Funnily named animals always catch my attention, mostly because a strange name means I’ve never heard of that animal before, and I love learning new things. So when I was browsing the tree of life for groups of birds I hadn’t written about before and saw the Kagu, how could I resist writing about it?

The Kagu is the only living member of the family of Rhynochetidae. It can be found only on the main island of New Caledonia, an archipelago located to the east of Australia. On that island, the kagu inhabits a number of different forested habitats, as long as there is enough prey for it to eat.

Kagus are about half a meter in length, weighing from 700 to over 1000 grams. They are ground birds, with limited capacity for flight. Their wings are large with a wingspan of around 75 cm, but have no flight muscles. Basically the Kagu uses its wings for display, or to glide away from a threat. Its feathers are grey and white, and both males and females have a crest on their heads, which they use for intraspecific communication. This colouration is very unusual for ground birds, who usually try to camouflage into their surroundings. Another unusual thing about the kagu is its powder down feathers. These produce a powder that keeps the kagu warm and dry, something that’s important when you live in a rainforest.

The family name, Rhynochetidae, comes from the nasal corns the species has covering its nostrils. These protect the nose from soil while the Kagu digs for food, and are not found in any other species of bird. They are carnivorous, digging for worms, snails, and sometimes small vertebrates.

Kagus are patient hunters, often standing for hours waiting to find food.
Image by Pierre Fidenci, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Breeding in magus is pretty simple; they are monogamous, and stay with their chosen partner for a long time. The pair sing to each other in the morning, to warn other kagus away from their territory. They only breed once per year, and only lay one egg. Nests are far from elaborate in Kagu society, often just consisting of a pile of leaves and sticks. Incubation duties are shared between the two parents, with each taking 24 hour shifts on the egg. This lasts for over a month, which has to be exhausting for the parents. The chicks also stay with the parents for a long time, remaining in their parents’ territory for up to six years. During this time they help with territory defence, which at least is giving back to their parents a little bit.

As ground nesting birds found only on one island in the world, Kagus are quite a vulnerable species. Introduced species, such as rats, cats and dogs, have made the kagu’s life particularly difficult. On the bright side, dedicated conservation efforts have helped stabilize the species, so hopefully it will be around for a long while.

Cover image by frank wouters from antwerpen, belgium , België , Belgique, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons