Mallee Fowl – the Incubator Bird
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.
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.
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.
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.