Malleefowl / nganamara

Malleefowl / nganamara

The malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata), known in Pitjantjatjara as nganamara, is a ground-dwelling bird about the size of a large chicken. While they can fly, they rarely do so, relying instead on their camouflage to avoid predators.

They are most notable for their large nest mounds, which the male birds construct and maintain. Starting in late winter or early spring, the nganamara begins by excavating a shallow depression in the sand with his feet. About three metres across and a metre deep, the hole is then filled with organic material – sticks, leaves and bark – from up to 50 metres away. The mix of leaf litter is regularly turned over to encourage decay, especially after rain.

The female bird will sometimes help to dig out an egg chamber, and will lay eggs once the organic matter has started to decay. The rotting vegetation works like a compost bin, generating heat that will incubate the eggs. The female lays eggs roughly a week apart, each egg weighing up to 10% of her body weight. Across the laying season she will lay multiple eggs, usually around 15 but as many as 30 eggs have been recorded.

The male continues to add soil to the mound, which acts as insulation, providing a stable temperature for the eggs to develop. While the male bird is attentive to the mound, maintaining and defending it throughout the incubation, that is where parental care ends – the newly hatched nganamara are independent from the moment they hatch.

Hatchlings break out of the egg with their feet, then lie on their backs to dig their way up and out of the mound, which can take many hours, depending on how deeply they were buried. Once clear of the mound, they hide in the undergrowth and recover from their marathon effort. Within a couple of hours, they can run and flutter, and can fly within 24 hours.

In dry years many mounds remain dormant as rain is needed to support composting of the leaf litter which creates the warmth vital to successful incubation of the eggs.

Malleefowl / nganamara
AW Ecologist Brett Backhouse talks to school students about a malleefowl mound

Malleefowl were previously found throughout much of semi-arid to arid Australia, but their range and population is now severely reduced. Nationally, the malleefowl is listed as Vulnerable under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This decline is mostly attributed to land clearing for farming: nganamara prefer the same sandy mallee habitat that is highly sought after for agriculture. In addition, the species is under threat from cats and foxes, which prey on young and adult nganamara.

Over the past 15 years, AW has monitored populations and behaviours of nganamara in the Alinytjara Wiluṟara region throughout much of Maralinga Tjarutja (MT) Lands, the Yellabinna parks and the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. However, relatively low population numbers combined with the vastness of their habitat area make locating nests and birds very difficult.

In 2018, AW secured funds under the Australian Government’s Regional Land Partnerships program (RLP) to undertake LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) surveys across sections of known nganamara habitat.

LiDAR surveys use a plane fitted with a LiDAR sensor which uses lasers to record extremely detailed and accurate imaging of the topography of the ground. LiDAR can detect mounds but can’t determine whether they are active, so each LiDAR survey is followed up by ground truthing exercises where AWLB staff, supported by Aangu Ranger teams, categorise mounds as active or non-active. In 2019, of the 63 mounds identified by LiDAR, only four were not nganamara mounds.

Malleefowl / nganamara
A LiDAR image showing a malleefowl mound

Remote trail cameras have since been placed to monitor mounds, enabling AW to record activity around the nests including breeding behaviours and the presence of predatory feral species. Information obtained is used for the adaptive management of threats.

AW is part of the National Malleefowl Adaptive Management Predator Experiment (AMPE), which is looking at the impacts of foxes and cats on malleefowl populations, while also assessing different techniques of control to address and mitigate these impacts.

With a sparse population spread over a vast region, technology is put into action to monitor the mounds and remove feral predators like foxes and cats, to give the nganamara a fighting chance. ‘Felixer’ devices use LIDAR and AI to distinguish foxes and cats from native species and remove the ferals from the ecosystem, helping the nganamara as well as other endangered species such as sandhill dunnarts.

After extensive testing and delays brought on by COVID-19, the Felixers have been deployed across an area of more than 20,700 hectares and are targeting predators near active malleefowl mounds.

One of the most significant threats to malleefowl is slower moving than cats and foxes, but just as devastating. Buffel grass is an invasive tussock grass that transforms entire landscapes, forcing out native plants, preventing the safe movement and hunting habits of animal species such as sandhill dunnarts, and raising the risk of serious wildfires.

AW is leading a multi-agency effort to manage buffel grass in South Australia. See our buffel grass page for more information.

Testing a Felixer

Malleefowl are only one of many threatened, endangered and at-risk species that benefit from activities undertaken as part of the malleefowl program. By removing feral predators and maintaining healthy habitat corridors through pest predator, buffel grass and large feral herbivore control, the whole ecosystem has the chance to flourish.

AWLB’s fauna surveys, conducted as part of this project, have extended the known range of the elusive sandhill dunnart while also increasing our knowledge of native flora such as the unique Mount Finke grevillea and Ooldea guinea flower.

AW’s ongoing commitment to the protection of malleefowl in the region is supported by our partners, particularly the Oak Valley Rangers who undertake regular monitoring and land management in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands, the Friends of the Great Victoria Desert, and the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation Rangers.

This project is supported by the Alinytjara Wiluara Landscape Board with funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

Malleefowl / nganamara
A sandhill dunnart being released after being captured in a fauna survey as part of AW's malleefowl project