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What are Megapodes?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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Megapodes are birds in the family Megapodiidae, in the order Galliformes, which makes megapodes distantly related to chickens, turkeys, pheasants, grouse, and quail. These birds have several distinctive traits which set them aside from other birds, making them topics of interest for biologists. Megapodes are found in various regions of Australasia, with several species classified as threatened due to concerns about the potential survival of these unusual birds.

There are an estimated 22 species in the megapode family, broken up into three basic groups: malleefowl, bush turkey, and scrub fowl. These birds all have stocky bodies, muscular legs, powerful claws, and small heads, and they tend to stick close to the ground, flying only when threatened. The birds scratch through leaf litter for insects, and eat various plants as well. Bush turkeys also have very pronounced and colorful wattles. Like other birds in their order, megapodes tend to look rather plump, with especially heavy breasts which make it difficult for them to fly far.

Two megapode traits are extremely distinctive. The first is the nesting habit of these birds: megapodes build giant mounds from leaf litter and compost, controlling the rate of decay to generate heat to incubate the eggs. This habit has lead some people to call megapodes mound builders or incubator birds. Generally the male supervises the nest, adding or removing organic material as needed.

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Megapodes are also superprecocial, emerging from the nest fully feathered and able to fly, run, and claw. In fact, the chicks claw their way out of the nest, using their powerful feet to break open the egg and then worming through the layers of organic material used for incubation. The chicks are capable of immediately scattering to live independently, which causes them to skip the imprinting process which other birds experience.

These Australasian birds tend to prefer jungle habitats, although malleefowl live in the Australian scrub known as mallee. Because they nest and live primarily on the ground, megapodes are very vulnerable to habitat interference, ranging from loose dogs to grazing cattle, and the birds have been known to abandon their nests in areas with too many humans, causing the nests to overheat or grow too cold. Concerns about preserving these unusual birds have led some nations to establish conservation parks specifically for megapodes, restricting human access so that the birds can nest and live in peace.

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