VU
Malleefowl Leipoa ocellata



Justification

Justification of Red List Category
Although this species has a large range with more than 10,000 mature individuals, analyses of annual monitoring data show rapid declines in the last three generations, with a high likelihood of further declines given a drying climate and the probability of more frequent large fires. For this reason, the species is evaluated as Vulnerable.

Population justification
The current population of Malleefowl is estimated to be about 25,000 mature individuals based on densities in eight regions in New South Wales (2,800), 19 regions in South Australia (4,900), 14 regions in Victoria (6,000) and 13 regions in Western Australia (11,300; J. Benshemesh unpublished). The global population is therefore placed in the band of 20,000-30,000 mature individuals, with a best estimate of 25,000 mature individuals.

Trend justification

Analyses of monitoring data from about 140 sites across the continent between 1989 to 2017 suggest a continuing national decline of about 2% p.a. (42% in three generations), but with trends varying regionally. Breeding activity declined by 4.8% annually in South Australia and by 2.1% annually in Western Australia, was stable in Victoria and increased by 4.8% annually in New South Wales although the New South Wales result was uncertain due to a patchy monitoring record and was not representative of that state (Benshemesh et al. 2020). Therefore, overall the population is thought to have declined by 30–50% in three generations (28 years) and a similar rate of decline is predicted in the next three generations (Benshemesh et al. 2021).

Distribution and population

Malleefowl occur in scattered locations across much of southern mainland Australia from the Great Dividing Range in the east to the west coast (Benshemesh 2007). Most of the highest quality habitat in both eastern and western Australia has been cleared for agriculture. The largest remaining contiguous area of habitat is east of the Western Australian wheatbelt, including the Great Western Woodlands, Murchison bioregion, and the Great Victoria Desert stretching into South Australia. The best and maximum estimates are based on Malleefowl Recovery Team data (J. Benshemesh unpublished).

Ecology

Malleefowl live in semi-arid shrublands and low woodlands, usually dominated by mallee eucalypts and/or acacias (Benshemesh 2007). They require a sandy substrate and abundant leaf litter for breeding. While they can be highly fecund, with a clutch size of 1520 (Priddel and Wheeler 2005), rainfall is critical to fecundity and survival (Benshemesh 2007). They are opportunists and feed on seeds, particularly legumes, flowers and fruits of shrubs, herbs, invertebrates, tubers and fungi (Benshemesh 2007). Its "nest" is a mound, comprising an inner core of leaf-litter buried under a thick layer of sand. It may lay over 30 eggs in a season but, on average, each breeding pair produces 8-10 chicks each year (Frith 1959).

Threats

Fire appears to have the greatest effect on abundance, probably killing birds directly as well as removing suitable habitat structure and leaf litter for nesting, reducing food availability and making the birds more prone to predation. Given breeding rarely occurs in areas within 15 years of a fire, large-scale fires can remove populations from substantial blocks of habitat (Benshemesh et al. 2020) but are currently almost impossible to stop in extreme fire weather. Extreme fire weather (Di Virgilio et al. 2019, Dowdy et al. 2019) is likely to increase in frequency and intensity in coming decades, as is drought (Evans et al. 2017), which affects the Malleefowl food, leaf litter for nesting and vegetation needed to avoid predators (Benshemesh et al. 2020). The circumstances under which predation affects abundance is uncertain; although adult Malleefowl, their eggs and chicks are taken by introduced foxes Vulpes vulpes, cats Felis catus and dogs Canis familiaris as well as native raptors, dingoes Canis dingo and goannas Varanus spp. The response to control these threats is variable. Analysis of monitoring data suggests that fox control has little effect on breeding numbers (Walsh et al. 2012, Benshemesh et al. 2020) although they are among the 20 Australian bird species most likely to be killed by foxes; the issue is currently being examined in a large-scale, controlled and replicated study (Hauser et al. 2019). Introduced herbivores like rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus, feral goats Capra hircus and sheep, and native kangaroos Macropus spp. all compete with Malleefowl for food, destroy understorey cover and deplete nesting materials (Benshemesh 2007, Hauser et al. 2019). In upper south-east South Australia, feral deer, mostly Fallow Deer Dama dama, have emerged as a threat, trampling and digging into nesting mounds with the result that they are abandoned (G. Carpenter pers. comm.). Although most habitat is now conserved, land clearance for agriculture still removes some habitat and historical clearance for agriculture has a legacy effect by disrupting dispersal and preventing recolonisation of habitat after fire. Other threats include infertility, possibly attributable to agricultural chemicals, and road-kills where birds feed on spilt roadside grain (Benshemesh 1999).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
Much of the remaining habitat is in protected areas. Listed as threatened under appropriate legislation, including as a National Threatened Species Strategy priority. Past declines have prompted the production of a national research plan (Orsini and Hall 1995) and recovery plan (Benshemesh 2007). The species is the focus of many non-government conservation groups (e.g. the Victorian Malleefowl Recovery Group and the Malleefowl Preservation Group) (Bode and Brennan 2011). National monitoring standards have been established and annual counts of active mounds are carried out at over 60 sites (Benshemesh 2004). Reserves have been declared, some on private lands, and some habitats have been fenced to exclude stock. Goats, rabbits and foxes have been partially controlled at some sites. Further habitat has been secured, protecting links between isolated populations, and wildfire response plans prepared. Community initiatives have been a major force in identifying and supporting research opportunities, and on-the-ground project implementation and management have been successful (S. Dennings in litt. 2004). Captive breeding is allowing population supplementation (G. Baker in litt. 2005). Adaptive management to determine the role of predators and control regimes is ongoing.

Conservation Actions Proposed
Develop effective means of stopping catastrophic fire. Determine optimal levels of feral animal and competing herbivore reduction. Develop a climate change adaptation strategy. Cease all further habitat clearance. Control fire, particularly on extreme fire danger days. Control targeted feral animal and competing herbivore. Maintain or establish habitat corridors between fragments (Benshemesh 1999). Establish long term conservation covenant agreements to secure privately owned natural vegetation (Benshemesh 1999). In reserves, close or fence off artificial water supplies and remove livestock (Benshemesh 1999). Foster communication with grazers and farmers about Malleefowl requirements (Benshemesh 1999). Minimise the amount of grain spilt on roadsides that pass through suitable habitat and erect warning signs where fatalities are likely to occur (Garnett et al. 2011). Monitor populations in at least 10 sites in each state and assess the size and distribution of populations in fragments and remote regions (Benshemesh 1999). Carry out further research into the species's ecology and demography (Benshemesh 1999), especially the minimum population size for subpopulation persistence (Garnett et al. 2011). Conduct genetic analysis to detect areas of disjunction between subpopulations (Benshemesh 1999). Investigate the effect of agrochemicals on fertility (Benshemesh 1999).


Identification

60 cm. Very large, brown-and-grey megapode. Adults alike. Predominant colouring pale grey-brown, broad black marking down throat. Black, white and chestnut barred upperparts. Juvenile dull grey-brown, barred cream on upperparts. Voice Loud booming (only male), grunts, crooning and conversational notes.

Acknowledgements

Text account compilers
Symes, A., Vine, J., Taylor, J., Garnett, S., Keane, A., Stattersfield, A., McClellan, R., Shutes, S., Allinson, T

Contributors
Baker, G., Benshemesh, J., Carpenter, G., Dennings, S. & Priddel, D.


Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Leipoa ocellata. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 09/08/2022. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2022) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 09/08/2022.