Leipoa ocellata

Malleefowl. Photo: John Spiers

Malleefowl are omnivorous. They feed on all parts of plants – buds, flowers, fruit and, particularly seeds. Grain from nearby crops are an important food item in areas bordering cultivated lands. They also take fungi and invertebrates. Insects are apparently not searched for, but are taken whenever they are encountered. Insects are an important component of the diet of hatchlings.

Mound building can start between March and May, but more usually in the winter months between June and August, with laying from mid-September to March-April. Generally monogamous with a strong pair-bond. The mound is largely built by the males and consist of sand, containing variable amounts of vegetation such as leaves, sticks, bark and other debris. Mounds have walls averaging between 60 – 75 cm high, a diameter between 270- 450 cm, a circumference of 1,350 cm and having a crater 300 cm wide and 90 cm deep. The male tends the mound for 9 – 11 months of the year. He keeps its temperature between 29°–38°C (average 33°C) using his beak as a probe to measure the temperature. Heat is provided by rotting vegetation augmented by the sun. Opening the mound allows more solar heat to penetrate; closing it allows it to cool. The female normally lays 15–24 eggs per season, at average interval of 6·4 days (4–17); and incubation averages 62–64 days (49–96). When the chick hatches it must force its way upwards through the sand and vegetation of the mound. Chicks are well-developed at hatching and receive no help from their parents. On breaking to the surface, they immediately run and hide in the scrub. They can fly within 24 hours. Mortality in the first few weeks of life is extremely high, particularly in areas with many introduced predators such as the fox and the cat. There may also be high losses from cold, wet weather. They should not be disturbed when working their mounds. Observe from a distance.

Malleefowl tending its mound. Photo: Jesica Van de Waag

Malleefowl are to be found in dwarf mallee (Eucalyptus), mulga Acacia aneura) or dry coastal heath. Optimum habitat apparently has a near-complete canopy and often a rich layer of shrubs, but is fairly clear at ground level. They are much less common where annual rainfall is greater or less than the optimum 300-430mm. Abundant food is required near the mound for the male to feed on while attending the mound.

Malleefowl are sedentary with males attending the mound 9-11 months of the year. Males usually stay within 100 m of mound and females within 250m. The home range is about 4 km2.. Mounds usually placed in a different site each year but within 500 m of the old site. When not on the mound they roost on the extremities of tall shrubs and trees.

The Malleefowl, (Leipoa ocellata Gould, 1840), is monotypic having no subspecies.


Males and females are alike, but with the male being considerably larger. The back, wings and tail are patterned with black, white and buff-brown, scale-like feathers. The nape, and sides of the neck and head are grey brown with an off-white belly. A broken black stripe, bordered off-white, runs down the throat and chest. There is a slight black crest and mane, a white line under the eye, and an ochre chin. The iris is hazel to brown, the orbital skin is blue to dusky grey, the bill is bluish horn to black, and the legs blue-grey to blackish brown. The legs and feet are large and strong hence the family name ‘Megapodidae’ or ‘big-feet’. Immatures are like adults, only smaller. Chicks are well-developed on hatching and emerging from the mound, and are a dull grey-brown with black barring on the upperparts, and are cream on the underparts.

Where to find it

Malleefowl are to be found in mallee remnants from the Eyre Peninsula to the south-east of South Australia, and in very low numbers through the extensive Aboriginal lands in the west and north-west of the state. They are regarded as regarded as a rare to uncommon species wherever they are found, and are legally rate as ‘Vulnerable’ in both Australia and South Australia.