Excerpt from ‘The Avicultural Magazine’ the Journal of the Avicultural Society for the study of British and foreign birds in freedom and captivity, Seth-Smith, Pocock et a,l Third Series, Vol XII, Stephen Austin and Sons Hertford, 1921
THE MALLEE FOWL OF AUSTRALIA
By T. P. Bellchambers, South Australia
The crime of civilization is its callous disregard of the wasteful exploitations of wild life, which go on in the name of sport and of commerce. What better off will the world be that the fur-seals and right whales have ever existed on this planet when the last moth-eaten garment is thrown on the rubbish-heap and the last cask of oil exhausted? What shall repay future generations for the barbarous destruction of the beautiful Egrets and the ill-used Penguins that are driven alive along roads ending over boiling caldrons in Maquari Islands? Who can tell what evils we are laying up for future generations by this wanton destruction of Nature's guardians of sea and land? A chain has but the strength of its weakest link. Slowly and surely man is undermining the foundations on which life itself rests. We know that there are some live forms whose work is so important to man that living they are worth their weight in gold, whereas, dead, their value is counted in pence or at most a few paltry shillings.
Think of Australia, the wonderful world museum of antiquities, with its living fossils, the one open living page of an otherwise long- closed book ; of its faunal and floral types of a long-dead past ; its aboriginal inhabitants belonging to the Stone Age!
Australia in the past has not proved worthy of this great charge, which should have been held in trust for the whole world. Already some of her unique treasures have gone into the eternal silences; others are perilously near the vanishing point. To many of her scientists engrossed in the study of bones, relics and fossils, to which so many give the higher value, are failing in their duty to the valuable living types that are theirs to save the Marsupialia, Monotremata, Flightless Birds, and the Mound-builders.
One of the most interesting of these living types is the Mallee Fowl (Lipoa ocellata), inhabiting the waterless Mallee-lands of Western and South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales, and subsisting upon seeds of the acacia, berries and insects, and drinking, apparently, only dew-drops hanging from the leaves. Apart from the menace of the fox and gun, the bird is doomed by the advance of settlement, for it cannot exist in the open lands.
For many years I made a special study of this bird, making periodical trips into the Mallee-lands, suffering heat, hunger, and thirst in the big lone lands, sleeping beneath the stars with the scant tracery of leaves overhead, and the scent of the broom in my nostrils, listening to the solemn booming notes of the cock Mallee Fowl and pondering the mysteries of creation.
It was thus I learnt much of the life-history of these wonderful birds, even the art of mound-building, which I then occasionally built and successfully worked at my camp. The absorbing interest attaching to such a work was a sure preventative of any feeling of loneliness, and four, five, and sometimes six weeks would slip by ere I broke camp and left these solitudes. Expenses had to be met by capturing and supplying to various zoological societies a few of these same Mallee Fowl. This removal of pairs from the mounds finally settled the sex habit and proved them not communistic as supposed, but solitary. It was in these wilds I early disproved the statement (found in some of our leading works on Australian birds) that the wing is used to sweep the material together for the mound. This is never the case, the feet alone being used.
Much of my work had to be done over and over again, but slowly the life-history of this bird was unravelled. It is monogamic, and apparently mates for life. The construction and maintenance of mounds, chiefly performed by the male, entail a labour of about nine months' duration. The birds choose a site that will be exposed to the sun's rays during the heat of the day, preferring a slope that faces the sun. A pit is dug about 12 inches deep, the soil being banked around the edge, and the measurement from bank to bank being from 7 to 9 feet. The thick accumulation of debris (fallen leaves, bark, etc.) is then raked from under the Mallee into the more open ways that lead to the pit. By preference this is taken from the higher side of the pit, it being much easier for the birds to rake it downwards than up the slope. When the required material has all been raked into the clear open runs that lead to the pit, the male, starting nearest to the pit, but facing outwards, proceeds with a sweeping throwing motion of the foot to pass the material behind him, a few strokes with each foot, then he moves forward, keeping this up until he reaches the end of the row. Then retracing his steps to the pit, he proceeds as before, keeping this going at frequent intervals until the whole of the material is heaped high in the pit, which is left awaiting the rains, and beyond occasional stirrings of the surface there is not much done for a time. Then, as spring approaches, the desiccation of the surface and core commences. This work lasts a considerable time. We will suppose spring is here and the hour is 9.30 a.m. The male appears, proud and dignified of mien, the female sedately following, always, at this time of laying, uttering at very frequent and regular intervals a low, soothing and pleasing note, to which the male occasionally responds in a deeper tone. Proceeding to the top of the mound, the birds, relieving each other at intervals, make an excavation reaching into the loose core or 6gg-chamber, terminating the excavation in a small cup-like hole. Placed against its solid wall, the female, with legs straddling across this small hole, head down along her breast and facing the wall, presses forward, opens her wings, slightly withdraws her head, and with that movement the large pink egg slips into its prepared place. Her part is now done she quietly glides away into the shade of a bush. The male now gives his attention to the egg, which has probably fallen a little out of the perpendicular. Choosing a spot about an inch away from the egg, he thrusts his beak into the sand up to his forehead, then pushing forward and using this sand as a cushion, he brings the egg to an upright position. With the withdrawal of his head the sand falls and keeps the egg upright and on its small end, in contact with the solid wall of heating material. The reason for this action is twofold; first, the shell is too fragile for direct contact with the bird's head, and second, the falling sand prevents the egg from again falling forward. All eggs in the egg-chamber must be so placed that the chicks emerge in the right direction to gain their liberty. On their sides they would meet their death against the hard walls of the egg-chamber. The male now replaces the blanket of sand and fine leaf-material, sometimes covering the eggs to a depth of about two feet. The thickness of this covering has been noticed to vary with weather conditions. This hard and laborious work during the heat of the day is done in several shifts, and intervals of rest are taken. The period of incubation is about fifty-five days. The heat required is from 85 degrees to 96 degrees Fahr. The eggs are laid at intervals varying from three to seven or even eight days. The number is a^bout thirty, varying according to the age of the bird and the season. There is also a big variation in the incubation period, the extreme noted being in one case ninety-nine days. This must have been due to retarded incubation. In addition to bottom heat, a very frequent use is made of solar heat, the mound being frequently opened out to within an inch or two of the eggs, and, as the material gathers heat, it is replaced layer by layer, the intervals allowing for the next layer to become heated. I have seen thQ male putting on extra covering by moonlight as late as 8.30 p.m. on the approach of a change in the weather. This is done to conserve the heat that has been gathered during the day.
