Vanuatu Scrubfowl Megapodius layardi


Justification of Red List Category
This species qualifies as Vulnerable because it has a small population which is likely to be declining owing to unsustainable egg-collecting and loss of lowland forest. However conservation action is currently focused on controlling egg-collecting and reversing this decline (Baker et al. in press).

Population justification
The population is estimated to number 2,500-9,999 mature individuals based on an assessment of known records, descriptions of abundance and range size. This is consistent with recorded population density estimates for congeners or close relatives with a similar body size, and the fact that only a proportion of the estimated Extent of Occurrence is likely to be occupied. This estimate is equivalent to 3,750-14,999 individuals, rounded here to 3,500-15,000 individuals.

Trend justification
There are no new data on population trends, but the species is still likely to be declining at a moderate rate, owing to egg-collecting and habitat degradation.

Distribution and population

Megapodius layardi is endemic to Vanuatu, being recorded from most islands north of Efate (Bregulla 1992). In 1995, it was surveyed on north-west Ambrym where 148 burrows were counted in three breeding grounds - local villagers reported a decline in numbers (Bowen 1996). Surveys in 2001 estimated the population density to be c.7 birds per km2 around Lake Fantang (O'Brien et al. 2003). The population density was estimated at c.10 birds per km2 in the Loru Protected Area on Espiritu Santo (Bowen 1997, O'Brien et al. 2003), but birds appear less common in other forests on the island (G. Dutson pers. obs. 1998). There are 1970s records from Vanua Lava, Aoba, Malo, Malakula, Lopevi, Paama, Epi, Tongoa and Emae islands and records from 2000 onwards from Vanbirds has recent records from the Torres Islands (Loh), Reef Islands (coral atoll between Ureparapara and Mota Lava), Mota Lava, Vanua Lava, Mere Lava, Santo, Ambae, Pentecost, Ambrym, (up to about 500 m above sea level), Malekula, Epi, Tongoa (breeding at geothermal sites near sea level), Nguna and Emau islands (north Efate); it is also probably still present on Gaua (J. Diamond in litt. 1999,  S. Totterman in litt. 2007). On Tanna, its status is uncertain, it may never have occurred on the island (S. Totterman in litt. 2007) or it may be extinct there (Dutson 2011). The species varies in abundance, usually uncommon and localised but may be abundant close to communal nesting grounds (Dutson 2011).


It inhabits lowland hill forest and has been recorded up to c. 800m on Ambrym (O'Brien et al. 2003). It rarely occurs in logged forest and is absent from other habitats except coastal vegetation adjacent to coastal nesting grounds. Singles, pairs and small groups forage on forest floor, sometimes alongside Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus, from sea-level to c.800 m. It nests in volcanically heated areas, on beaches and in decomposing vegetation such as around rotting trees. As with other congeners, it is believed to be a dispersive species, flying to nesting and roosting sites, and not is therefore at risk from population fragmentation. It forages by scratching in the leaf-litter on the forest floor (Bregulla 1992, Bowen 1996).


Egg-collection on Ambrym is now restricted by a locally controlled system of taboos, which may have significantly reduced human disturbance (O'Brien et al. 2003), although these bans are difficult to enforce (R. Hills in litt. 2007). It is hunted by rural communities and killed by feral dogs. Large areas of lowland forest across its range are scheduled for logging or have been cleared for agriculture and the forest understory is degraded by cattle-grazing (S. Totterman in litt. 2007). Coastal forests, where some communal nesting grounds are located, are particularly threatened. Fires and cyclones degrade foraging and nesting grounds (Bregulla 1992, S. Maturin in litt. 1994, Bowen 1996, Foster 1999).

Conservation actions

Conservation Actions Underway
Significant contributions have been made recently towards the protection and awareness of this species. On Ambrym, several workshops lead to a 4-month annual taboo on egg-collection in the north and west and a 5 year complete ban in the southeast, controlled by local communities. Wan Smol Bag Theatre and the Vanuatu Protected Areas Initiative have continued to raise awareness in support of the taboos through community theatre, workshops and other initiatives. Protocols for monitoring have been tested, and baseline population data gathered for some areas providing the basis for long term monitoring (O'Brien et al. 2003). On Santo the species breeds in the Big Bay and Loru protected areas and is legally protected from hunting between 1 July and 31 March (Dekker et al. 2000).

Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue to survey little-known islands to establish its distribution, status and threats, leading to the production of a national conservation strategy. Regularly review the effectiveness of existing conservation efforts on Ambrym and repeat surveys and awareness measures as appropriate. Produce a comprehensive management plan for Ambrym Investigate the effects of the existing taboo system on population numbers. Assess the scale of egg-collection in more areas and encourage the adoption of sustainable harvesting regimes where appropriate, focussing on Tongoa where there is a dense human population density and a high number of megapodes. Repeat the successful workshop format for future education and awareness campaigns. Conduct ecological research focussing on productivity, dispersal and survival at nesting grounds.


32 cm. Small, black megapode with naked red face. Chicks plain brown, becoming blacker as they develop bright red facial skin and yellow legs. Similar spp. Introduced Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus chicks and females differ from immature megapodes in patterned brown plumage and grey-brown legs. Purple Gallinule Porphyrio porphyrio has dark blue plumage, red legs and white undertail. Voice Disyllabic wail followed by series of chuckles lasting 4-5 seconds. Hints Listen for birds calling or scratching in leaf-litter of Big Bay and Loru protected areas.


Text account compilers
Bird, J., Butchart, S., Derhé, M., Dutson, G., Ekstrom, J., Keane, A., Mahood, S.

Diamond, J., Hills, R., O'Brien, M., Dekker, R., Dutson, G., Bowen, J., Maturin, S., Totterman, S.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Megapodius layardi. Downloaded from on 13/07/2020. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2020) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 13/07/2020.