Fact file: Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo)

Image: “Maleo” by Ariefrahman. CC licence

IUCN statusCritically endangered
Population size12,000-21,000
Population trendDecreasing
Unique evolutionary history32 Million years

Why is the maleo so special?

This endemic bird can be found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and is most prominently known for its unique egg-laying behaviour. The maleo is a communal nester, which may have been the result of an evolutionary strategy to minimise egg predation.

Females will lay around 8-12 eggs over a year, often in loose, sandy soils. These ancient birds lay their eggs in deep holes then cover and camouflage them with debris. Apparently, mom has better things to do with her time as she leaves the eggs to incubate in the hot sand with the heat of the sun or from underground hot springs. Around five times larger than a chicken’s egg, maleo eggs contain an almost fully-formed chick right from laying. As you might guess, this large egg coupled with external incubation means maleo chicks hatch ready to fend for themselves. The chicks dig up through the sand and are able to fly and feed themselves almost immediately, never relying on parental care.

Photo 11996710, (c) Kevin Schafer, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND)

What are the threats facing the maleo?

Maleo numbers have declined by over 90% since the 1950s, with unsustainable egg harvesting making up one of the largest threats, alongside the classic culprit of habitat loss due to logging, urban development and agriculture. This human disturbance has caused many nesting colonies to become abandoned, and it is thought that of the 142 known nesting grounds, only 4 are considered non-threatened.

Photo 107895058, (c) Christoph Moning, some rights reserved (CC BY)

What is being done to help save the maleo from extinction?

Former ‘egg diggers’ are being re-employed as nest guards across a small number of locations run by Wildlife Conservation Society, protecting around 40 nests as well as facilitating monitored hatching and release of chicks. As the eggs are not a staple food but rather a delicacy, Alliance for Tompotika Conservation runs engagement projects to spread awareness about the maleo and to prevent the harvesting of eggs, which has led to an end of all poaching in some villages and a tripling of adult birds returning to nesting grounds.

Maleo have been successfully bred in Bronx Zoo and Nashville Zoo.

What can I do to help?

Maleo conservation is well on its way to revive this unique bird, like a phoenix from the geothermal sands. Local-led conservation action seems to be renewed and successful, with Wildlife Conservation Society’s management, enabling the hatching and release of 10,000 chicks into the wild. Here are some conservation actions that will help the maleo further:

  • Support the purchase of further nesting grounds through sponsorships and donations for protection of nesting sites, which are done in collaboration with the community and allowing sustainable agriculture near the sites to raise further proceeds. 
  • Support a wider campaign to use the maleo as a flagship species and further discourage egg consumption.
  • Keep nesting grounds free from predators, human disturbance and invasive vegetation alongside reforestation efforts.
  • Continue daily monitors of laying birds and conduct research on its distribution and gene-flow.

If you love weird animals of all shapes and sizes and you want to see how you can help with WAWA’s conservation support, then please see how you can get involved here.

Photo 13273078, (c) Kevin Schafer, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND)

References and further information



Tasirin, J.S., Iskandar, D.T., Laya, A., Kresno, P., Suling, N., Oga, V.T., Djano, R., Bawotong, A., Nur, A., Isfanddri, M. & Abbas, W. 2021. Maleo Macrocephalon maleo population recovery at two Sulawesi nesting grounds after community engagement to prevent egg poaching. Global Ecology and Conservation: p.e01699.

Wildlife Conservation Society. 2009. Rare birds get private beach. G@lliformed: 22.