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'Quite Amazing': Rare Sighting Offers Hope For Critically Endangered Bird That Can't Flee Fire

This chicken-like native faces severe risk of extinction from fire but work is underway to protect the Malleefowl.

The video of a brown, stumpy native bird scratching at the ground may not seem like much but it has David Kellett and his Riverina Local Land Service team ecstatic.

“This is a really rare sight, it is quite amazing,” the Acting Senior Land Services Officer told 10 daily.

Malleefowl are a vulnerable species across Australia. Photo: Jurgen and Christine Sohns via Getty Images

The male bird came within five metres of the team, tending to the dirt mound that serves as its nest to incubate up to 24 eggs.

Malleefowl are a vulnerable species nationally but in NSW, where this mound was found, they’re listed as critical.

“I’ve heard of people monitoring mounds for more than 10 years and never actually getting to see one, so it is pretty special."

The team have been monitoring up to 150 mounds over five years across 20,000 hectares in NSW, from Rankin Springs to West Wyalong.

“Numbers are extremely low, it’s quite frightening,” Kellett said, who is also Chairman of the National Malleefowl Recovery Team.

Landholder Ron Finch watching a Malleefowl working the mound. Photo: supplied

“This is one of only three mounds that have actually been used this season so far for breeding purposes, so they’re actually laying eggs.”

Habitat loss and feral animal predation play a role Malleefowl numbers plummeting by around 50 percent since the 20th Century but there’s another major risk…fire.

Every summer it is a worry, Malleefowl are very vulnerable to fire.

“They don’t fly very well, similar to a chook. So if a fire does go through, they can’t fly away like other birds can.

“Also, a lot of the Malleefowl habitat is small – we’re talking between 1,000 and 5,000 hectares. So if a fire goes through that block of habitat it’ll more than likely to make them extinct in that area,” Kellett said.

Breeding can be reduced for at least 30 years in areas that have been burnt.

One of the challenges Malleefowl face are feral animals. Photo: supplied

That threat could become increasingly dire if catastrophic fire conditions become the norm as predicted by Climate Councillor, Greg Mullins.

“Fires are burning in places and at intensities never before experienced...climate change is super-charging our natural disaster risks,” the former President of the Australasian Fire & Emergency Service Authorities Council said.

Fortunately, none of the major bushfires are close to Malleefowl habitat yet and Kellett's team work closely with landholders who have birds on their properties.

“Our landholders are very good at putting in fire breaks and managing fire because it is their livelihood as well," he said.

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While Malleefowl are as uniquely Australian as koalas, the birds have been overlooked in the past but not because they’re so good at camouflage.

“I think they’re just starting to get some traction now through funding and people becoming more aware of them,” Kellett said.

“I’ve done talks of schools and so many kids and adults have never heard of them. The more you learn you wonder why they’re such an incredible bird.”

Malleefowl are one of three ‘megapodes’ in Australia, meaning they build mounds instead of nests.

David Kellett uploading images from over 80 monitoring cameras across the Riverina. Photo: supplied

These mounds are the result of months of work from a pair of birds that mate for life.

“They’re a small bird but they build these massive mounds that can be a minimum of three metres in diameter and over a metre in height.

“They literally have to move a tonne of dirt over the breeding season in temperatures up to 45 degrees to keep their eggs at the right temperature.”

Sightings are so few and far between that they’re extremely memorable for those lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

A few volunteers at an active mound. Photo: supplied

“I saw a pair cross the road in October, five years ago between Yenda and Binya State Forest. We stopped and observed them,” Frank Gullo commented on the team’s Facebook video post.

Kellett is relying on this local interest to help improve data around Malleefowl through a new NSW recovery group that launched in March.

“Victoria have had a group doing monitoring for over 20 years and there’s groups in South Australia and Western Australia that do the same thing.

“NSW is behind and we’re listed as critical here so we need to catch up.”

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The group is planning a state-wide count to monitor all 750 known Malleefowl mounds in NSW.

“It’s never been done before in NSW and it’s the only way we can really understand where they are at.”

While the group is in its early stages, more information will be coming on the National Malleefowl Recovery Team’s website.