The maleo isn’t winning any parent of the year awards


Bec Crew


Bec Crew

Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
By Bec Crew 7 March 2022
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
There are plenty of lovely examples in nature of animals being good mums and dads. The maleo isn’t one…

There are the emperor penguin mums, which travel 80km on foot to reach the ocean to hunt for food for their chicks, and the pied butcherbird mums, which share nesting duties with each other to give round-the-clock care.

There are also fairy-wren dads, which teach songs to their unhatched chicks that will be important for things such as mate choice, territory defence and species recognition, later in life.

But maleos, well… they’re not exactly the parenting type. They’ve decided their responsibilities end with the laying and burying of their eggs, which means their chicks have got their work cut out for them from day one.

Maleos (Macrocephalon maleo) are large megapodes, also known as incubator birds or mound-builders, which can grow up to 60 cm long. The Australian brush turkey (Alectura lathami), another megapode, is a close relative.

They are endemic to Sulawesi and the island of Buton in Indonesia, where they spend much of their lives scratching around the forest floor, using their large feet and long claws to dig up worms and insects.

When it’s time to lay eggs, maleos travel to open sandy areas filled with volcanic soil. They bury their eggs in the sand, and the warmth of sand takes care of the incubation duties. This is often done in large groups, as you can see here:

Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) nesting site, Central Sulawesi. Image credit: BIOSPHOTO/Alamy Stock Photo

The parents will ditch the eggs – which are five times the size of a chicken’s eggs  – and never return.

The chicks are left to peck their way out of their eggs and dig themselves out of the ground. Here’s one taking its first breaths after making its way to the surface:

Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) chick digging its way out of its underground nest, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image credit: Riza Marlon/Getty Images

Like the eggs, maleo chicks are huge. And for good reason  – with no support from their parents, these chicks have to do everything an adult bird does, all by themselves. In fact, from the day when they open their eyes, they’re able to fly, run and pursue prey.

Here’s one sitting in a tree, like a grown up:

Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) in tree, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image credit: Riza Marlon/Getty Images

Maleos are sadly in a predicament. Due to poaching and habitat loss, they have been rendered critically endangered in Indonesia.

There are a number of conservation groups from around the world that are working with local authorities to protect important populations. However, their large eggs are considered a delicacy by some people in local communities, which adds to the challenge of stemming the decline of the species.

Here is some rare footage of a dusky megapode (Megapodius freycinet) – a close maleo relative – also from Indonesia) laying their eggs in volcanic sand: