I inched forwards on my belly, commando-style, until I reached the edge of the four-metre-wide mound. Craning my neck upwards, I received a face full of grit as ‘The Dude’ busily flicked sand and sticks from the top of his mound.
The Dude was no ordinary malleefowl. I’d first encountered him six months earlier when we were surveying about three hundred local mounds around Secret Rocks. For nearly a decade, the active mound counts had been declining, and we rarely even glimpsed a bird. But today I had heard The Dude before I saw his freshly scraped nest. Unlike any other malleefowl I had encountered, he didn’t seem at all phased. Whilst I measured and photographed his nest for the National records, he strutted around like a cocky rooster and quickly returned to renovating his mound soon after I left.
Because he was one of the few malleefowl we still knew of in the district, Katherine and I were keen to radiotrack The Dude. Other tracked malleefowl had been killed by cats or foxes. Some started up new mounds every couple of years and their movements revealed the importance of different habitats for these threatened birds. Our co-worker Cat and I were now attempting to catch him with hand-nets when he kicked sand in my face.
Whilst lying down waiting for The Dude to walk within range of my net, I noticed a clear glob on the mound. A malleefowl moves many kilograms of dirt every day on and off their mound to maintain buried eggs at the optimal temperature, or to open the nesting cavity for a visiting female. This clean glob had therefore presumably been just deposited by The Dude. I was trying to figure out whether it was animal, vegetable or mineral when Cat picked it up and proceeded to squish some tiny seeds out of the grape-sized jelly.
Intrigued, I tentatively tasted the morsel, still not knowing from which end of The Dude it had originated. Oh my goodness! Only a sprinkling of cinnamon could have enhanced the sweet apple flavour. With the exception of honey ants dug by industrious Anangu women in the APY Lands, this was the sweetest bushfood I’d ever sampled. Cat and I reckoned the Dude had found an apple berry, even though neither of us had ever seen one at Secret Rocks.
Fast forward to this week, and we were again surveying our malleefowl mounds. The Dude’s mound was inactive this season, but only a few hundred metres away I’m confident I met him again, proudly scratching away on a new mound, unperturbed by my presence. Next, I found my first ever apple berry plant, a twining vine with distinctive mauve flowers. Coincidentally, maybe, the apple berry vine was growing only a few metres from an old malleefowl mound.
Purple-flowered twining Appleberry vine
Last night, Cat was almost as excited at her own discovery of an apple berry as she was at finding more active malleefowl mounds. Cat’s apple berry had actually been growing on an old mound. I had found another, again growing near a mound that I was checking. Clearly the great rains this year had helped germinate these normally rare plants, but when I wander, I wonder. I couldn’t help speculating that the malleefowl played a role too.
Anyone who has watched a David Attenborough doco, or observed wild bowerbirds, will understand the extraordinary behaviours some male birds use to attract a mate. The Dude had spent many months digging out, lining with mulch, and then mounding up his massive nest, in the hope that a hen would reward his diligence. Could the fruit have been a Valentine offering? Or maybe evolution had selected birds that ‘planted’ prized fruits near their nest for themselves, their mates or even their precocious young who apparently don’t receive any parental assistance.
Provisioning of nest mounds with treats has not been recorded or even suspected despite hundreds of hours of watching malleefowl directly or via cameras. But just maybe malleefowl can add dispersal of important food plants to their repertoire of ‘ecosystem services’. In Western Australia, malleefowl scoff on poison pea seeds, immune to their toxin. But cats or foxes that eat these toxic malleefowl are killed; the unfortunate birds helping protect other wildlife from these invasive predators that have not evolved tolerance to the native poison. At Secret Rocks I have twice seen where fires have been stopped by the raked clean margins of active malleefowl mounds, leaving an unburnt downwind ellipse of remnant refuge habitat for plants and wildlife.
Like many other animals that are disappearing from our bush, the decline of malleefowl is precipitating a range of repercussions, many that we are blissfully unaware of. Every time I watch wildlife like the Dude, taste a surprising morsel, or let my imagination run wild with ecological theories, I am increasingly committed to helping nature’s amazing network of interactions thrive.
John L. Read, PhD, author-ecologist
Wakefield Press, Dear Grandpa, Why? Reflections From Kokoda to Hiroshima