Class: Aves (Birds)
Body length: 24 inches (60 centimeters)
Wingspan: 30. 5 inches (77.5 centimeters)
Weight: 1.5 to 2.4 pounds ( 700 to 1,100 grams)
Life span: 20 to 30 years
Incubation: 35 to 40 days
Number of eggs laid: 1
Weight at hatch: 2.1 to 2.6 ounces (60 to 75 grams)
Age of maturity: 2 to 3 years
Conservation status: endangered
Kagus have skin flaps that cover the nostrils. Called corns, they help explain the kagu’s genus name: Rhynochetos, from the Greek rhis, meaning “nose,” and chetos, meaning “corn.” The corns may keep dirt from entering the nose when the bird digs with its bill.
The kagu’s wings are fairly large for a bird that is basically flightless.
The kagu is native only to New Caledonia. The native people’s word for kagu is kagou, meaning “ghost of the forest.”
The San Diego Zoo received its first pair of kagus in 1927 from the Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, Australia.
Listen to a kagu
Range: New Caledonia in the South Pacific
Unlike other ground-dwelling birds, the adult kagu’s light-colored feathers do not provide camouflage.
Are you a kagu?
With its pearl gray feathers, bright orange legs and bill, head crest like a cockatoo’s, and bold stripes on its wingtips, the kagu has a most unusual look for a bird that lives on the ground. This rare, flightless bird is from the forests of New Caledonia’s main island, in the South Pacific. About the size of a chicken, the kagu lives in rain forests as well as drier forests. It has specialized feathers called powder downs; these feathers make a powder that cleans and waterproofs the kagu in its wet habitat. Although it is similar to herons and egrets, it has no known close relatives.
The kagu’s wings may appear large for a bird that doesn’t really fly, but they play an important role. A kagu parent flaps its fully opened wings on the ground, as if injured, to distract a would-be predator away from its chick. When open, the wings have dark stripes that may surprise a potential enemy. The kagu can also run quickly to escape danger and can be quite hard to find in its forest home. The large wings also help the bird keep its balance while climbing and “hopping” over rocks and other rough spots.
Kagus use their bill to brush aside fallen leaves that may be hiding an insect meal.
Large, dark red eyes give the kagu excellent vision. The long, orange-red bill is strong and pointed, perfect for shallow digging in leaf litter and between rocks in search of its favorite foods: larvae, spiders, centipedes, bugs, cockroaches, millipedes, beetles, snails, worms, and lizards. That brilliant beak helps the bird pull prey out, in pieces if necessary, and this method makes food, such as the not-so-tasty millipede, edible—the bird doesn't have to eat the part that has the yucky substance in it! The kagu is a patient hunter, often standing perfectly still on one foot for long periods of time, watching and listening for prey. Once discovered, the bird will strike quickly to catch the food.
The sounds made by kagus are different for males and females. It may remind you of a rooster crowing and a dog barking at the same time, but the female’s song is shorter and faster than the male’s. Pairs sing a duet in the early morning to warn other birds that this is their turf! A former San Diego Zoo director described the kagu’s morning song as a “screaming challenge”! Duets can last up to 15 minutes. The birds sing year-round, but more often during breeding season. Kagus also hiss and make soft, clucking sounds.
The kagu female lays a single egg in a patch of leaves or other material scraped together by the parents.
Ruling the roost, raising
When making their home, kagus choose a place on the ground that is naturally sheltered by rocks, but they can also live under tree roots or in holes in dirt banks. Kagus perch on low-hanging branches or tree trunks, although they also use vines, raised roots, or rocks for resting places.
Kagu parents almost always raise just one chick per year. Courtship involves elaborate “strutting” behavior with a fanned crest and capelike wing movements—they dress to impress! These birds are monogamous, and although they defend their territory together, the male and female may spend much of their time alone.
A kagu chick starts out looking a bit scruffy when compared to its parents.
During the breeding season, they come together to share incubation and nesting duties. Nests can be mounds of leaves on the ground, in which a single egg with light brown splashes is laid. After more than a month-long incubation, the chick hatches, with its eyes closed, and does not move from the nest until three days of age. The young kagu looks different from its parents, with brownish feathers to camouflage it against the dark forest floor.
Using their wings as a show of force, kagu parents warn off a predator to protect their chick.
Kagu parents are very patient when teaching their youngster to eat: an adult holds prey in its bill, close to the chick’s head, and calls softly until the baby opens its beak. When the chick is about two weeks old, it starts to demand to be fed! Parents feed their chick until it’s about 14 weeks of age. The young bird may stay within its parents’ territory for up to six years.
A feather in their cap—not ours!
The kagu is the national bird of New Caledonia, and its image is used frequently to promote its economy. But the kagu’s crest feathers—its crowning glory—were so prized by the makers of ladies’ fancy hats in the 1800s that the bird almost became extinct. Predation by dogs, cats, pigs, and rats that were brought to the main island also caused the number of kagus to drop. With the bird’s popularity as a pet and even as a food source, and the loss of much of its forest habitat, the kagu soon became endangered. Fortunately, New Caledonians are working to protect their national symbol. Successful reintroductions have been carried out in a national park where predators have been controlled.