Though they are only the size of small chickens, this intrepid couple digs a pit two to three feet deep and over ten feet in diameter! They fill the hole with leaves, twigs, and bark and wait for rain to soak the mulch, then cover it with sand.
This compost soon begins to decompose and heat up. The cock actually uses his beak to check the temperature (mallee fowl are also called “thermometer birds”). When it reaches the magic number of 91 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s time for the hen to lay the first egg. Her mate digs into the mound, tenderly places the egg into it, and then rebuilds it around the egg. It’s his job, also, to keep the temperature stable by a continuous process of uncovering, then covering the eggs according to the weather.
And since the hen lays an egg a week, there is a seemingly never-ending process going on of eggs being laid and eggs hatching out and covering and uncovering and building and rebuilding. Makes our eight-hour work days seem like a piece of cake, doesn’t it?
But here’s the kicker: After all the tender loving care Mama and Daddy Mallee Fowl give their eggs, once the chicks hatch out, they are on their own. Completely.
It’s an understatement to say that Baby Mallee Fowl has a difficult beginning. First of all, after they hatch out, they must dig their own way to the surface of the incubator mound, usually through as much as three feet of soil, to reach open air. Sometimes it takes as much as 15 hours! Then, and I quote here from the book, “they stagger to the nearest bush to rest and take shelter.”
Poor little guys. And after all this, you’d think Mama and Daddy would take them under their wings. Nope. Mama and Daddy completely ignore them. I mean, these babies are kicked into the street! They actually learn to fly in just 24 hours.
Yeah, can’t you just hear the Mama and Daddy saying, “Look, junior, we worked our beaks and claws to the bone making a home for you as a young egg and what thanks do we get? You just want more! You’re outta here!”
Not surprisingly, only a very small percentage of the chicks survive. But those that do survive their tough beginning have a long life of endless egg laying and egg tending and hole-digging and incubator building and incubator maintaining to look forward to.
It’s a hard-knock life.