Saturday, June 22, 2013


The Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) is a stocky ground-dwelling Australian bird about the size of a domestic chicken (to which it is distantly related).  They are notable for the large nesting mounds constructed by the males and lack of parental care after the chicks hatch.  It is the only living representative of the genus Leipoa, though the extinct Giant Malleefowl was a close relative.  It occupies semi-arid mallee scrub on the fringes of the relatively fertile areas of southern Australia, where it is now reduced to three separate populations; the Murray-Murrumbidgee Basin, west of Spencer Gulf along the fringes of the Simpson Desert, and the semi-arid fringe of Western Australia's fertilie south-west corner. 

Malleefowl are shy, wary, solitary birds that usually fly only to escape danger or reach a tree to roost in. Although very active, they are seldom seen as they freeze if disturbed, relying on their intricately patterned plumage to render them invisible, or else fade silently and rapidly into the undergrowth (flying away only if surprised or chased).  They have many tactics to run away from predators.  As you can see by the following picture their camouflage is excellent:

Malleefowl pairs occupy a territory but usually roost apart; their social behaviour is sufficient to allow regular mating during the season and little else.  In winter the male selects an area of ground, usually a small open space between the stunted trees of the mallee, and scrapes a depression about three metres across and just under a metre deep in the sandy soil by raking backwards with his feet.  In late winter and early spring, he begins to collect organic material to fill it with, scraping sticks, leaves and bark into the wind-rows for up to 50 metres around the hole, and building it into a nest-mound, which usually rises to about 0.6 metres above ground level.  The amount of litter in the mound varies; it may be entirely organic material, mostly sand, or anywhere in between.

After rain, he turns and mixes the material to encourage decay and, if conditions allow, digs an egg chamber in August (the last month of the southern winter).  The female sometimes assists with the excavation of the egg chamber, and the timing varies with temperature and rainfall.  The female usually lays between September and February, provided there has been enough rain to start organic decay of the litter.  The male continues to maintain the nest-mound, gradually adding more soil to the mix as the summer approaches (presumably to regulate the temperatures).

The malleefowl below is in Ongerup, Western Australia and, as you can see, the size of the mound is quite considerable.

Males usually build their first mound (or take over an existing one) in their fourth year, but tend not to achieve as impressive a structure as older birds.  They are thought to mate for life, and although the male stays nearby to defend the nest for nine months of the year, they can wander at other times, not always returning to the same territory afterwards.

The female lays a clutch of anywhere from two or three to over 30 large, thin-shelled eggs, mostly about 15; usually about a week apart,  Each egg weighs about 10% of the female's body weight and over a season it is common for her to lay 250% of her own weight.  Clutch size varies greatly between birds and with rainfall.  Incubation time depends on temperature and can be anywhere between about 50 and almost 100 days.

Hatchlings use their strong beaks to break out of the egg, then lie on their backs and scratch their way to the surface, struggling hard for five or ten minutes to gain 3 to 15 cm at a time, and then resting for an hour or so before starting again.  Reaching the surface takes between 2 and 15 hours.  Chicks pop out of the nesting material with little or no warning with eyes and beaks tightly closed, then immediately take a deep breath and open their eyes, before freezing motionless for as long as 20 minutes.

The chick then quickly emerges from out of the hole and rolls or staggers to the base of the mound, disappearing into the scrub within moments.  Within an hour it will be able to run reasonably well; it can flutter for a short distance and run very fast within two hours, and despite not having yet grown tail feathers, it can fly strongly within a day.  Chicks have no contact with adults or other chicks; they tend to hatch one at a time and birds of any age ignore one another except for mating or territorial disputes.

MALLEE (see above picture):  Is the growth habit of certain eucalypt species that grow with multiple stems springing from an underground lignotuber, usually to a height of no more than ten metres.  It is most common in plants of the genus Eucalyptus, many of which naturally grow in a mallee habitat, and some of which grow as single-stemmed trees initially but recover in mallee form if burnt to the ground by bushfires. It also occurs in the closely related general Corymbia and Angophora.  The word mallee may also be used as a noun in reference to species or individual plants with a mallee habit.  Mallees are the dominant vegetation throughgout semi-arid Australia with reliable winter rainfall.  Within this area, they form extensive woodlands and shrublands covering over 250,000 square kilometres.  Thus mallee woodlands and shrublands are considered one of Australia's major vegetation groups.

Apologies if this post is a wee bit long but I found so many fascinating things about our malleefowl and didn't want to leave out anything of importance.


  1. Not too long at all. A fascinating post and bird. They have beautiful markings too. Thank you so much.
    What are you planning for P? A pardelote? Another fascinating bird, which digs tunnels to lay its eggs in (in one of our hanging baskets one year).

    1. Thanks EC. I learned so much about what is actually a quite local bird.
      Pardelote? Thanks for inspiring me and giving me a "P" bird and one of which I have no knowledge whatsoever. I am learning so much doing these posts and really enjoying the experience.

  2. Imagine being able to fly so quickly with no parental teachings...strange birds indeed.

  3. It was the skills the chicks learn so quickly that really fascinated me as well as that huge nest-mound the mature birds make. Nature is just so wonderful.

  4. Not very social birds are they? Even the chicks don't stick together, not at all like regular chickens. I had no idea the nests were so big either. I really learned a lot here today.

  5. I agree they are not at all like chickens even though apparently distantly related. Perhaps they've got it right...everyone for themselves!!! No, not really. I too realised I know so little about many of our feathered friends.