Both birds frequently test the heat of the egg-chamber. This is done by thrusting the beak up to the forehead into its walls, and holding it there for several seconds. I think they are guided by this test as to the amount of sun heat required.
We will suppose that two months have expired. The mound now contains nine eggs and a chick which broke its shell at noon yesterday. That it is near the surface we know by that slight depression. Its shoulders are upward, and with them it is boring through the loose sandy covering, ever pressing the falling sand under its feet. Its head is bent down along its breast; its nostrils protected by a shield of bristles. There is a heaving motion with falling sand in the depression. Another heave and a little head shoots into view, and a staggering chick drops back into the hollow from which it has emerged. Its eyes are closed; it is perfectly still, resting after its subterranean journey, which had lasted for twenty hours. It is 8 a.m., and the shadows of the nearby mallee are just leaving the mound. The long journey upward seems to be always made in the night. I have never known a chick emerge during the heat of the day. They would surely perish in the attempt, let alone clashing with the male's duty of testing the sun's heat. Always they come in the cooler, quieter hours of early morn. The chick lifts its head and takes its first long look around. Then with a staggering run it disappears into the bushes.
A Bronzewing Pigeon barely alights on the mound, when from an adjacent bush the cock Mallee rushes forth, crest up, plumage ruffled, wings open, and dashes at the sacrilegious intruder. There is a sharp clap clap of wings, and the pigeon is gone. Then comes a softly uttered warning from the bushes, and with one eye turned skyward the cock gently lowers his body to earth. There he lies perfectly motionless, his colours blending perfectly with the leaf -scattered soil. See just a dark speck high in the blue; it is a Wedge-tailed Eagle. Unwinking, the eye of the Mallee follows the moving speck right into the glare of the sun; not a movement until that monster of the skies has passed from view, then, with a softly uttered who-how, he again ascends the mound. The female comes forth from her hiding and proceeds to scratch around the base of that structure, intent on a beetle-hunt among the loose debris and coarser material there scattered. Meanwhile the male is busy opening the mound. The chick we saw run into the bushes has already taken up the burden of life. Should we give him a fright he will rise and fly a full hundred yards and again hide in a bush. Independent and capable, he quickly acquires the wisdom of the bush folk. His third season finds him calling and listening up and down the long green aisles, ever seeking his kindred spirit that shall walk and work with him through the ever changing seasons. Should he find a mate some preparation is made for the coming season, but usually it is the fourth season before domestic duties are taken up in earnest.
And now, though my wanderings in the Mallee have- come to an end, and much of the Mallee is a waste of shifting sand, yet the solemn booming wh-whoo-oome, whoo-oome of the Mallee cock still falls upon my ear ; in the silence of evening and early morn it is heard, and the sound recalls the days of my wanderings.
I do not now need to hunt the lonely bush-lands for this beautiful creature and its wonderful mounds, for within 30 yards of where I sit and write there are two complete mounds, one of which has been producing chicks for the past six years. The other belongs to a young pair, and is their first attempt. The birds are content, and would not leave, but because of the foxes they have to be enclosed in netted yards which include plenty of shady bush-cover. Here, with our shyest of wild creatures, I have proved that we can save from utter destruction Australia's valuable fauna. I have had good success with other species, but I am proudest of the fact that I have won the confidence of this most shy and retiring of Nature's children of the bush, and done what was said to be an impossibility bred these birds in captivity. Eggs that I have weighed averaged two to the pound. They are of good flavour, and are frequently hunted by the settlers for food.
The laws of nature are wise laws. The representatives of wild life, native to each land and sea, we know, hold an important place in nature, seemingly fitting into their places like bits of mosaic, each important to all, all to each; and subject to certain modifications, due to civilization, the fauna of each country is best fitted to control the balance of that country.