Malleefowl are big, diamond encrusted….and endangered!
Right there in front of me was one of the world’s rarest birds. A Malleefowl.
Having spent much of my young life in the Mallee I knew all about Malleefowl but I’d never seen one.
Everyone in the Mallee talks about this enigma, this shy, camouflaged desert denizen that builds a huge nest of sand and leaves, this bird now walking slowly across a red, dusty track in the Big Desert.
This was my first sighting and it was the beginning of a lifetime of lessons from the elusive Malleefowl that I’m still learning today.
Lesson 1: Malleefowl are BIG
As a child, when you finally see something that your parents and relatives have built into a glorified fairy-tale, you may find yourself underwhelmed.
But the stories were all true; I was gobsmacked by my first Malleefowl, stunned by its poise and sparkling beauty.
Mostly it was the sheer size that surprised me — like a gigantic pigeon with massive feet and a small head — I simply had not envisaged the bird being so damn big!
Lesson 2: Malleefowl hide behind their feathers
My bird stopped briefly to eye off this gaping lad (me!) then quietly disappeared into the scrub leaving only its huge footprints in the desert sand.
Even at that young age I was a keen tracker so I tried to follow it and immediately learned another new thing about Malleefowl: once they are gone, they are gone.
Gone because the colours of the Malleefowl and the bush they live in are the same. Their feathered disguise is so perfect that you could be two metres from a Malleefowl and never know it’s there.
Lesson 3: Malleefowl are rare and diamond encrusted
On the few occasion that you see a Malleefowl out in the open they sparkle. Even on a dull day the white spots dance about like diamonds on top of their black, tan and grey plumage.
And, like diamonds, Malleefowl are rare, in fact they are classified as Vulnerable (IUCN Red List) which places them just a few steps away from extinction. They are threatened by land clearing, climate change, bushfires and predation by introduced animals like foxes, pigs and cats.
Thankfully farming communities where Malleefowl live are aware of the plight of the birds and will often work with conservation organisations to help protect these magnificent creatures.
And so they should for the Malleefowl is unique. It has no close relatives, is found only in Australia and is the only *megapode amongst the world’s ~20 species that lives and breeds in the desert.
*Megapodes are mound building birds – read on to find out what that means.
Lesson 4: Parenting in the desert is a tough gig
If you were a bird, imagine building a nest in Autumn so that your chicks can hatch in Summer. For a Malleefowl, the time and effort involved is mind-boggling — here’s how you’d go about it:
Build a monster ground mound
You and your mate hook up in Autumn and work almost every day to build a huge nest on the ground — up to a metre high and 5 metres wide — made from leaf litter and sand that you rake in with your feet from the surrounding countryside.
Mounds are like massive hot water bottles that are warmed by the energy created by decomposing vegetation.
Fill your mound with huge eggs
If you’re the female in the pair every few days you’ll dig deep into the mound to lay a single huge egg — it’s 10% of your body weight and nearly tears you apart — ending up with up to 25 eggs, a process that may take weeks or months.
You’re exhausted so you leave much of the tending of the eggs to your mate.
Never sit on your eggs!
If you’re the male you ensure the mound remains at the correct incubation temperature by testing the heat with your beak and adding or removing sand to cool or warm your eggs.
Neither you nor your mate ever sit on your eggs.
Malleefowl move up to a tonne of sand a day. Video: Martin Maderthaner | Echidna Walkabout
Take a break – your kids can look after themselves
75% of your 20 year life will be spent doing this — yet another remarkable characteristic of the Malleefowl.
Incredibly, after all that loving care and attention, when the chicks hatch they have nothing to do with you. They simply haul themselves out of the egg, burrow up through the mound and run away, never to be helped or fed by you again.
Maybe that’s a good thing, after all you two need a break!
Watch this endearing video from the National Mallee Fowl Recovery Team : ‘The Amazing Malleefowl’ featuring Dr Joe Benshemesh. (You can support the Team at the bottom of this story)
Lesson 5: Malleefowl fly!
I’ve never seen a Malleefowl fly, in fact for years I thought they couldn’t. Everyone in the Mallee told me they were too heavy or their wings were not big enough.
Then one day whilst searching for Malleefowl with a friend — who’d spent a lot of his life working with them — he told me that they do indeed fly! Not very well and generally when they are frightened or when they fly up into a tree to roost.
But then I heard another incredible story: Malleefowl chicks are fledged (fully feathered) when they hatch and can fly soon after!
That says a lot about the reason for the huge egg – the chick actually fledges inside the egg. Not many birds manage that.
Want to help find and study Malleefowl? Join one of our tours.
Echidna Walkabout has teamed up with Australian Geographic to create an 8 day birding journey called: Mallee and Outback Birds of Victoria and Mungo.
Next tour departs on 3rd March – other tours later in the year.
Your Bird Guide: Martin Maderthaner
This trip was designed and is led by specialist bird guide, Martin Maderthaner, who took most of the photos in this story. Martin has guided across Australia and is also an African safari guide. He is one of Australia’s top bird and wildlife guides.
Sightings of Malleefowl are hard to come by but Martin believes in the bird and will will do his best to show you a Malleefowl in the Mallee
HUGE thanks to Explore the Mallee for their ongoing support with both finding and researching the Malleefowl and assisting Echidna Walkabout to operate our tours in and around Wyperfeld National Park in the Mallee.
FACTS & INFORMATION
Volunteer to support the Malleefowl with the National Mallee Fowl Recovery Team
What is a megapode? from the Beauty of Birds website
Find out more about Malleefowl from Bush Heritage Australia
TOURS INTO THE MALLEE AND MUNGO OUTBACK
Echidna Walkabout and Australian Geographic operate other tours into the Mallee & Mungo regions including:
- Mungo Outback Journey – 4 days
- Coast Mountains Outback – 8 to 13 days
- Mungo Outback and Conservation Journey – 6 days
Read more about our efforts to stem Climate Change:
Mungo Tour Connects Travel and Climate Change