- 22 species from the Nicobar islands and Philippines to Australasia and southwest Pacific islands
- DR personal total: 10 species (45%), 3 photo'd
Megapodes are an ancient and unique group of (mostly) ground-dwellers,
primarily in Australasia, that are usually considered the most
primitive of the Galliformes. They are most renowned for their
extraordinary incubation strategies. Within in the family there are
'mound-builders' — who use the heat that is generated as plant matter
decays inside the mound to incubate the eggs — and there are the
'burrowers,' who dig burrows to use geothermal heat as the incubating
The largest mound-builder is the Malleefowl
of the dry mallee scrublands of Australia (above and left; the latter a
close-up of a male by Hans & Judy Beste). Huge mounds are built,
mostly by the male of a strongly-bonded pair, in which the female lays
15-24 eggs. The male check the temperature daily with its bill, and
adds or scrapes off the dead plant material as needed to maintain a
steady temperature [29-35 deg C = 84-95 deg F]. It takes over 2 months
(62-62 days) for an egg to hatch. The baby digs its way out of the
mound and runs off to forage in the mallee on its own. There is no
post-hatching parental care. Rather, the male tends the mound for 9-11
months of the year.
Two friends and I crept up on
the large mound, shown in photo above, on a cold November morning and
watched the male "check the temperature." Shortly after the male walked
off, we were shocked to see a precocial youngster dig out from the side
of the mound and go running off in the opposite direction!
The name Megapodiidae literally describes the "huge feet." We can see the very big feet and claws of the Australian Brushturkey
above (near a Crimson Rosella). The six species of brushturkeys are
also mound-builders. Australian Brushturkey inhabits forests of eastern
Australia; the remaining five species [in genera Aepypodius and Talegalla]
reside in New Guinea or nearby small islands, where they are shy and
elusive, and much more often heard vocalizing than seen. It takes a
male Australian Brushturkey an average of 37 days to build a mound of
leaves, soil, twigs and sticks with its big feet. The largest mounds
may have up to 6 tons of material (Elliott 1994).
a birders' perspective, the Megapodiidae have two "superstar" species.
One is Malleefowl — huge and mound-centric — but the other is the
elusive and enigmatic Maleo of Sulawesi (below in a
fine shot by Rob Hutchinson). For one thing, Maleo is often arboreal
and apparently spends the nights high in trees. For another thing,
Maleo lay eggs in burrows, either using geothermal sites where hot
steam will incubate the eggs, or digging in the sand on solar-heated
beaches. Maleo live semi-colonially and colonies often lay eggs in the
same burrows. The bony casque and salmon-pink wash to lower breast and
belly just add to the unique properties of this prized endemic.
The most wide-ranging set of megapodes are the scrubfowl in genus Megapodius. There are 13 species. This is Melanesian Scrubfowl in
New Britain (left, photo by Simon Woolley). Many of these scrubfowl are
incredibly shy but some, as here, will perch off the ground. A fair
number of the scrubfowl have extremely small world populations on small
islands in the south Pacific or Wallacea (Ripley 1960), and are
endangered to varying degrees. Among them are some mound-builders and
some burrowers. There are endemic species in the Nicobars [M. nicobarienses], Sula & Banggai Is. [M. bernsteinii], Vanuata and Banks Is. [M. layardi], Tanimbar Is. [M. tenimberensis], and Biak Is. [M. geelvinkianus]. It would be a lifetime's project to simply see all of the world's scrubfowl.
The one scrubfowl in a separate genus [Eulipoa] is Moluccan Scrubfowl
(below in a lovely nighttime shot by Rob Hutchinson). Not only is in
more colorful than most scrubfowl but it breeds on communal nesting
grounds on black sand beaches at night. It is thought that Seram
breeders fly across the sea at night to black sand beaches on Haruku.
These beaches incubate eggs by solar collection during the day. Because
many populations lay eggs communally, they are subject to human
disturbance and egg collectors, and many populations are considered
I very well remember crossing a river
delta aboard flatboats at night to land on a black sand beach in the
moonlight on Halmahera Island. The sand was warm, as were the tropical
breezes, and we could hear rhythmic music from a local disco-bar on the
other side of the delta. Rob Hutchinson and local guides bring a few
birders here most years. Sometimes they will catch a scrubfowl in a
flashlight beam where it will 'freeze' for photos (as here in 2010,
which was not my year). More often they are fast flying shapes over the
beach. But it is a gorgeous black-sand beach on a warm tropical night
with distant drumbeats in your ear. Some might even call it a tropical
Photos: The distant Malleefowl Leipoa ocellata
was at mound was at Wyperfeld NP, Victoria, Australia, on 11 Nov 1983;
Hans & Judy Beste took the close-up photo of a male Malleefowl. The
Australian Scrubturkey Alectura lathami was at Lamington NP, Queensland, Australia, in Nov 1983. Rob Hutchinson photographed the arboreal Maleo Macrocephalon maldeo at Tambun, Sulawesi, in Sep 2010. Simon Woolley photographed the Melanesian Scrubfowl Megapodius eremita on New Britain, Papua New Guinea, in July 2008. Rob Hutchinson photographed the Moluccan Scrubfowl Eulipoa wallacei at Galela Beach, Halmahera, Indonesia, in Sep 2010.
Uncredited photos © Don Roberson. Credited photos © Hans & Judy Beste, Rob Hutchinson, and Simon Woolley, as credited, and used with permission; all rights reserved.
Darryl N. Jones, René W.R. Dekker, and Cees S. Roselaar. 1995. The Megapodes: Bird Families of the World. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.
This is a very solid entry in the Oxford series on Bird Families of the World,
aimed at a professional audience and thus full of research and
extensive information covering biology, ecology, fossil history, and
taxonomy. Then there are detailed species accounts, liberally sprinkled
with line drawings, sonograms, anatomy and the like. A set of well-done
color plates of the various species are bound in the book's center.
About the only negative is that the artwork displays 3 to 4 species per
page on a white background (but does include a chick of each) rather
than full-page art of each species in habitat. Amazingly, the taxonomy
in this 1995 book is exactly like today's Clements list — and the text
was before molecular evidence made much of an impact. I'm sure more
information is available now but this is an excellent account of this
very interesting family.
Elliott, A. 1994. Family Megapodiidae (Megapodes), pp. 278–309 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott & J. Sargatal, eds). Vol. 2. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
S.D. 1960. Distribution and niche differentiation in species of
megapodes in the Moluccas and western Papuan area. Acta XII Congressus
Internationalis Ornigholigici 1: 631-640.