birds […]

  5. […] Mallee Fowl – the incubator bird […]

  6. Michael says:

    The 2 nests above look as they’v not been in use for some time especially the second one. Evidence with leaf and sticks around the out side of the nest and further away shows enough.If it was worked you will notice the first thing all leaf and sticks would not be around the vegetation surroundings & most would be on the nest and around the out side. With most of my Malleefowl out here I find the reason of abandoned nests is because of not enough leaf and sticks around from over working the nests,well yes! also been killed from eagles and fox’s.. I have one new and fresh nest yet rare getting build next to my home is an eye opener ­čÖé I been helping by bringing wheelbarrow loads of sticks and leaf&dumping it next to the nest,they love it!Conservationist should play a big part in helping these Birds,if any one needs any Ideas they can contact me> ( ) I’ll be glad to offer my opinion on Malleefowl, though there’s lots to know about them still and I can only go so far with my opinion,also I’m limited with what I can say,secrets on Malleefowl that they dont want me to throw around is a fair deal:).

  7. […] This park is one of only a few local sites for the highly endangered species, the Mallee Fowl. I have only seen this bird once in the park but I have found several active nesting mounds (see photo above). For more information about this bird click on the link below or click here. […]

  8. Trevor says:

    This article was updated on October 3rd 2015.

  9. […] Ironically, the nesting mound shown in the photo below is not far off the dimensions of the real thing. I have seen nesting mounds up to 4 – 5 metres in diameter and 1 metre high. The male tends the nesting mound for many months, scraping sticks, leaves and grass into the mound which acts like a compost┬áheap, the heat produced hatching the eggs inside. You can read more about the so-called ‘incubator bird” here. […]

  10. […] This was the Mallee Fowl Track and it takes walkers past a large aviary which has two captive Mallee Fowl in it. This part of South Australia still has a small population of this endangered bird and I have […]

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