MEGAPODE (Gr. μέγας, great and πούς, foot), the name given generally to a small but remarkable family of birds, characteristic of some parts of the Australian region, to which it is almost peculiar. The Megapodiidae, with the Cracidae and Phasianidae, form that division of the sub-order Galli named by Huxley Peristeropodes (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1868, p. 296). Their most remarkable habit is that of leaving their eggs to be hatched without incubation, burying them in the ground (as many reptiles do), or in a mound of earth, leaves and rotten wood which they scratch up. This habit attracted attention nearly four hundred years ago,[1] but the accounts given of it by various travellers were generally discredited, and as examples of the birds, probably from their unattractive plumage, appear not to have been brought to Europe, no one of them was seen by any ornithologist or scientifically described until near the end of the first quarter of the 19th century. The first member of the family to receive authoritative recognition was one of the largest, inhabiting the continent of Australia, where it is known as the brush-turkey, and was originally described by J. Latham in 1821 under the misleading name of the New Holland vulture. It is the Catheturus lathami of modern ornithologists, and is nearly the size of a hen turkey. This East Australian bird is of a sooty-brown colour, relieved beneath by the lighter edging of some of the feathers, but the head and neck are nearly bare, beset with fine bristles, the skin being of a deep pinkish-red, passing above the breast into a large wattle of bright yellow. The tail is commonly carried upright and partly folded, something like that of a domestic fowl. Allied to it are three or four species of Talegallus, from New Guinea and adjacent islands.

Another form, an inhabitant of South and West Australia, commonly known in England as the mallee-bird, but to the colonists as the “native pheasant”—the Lipoa ocellata, as described by J. Gould in the Proc. Zool. Soc. (1840), p. 126, has much shorter tarsi and toes, the head entirely clothed, and the tail expanded. Its plumage presents a combination of greys and browns of various tints, interspersed with black, white and buff, the wing-coverts and feathers of the back bearing each near the tip an oval or subcircular patch, whence the scientific name of the bird is given, while a stripe of black feathers with a median line of white extends down the front of the throat from the chin to the breast. There is but one species of this genus known, as is also the case with the next to be mentioned, a bird long known to inhabit Celebes, but not fully described until 1846,[2] when it received from Salomon Müller (Arch. f. Naturgeschichte, xii. pt. 1, p. 116) the name of Macrocephalon maleo, but, being shortly afterwards figured by Gray and Mitchell (Gen. Birds, iii. pl. 123) under the generic term of Megacephalon, has since commonly borne the latter appellation. This bird bears a helmet-like protuberance on the back of its head, all of which, as well as the neck, is bare and of a bright red colour; the plumage of the body is glossy black above, and beneath roseate-white.

Of the megapodes proper, constituting the genus Megapodius, about fifteen species are admitted. The birds of this genus range from the Samoa Islands in the east, through the Tonga group, to the New Hebrides, the northern part of Australia, New Guinea and its neighbouring islands, Celebes, the Pelew Islands and the Ladrones, and have also outliers in detached portions of the Indian Region, as the Philippines (where indeed they were first discovered by Europeans), Labuan, and even the Nicobars—though none is known from the intervening islands of Borneo, Java or Sumatra. Within what may be deemed their proper area they are found, says A. R. Wallace (Geogr. Distr. Animals, ii. 341), “on the smallest islands and sandbanks, and can evidently pass over a few miles of sea with ease.” Indeed, proof of their roaming disposition is afforded by the fact that the bird described by Lesson (Voy. Coquille: Zoologie, p. 703) as Alecthelia urvillii, but now considered to be the young of Megapodius freycineti, flew on board his ship when more than 2 m. from the nearest land (Guebé), in an exhausted state, it is true, but that may be attributed to its youth. The species of Megapodius are about the size of small fowls, the head generally crested, the tail very short, the feet enormous, and, with the exception of M. wallacii (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1860, Aves, pl. 171), from the Moluccas, all have a sombre plumage.

Megapodes are shy terrestrial birds, of heavy flight, and omnivorous diet. In some islands they are semi-domesticated, although the flesh is dark and generally unpalatable. (A. N.) 

  1. Antonio Pigafetta, one of the survivors of Magellan’s voyage, records in his journal, under date of April 1521, among the peculiarities of the Philippine Islands, then first discovered by Europeans, the existence of a bird there, about the size of a fowl, which laid its eggs, as big as a duck’s, in the sand, and left them to be hatched by the heat of the sun (Premier voyage autour du monde, ed. Amoretti, Paris, A.R. ix. 88). More than a hundred years later the Jesuit Nieremberg, in his Historia naturae, published at Antwerp in 1635, described (p. 207) a bird called “Daie,” and by the natives named “Tapun,” not larger than a dove, which, with its tail (!) and feet excavated a nest in sandy places and laid therein eggs bigger than those of a goose. The publication at Rome in 1651 of Hernandez’s Hist. avium novae Hispaniae shows that his papers must have been accessible to Nieremberg, who took from them the passage just mentioned, but, as not unusual with him, misprinted the names which stand in Hernandez’s work (p. 56, cap. 220) “Daic” and “Tapum” respectively, and omitted his predecessor’s important addition “Viuit in Philippicis.” Not long after, the Dominican Navarrete, a missionary to China, made a considerable stay in the Philippines, and returning to Europe in 1673 wrote an account of the Chinese empire, of which Churchill (Collection of Voyages and Travels, vol. i.) gave an English translation in 1704. It is therein stated (p. 45) that in many of the islands of the Malay Archipelago “there is a very singular bird call’d Tabon,” and that “What I and many more admire is, that it being no bigger in body than an ordinary chicken, tho’ long legg’d, yet it lays an egg larger than a gooses, so that the egg is bigger than the bird itself. . . . In order to lay its eggs, it digs in the sand above a yard in depth; after laying, it fills up the hole and makes it even with the rest; there the eggs hatch with the heat of the sun and sand.” Gemelli Careri, who travelled from 1663 to 1699, and in the latter year published an account of his voyage round the world, gives similar evidence respecting this bird, which he calls “tavon,” in the Philippine Islands (Voy. du tour du monde, ed. Paris, 1727, v. 157, 158). The megapode of Luzon is fairly described by Camel or Camelli in his observations on the birds of the Philippines communicated by Petiver to the Royal Society in 1703 (Phil. Trans. xxiii. 1398). In 1726 Valentyn published his elaborate work on the East Indies, wherein (deel iii. bk. v. p. 320) he correctly describes the megapode of Amboina under the name of “malleloe,” and also a larger kind found in Celebes.
  2. As we have seen, it was mentioned in 1726 by Valentyn, and a young example was in 1830 described and figured by Quoy and Gaimard (Voy. de l’Astrolabe: Oiseaux, p. 239, pl. 25) as the Megapolis rubripes of Temminck, a wholly different bird.