Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata)

GenusLeipoa (1)
SizeSize: 60 cm (2)
Weight1.5 - 2 kg (2)

The malleefowl is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Malleefowl are large ground dwelling birds, belonging to a family of 22 bird species known as ‘megapodes’ meaning ‘large feet’. Their name originates from the type of habitat (mallee eucalypts) that they are most associated with. Adult males and females are alike in appearance, with a predominantly pale grey-brown colouring, and broad black markings on the throat (3). The upperparts have black, white and chestnut barred feathers and the legs and large feet are grey in colour (2). Juveniles are a dull grey-brown colour, with barred cream on the upperparts (4). This bird emits grunts and crooning noises, with the males' calls being louder (4).

Malleefowl used to be widespread across Australia, but their range appears to have been reduced by over 50%. It has not been recorded in the northern territory for several decades and is thought to be extinct there. Most populations occur in fragmented areas across Southern Australia, New South Wales and Victoria (3).

The malleefowl inhabits semi-arid to arid shrubland and woodland dominated by mallee eucalypts and/ or wattles Acacia. This bird species requires a sandy substrate and an abundance of leaf-litter for breeding. It occurs in higher densities on more fertile soils with higher rainfall, and prefers habitat that has not been burnt for several decades (2).

Malleefowl feed on herbs, seeds, flowers, fruit, fungi, tubers and invertebrates (2). They create a nest for breeding, though this is no ordinary nest, for they have developed a highly sophisticated method of temperature control for egg incubation (5). In the autumn, males dig a large hole, which is up to five metres wide, and one metre deep, and during the winter they fill it with twigs and leaves. In spring, when it rains, the vegetation in the nest gets thoroughly soaked. It begins to rot and, like compost, produces heat. The male covers the nest with sand to keep it warm, and when the female lays her eggs on the mound, the male buries them under the sand and vegetation, and leaves them to incubate. Throughout the summer the female may lay up to 35 eggs, one at a time on the nest mound. The male, meanwhile, keeps testing the temperature of the mound by dipping his beak into it. If it is too warm or too cold he opens up the mound or adds more sand and, in this way, is able to keep the nest at a constant temperature of 34 °C. When the chicks hatch, one at a time, they dig their own way out of the mound (5). This may take up 2 - 15 hours, after which they make their way to the protection of low lying vegetation. They receive no parental care; within one hour they are able to run and, after just 24 hours, they can fly. Instinct leads the chick away from the adults' home range to fend for itself (2).

The success of the malleefowls reproduction depends on the availability of specific habitats and material. Clearance for agriculture has therefore eliminated much habitat and resulted in localised extinction and fragmented populations (4). It is highly sensitive to grazing herbivores such as sheep, large-scale wildfire, and predation by introduced foxes (3). These threats have contributed to a 25% decline in this species’ population in Australia. This trend is thought to continue, especially as reserves get smaller they may be less able to support viable populations (4).

Conservation actions are being directed at securing and monitoring existing populations, maintaining and creating habitat corridors between fragmented populations, reducing threats from introduced species, grazing animals and wildfire, and promoting community involvement in research and management (4).

For more information on the malleefowl, visit:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Redlist (February, 2004)
  2. Malleefowl Preservation Group Australia (February 2004)
  3. BirdLife International 2003 BirdLife's online World Bird Database: the site for bird conservation. Version 2.0. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International (February 2004)
  4. Birdlife International (2000) Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions and Birdlife International. Barcelona and Cambridge.
  5. WWF species facts, malleefowl (February 2004)