As I was driving past the Pinnaroo Primary School recently I spotted a lovely mural painted on the wall of a classroom. The mural illustrates various aspects of the local farming activities and the environment. I’ve shown it in the photo above – click on it to enlarge.
From a birding viewpoint I was pleased to see the Malleefowl shown prominently as a part of the painting. Pinnaroo is in the heart of mallee country in South Australia.
The Malleefowl is an amazing bird unique to this part of the world and is classified as a vulnerable species in Australia. It is about 55-61cm in size (like a smallish turkey) and quietly feeds on seeds and berries in the mallee scrub, or on wheat seeds in farming areas.
The male Malleefowl builds a rather odd nest. It is a mound of dirt, leaves, sticks and bark and can be from 2 to 5 metres in diameter and up to 1.5 metres high. He will work this mound like a compost heap over the summer months, the rotting vegetation and sunlight heating up the mound. Over many months the female lays about 5 to 30 eggs in tunnels in the mound which are then covered over. The heat inside the mound is kept at almost exactly 33C throughout the incubation period which can last many months. On hatching, the young struggle through the dirt of the mound before running off through the scrub, independent from the beginning.
This species can be found nesting within 20km of my home, yet I’ve only ever seen one in the wild on a handful of occasions. One memorable occasion occurred a few years ago when I saw 6 birds in a period of 10 minutes. You can read about that encounter in an article called What kind of a duck was that? (Click here)
Below I have also included photos of two Malleefowl nests I have found in different parts of South Australia.
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.
Last year we visited Mt. Boothby Conservation Park in the upper South East of South Australia. This park is about 20km south west of Coonalpyn where we were staying with friends of ours. We had experienced driving through some very interesting country to the east of Coonalpyn during the weekend, including Ngarkat National Park. This park had been severely burnt by a bushfire about six months previously, and the regrowth was amazing.
But I digress.
Mt Boothby Conservation Park is predominently mallee and banksia country. The “mount” is actually just a hill about 200 metres (a guess) above the surrounding wheat and sheep farming country. Two tracks lead to the summit, one from the south east and one from the south.
As I was driving slowly towards the summit – it is a very rocky 4WD track – friend John said, “A perfect ending to a great weekend would be if a Malleefowl were to come out on to the track in front of us.” I had to agree.
Right on cue, a malleefowl came into view and strutted along the track in front of us for some 200 metres before disappearing from view in the dense scrub.
Duck! Duck! Duck! (Goose???)
It was Julie, his wife, who saw it first. “Duck! Duck! Duck!” she shouted in excitement. Of course it wasn’t a duck – but that was the first thing to come into her mind! Now I need to explain several things here.
One, a Malleefowl is nothing like a duck! In fact, it is the size and shape of a small turkey.
Two, Julie had never seen a Malleefowl in the wild before, so she had no reference point for her possible identification.
Three, the Malleefowl is a rather rare, endangered species. In fact, in nearly 30 years of birding I had only ever seen about 6 of these beautiful Australian birds. Anticipation all weekend had been high; sighting one heightened the excitement level to fever pitch!
An Even Better Weekend
After we calmed down – and explained to Julie that it was NOT a duck and that she wasn’t even close with her ID – we stopped at the summit for a few minutes. The view was unspectacular, so we headed of down the south track to the boundary track. This took us along the farming country next door.
John commented, “Wouldn’t it be an even better end to the weekend if we saw another Malleefowl?”
You guessed it. As if responding to a director’s cue, said Malleefowl strolled casually out in front of the car! Whoopee! Two in ten minutes! Wow time!
The Best Ending
I do not to this day know what made me turn away from looking at the second bird and look over the fence into the adjacent paddock. Not thirty metres away, in full view, were another FOUR Malleefowls casually feeding.
Six in ten minutes!
It had taken me 30 years to see the other six – now six in ten minutes!
Wow! Wow! Wow big time!
The only downside was the resulting photos. It was a few minutes after sunset and the shots we took were all rather dark and a little blurry. Never mind! Next time, perhaps.
To see a photo (not mine) of a Malleefowl click here.
Update: Since writing this article I have taken the photo below which shows an active Mallee Fowl nesting mound. This nest is in Ferries McDonald Conservation Park near my home town, Murray Bridge.