"Megapode" means big foot, and our single species, like Hercules, can be identified by its foot only, though, as it only inhabits the Nicobars, and the only other game-bird there is the local race of yellow-legged button-quail, which is neither big in body nor in foot, there is not much likelihood of anyone getting it often or mistaking it for anything else.
The bird itself is about as big as a jungle hen, and has the sides of the head red and bare like a fowl's, but its very short tail gives it rather the appearance of a guinea-fowl. Its plumage is unique among our game-birds by its very dulness, there being not a single streak or spot to relieve its monotony of snuffy-brown. The sexes are alike, and even the chicks hardly, differ except by having downy heads. It is about all they do have downy, for they come out of the egg full-fledged, as is the usual custom of birds of the megapode family; their habits are well known in Australia, where not only a similar bird to this, locally called "jungle-fowl," but others of more distinct and handsome appearance, the "brush-turkey " (Catheturus lathami), and " mallee-bird" (Leipoa ocellata) are found. The type, indeed, is an Australian one, but the typical Megapodius group ranges east and west among the islands, ours being the farthest outlier to the westward.
The foot of the megapode has the hind-toe well developed, and furnished, like all the other toes, with a long, strong claw. It is thus better fitted for grasping than that of our other game-birds, and this power is employed by the bird in throwing up the great mounds in which its eggs are to be buried, for another queer habit of the family is to construct natural incubators for their eggs, which are of extraordinary size, in this species being as big as those of a goose, while the bird itself averages about a pound and a half in weight. Fresh eggs are ruddy pink, but they fade to buff as incubation advances, and also show white spots and streaks, caused by the colour, which is only a thin surface coating, getting chipped or scratched off.
The mounds are almost invariably situated just where the jungle abuts on the coral beach, not in the open, and very rarely back in the forest. Forest mounds are necessarily made of leaves and sticks mixed with earth; but evidently the proper compost, from the birds' point of view, is the coral sand of the beach, raked in a layer about a foot thick over a liberal foundation of leaves, cocoanut husks, and any sort of vegetable matter that these birds can lay their claws on. The same mounds are used again and again, the birds' apparently scraping the top-dressing of sand off every now and then, putting on more vegetable refuse, and then raking the sand over again.
In this way an old mound may, although the Nicobarese say it is all the work of one pair, attain a height of eight feet and a circumference of sixty; but the mound of this size recorded by Davison as quoted by Hume was exceptional, and no doubt old, as it had a good-sized tree growing in it; about half the above dimensions represent the usual size.
In these mounds, at a depth of over a yard, the old bird buries her eggs, which hatch in the damp warmth generated by the decaying vegetation, aided no doubt by the lime in the coral and shell-sand. At the same time, the eggs will hatch when removed from the mound and left lying about anyhow ; the young need no "mothering," but look after themselves from the first, and might easily be taken for some funny sort of quail. It is most likely that the old birds dig them out when due to hatch, for burrowing up through several feet of compost would be rather a heavy task even for a megapode chick, and the brush-turkey, which frequently breeds in zoological gardens, certainly digs the young out when due—in its case after six weeks' incubation.
The mound is thrown up at night—in fact, the bird is nocturnal altogether, and does not leave the shelter of the jungle in the day-time, while even at night it is the beach, and not the grass-land inland of the jungle-belt which it frequents. Although mostly a ground-bird, it often alights in a tree, and flies like a jungle-fowl. Its note is also like the cackling of a hen. These birds are a most valuable game-bird; they are abundant, being-found often in flocks as well as pairs, give'much the same sort of sport as jungle-fowl, and are, according to Hume, who was very critical about birds' table qualities, exceptionally good on the table, being both fat and succulent. Their food appears to be mostly animal, consisting of grubs and small snails; in captivity the young thrive on white ants.
Since as many as twenty eggs can be taken out of a mound and the young are easily reared, the Government should surely be approached with a view to disseminating this valuable bird all over our tropical islands where natural conditions are at all favourable.