Niuafo'ou's
Unique Bird

 

The Niuafo'ou Megapode (Megapodius pritchardii) is unique; locally known as the Malau it occurs naturally only on this one little island - and that an active volcano!

It is also the smallest megapode in the world - megapode comes from the Greek word meaning 'big feet'. They need these in order to walk on the hot volcanic sands at the crater's edge where they also lay their eggs.

What they do is dig a hole into which they drop their large egg, cover it over and go away, leaving it to incubate in the warm sun from above and hot sands from below.

The chick does not have the usual sharp point to its beak with which to crack the shell but must needs dig it's way out of both the shell and the sand with it's feet.
On the left you see the newly hatched bird emerging from the sand.

Below - Oh! It's so good to strech ones wings!

The baby bird has already got all its feathers, can walk and feed itself, which is a good thing as neither parent is there to help.

Photo left gives you an idea of its size.

Megapodes mate for life and they love to sing in duet - the first two notes frequently being produced by the male while the female sings the third. But they have several songs which differ between the sexes.

They live in the light forests growing up the slopes to the top of the volcano ridge, and also on the islands in the sulphurous lake which has formed in the crater. These are free of cats and other predatory animals introduced by man. Megapodes are not very fussy about their food, eating anything in the insect world as well as small reptiles, worms, seeds and also small fruit.

Incidentally this lake stands 95 feet above sea level and is undrinkable, though some effort is being made recently to grow carp in it as rainwaters slowly dilute it to more acceptable levels. Islanders collect rainwater during the hurricane season and store it in huge concrete tanks.
It was through the First Definitive Niuafo'ou stamps (left) issued on the 15th November 1983 that the world learnt of the existance of these unique creatures.

In this way the Malau was also brought to the attention of (as far as I can remember) the World Wild Life Association who sent an expedition to investigate and find out more about them.

So far I've been unable to find a used envelope with these stamps other than this torn piece!
If only the person who tore these off had realised how much more valuable they would have been left on the cover.
I was told 6 were transported to a New Zealand zoo for further study but cannot imagine that they could have survived away from the hot volcanic sands. Hopefully, they will have contributed to the wealth of knowledge we have today.

Unfortunately the eggs of the Malau are considered a great delicacy by the locals and, what with that, and the cats brought in as pets, these birds are now on the Critical Endangered list.

A survey in 1993 indicated only about 200 pairs left on the island. For this reason, Dr Dieter Rinke of the Brem Fund for International Bird Conservation took some chicks and eggs to another near-by island. Fonualei is uninhabited as it is a mere 2 km wide, also volcanic, and some 20 hours boat journey away from Niuafo'ou. Here the birds appear to have settled down well and numbers have increased.

Meanwhile Tonga is trying to protect the crater forests and the little islands as nature reserves, doing regular surveys to eliminate predators. It has also introduced a ban on egg collecting which is enforced through a council of residents.

The Malau is the only one of several species of magapode originally found in the south west Pacific to have survived the 3,000 years of human colonisation.

 

Technical identification for twitchers: Megapode 38 cm. Medium-sized, brown-and-grey. Mostly brownish-grey, paler on head and neck, browner on back and wings, with short, rounded crest on nape. Feathers of face and throat sparse, allowing red skin to show through. Yellow bill. Yellow to light red legs and feet.

Similar spp. Buff-banded Rail Gallirallus philippensis has bold bars and much longer bill.

Immature Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio larger with white undertail-coverts. Feral chickens have prominent tails.

Spotless Crake Porzana tabuensis smaller and darker with red eyes and legs. Voice Three-part whistle kway-kwee-krrrr, usually a duet with male giving first two notes, female the third note.