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Malleefowl chick discovery on Eyre Peninsula hailed an 'exciting' find

Gary-Jon Lysaght, Monday February 11, 2019 - 06:59 EDT
Audience submitted image
The first malleefowl chick has been discovered at the 900-hectare Mallee Refuge. - Audience submitted

A malleefowl chick has been discovered for the first time in a wildlife refuge on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula.

The bird is .

Cameras recently captured a malleefowl chick scratching about in the dirt at the Mallee Refuge, inside the Secret Rocks Nature Reserve, near Kimba.

Ecologist John Read has been monitoring the area for nine years and said the discovery, made on his birthday, was an exciting one.

"We used to have lots of malleefowl. Ten years ago we'd find 18 or 20 active mounds every year of about 200 mounds in our area," he said.

According to BirdLife Australia, malleefowl lay their eggs inside cavities on the top of mounds.

"The malleefowl does not build a nest like other small birds. Instead it uses its strong feet to scrape large amounts of leaf litter and sand from the ground and into a large pile," it said.

The bird lays an egg on top of the mound and, instead of adult birds sitting on the egg, the leaf litter incubates the egg as it composts.

"But for the last three or four years there's been no active [mounds] or one active for the whole area," Dr Read said.

"Their numbers have really declined in the Kimba region and across the Eyre Peninsula, so it was pretty exciting to see a young one."

Malleefowl vulnerability

The malleefowl is named after the Mallee region of South Australia and Victoria, but they are found as far west as Ceduna, on SA's west coast.

Dr Read said there were several factors that were threatening the bird.

"We thought it was mainly due to predation by foxes and cats," he said.

"But recently we've noticed a big decline on Eyre Peninsula and we're actually putting that down to too many competing herbivores as well — goats, kangaroos, emus."

The Mallee Refuge is a 900-hectare exclosure and has cat traps, called Felixers, installed throughout it to remove the wild cat and fox population.

Felixers use infrared lasers to detect the shape of cats and foxes and shoot poison gel at the animal.

"We reckon we've knocked off the last two cats [in the refuge]," Dr Read said.

"Already malleefowl seem to have responded and we've got at least one chick running around."

A long journey ahead

Joe Benshemesh is a founding member of the Malleefowl National Recovery Team and wrote the National Recovery Plan for Malleefowl.

Studying the bird for more than 30 years, he said the chick found at Secret Rocks could have a tough few weeks ahead of it.

"The probability of any one chick making it through to being an adult is very slim," Mr Benshemesh said.

"We need to have lots of chicks coming out, but the next stage — going from chick to adult — seems to be the most critical one for malleefowl.

"It's terrific to see the chick there and we wish it the very best, but the fact of the matter is most malleefowl chicks die within a couple of weeks.

"It's those few ones that get through that sustain the population and we can only hope that this particular chick is going to be one of those.

"But we also have to be concerned about climate change, because malleefowl need winter rain to construct their incubators, and whenever those winter rains fail so does malleefowl breeding."

Never far from the nest

Dr Benshemesh said malleefowl were "finely adapted" to their habitat and could not relocate.

"The species can't survive outside of its habitat," he said.

"Unfortunately for malleefowl, their favourite country is also very good for growing crops, so the heart of malleefowl country was ripped out fairly early.

"The birds are mostly in fairly marginal country and they've been quite impressive in the way that they've held on, but we do still see the decline in many areas.

"We're quite lucky for places like Secret Rocks and many national parks — without them, the bird would almost certainly disappear."


© ABC 2019

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