Friday, October 25, 2013

Really Weird Birds: Kagu

The Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) is only found in the mountain forests of New Caledonia, which are islands to the east of Australia. 

The Kagu is the sole surviving member in the family Rhynochetidae and the only known close relative is the Sunbittern.  Kagus are listed as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List.

Kagus live on the forest floor, but the strange thing about this bird is, at first glance, they don’t seem to have adapted well to that type of habitat.  Most creatures that live in forests and on the forest floor have excellent camouflage in order to blend in and remain undetected by predators or prey.  The Kagu however has an unusual look for a forest-dweller.  It has light gray feathers, a bright orange beak and legs, a head crest, and bold stripes on its wingtips.  They are known locally as the “ghosts of the forest.”

A Kagu showing off its wings. 
The Kagu is flightless, although it does not have reduced wings like some other flightless birds.  It has a wingspan of about 2.5 feet but they lack the muscles for flight.  They are used mainly for display and can be used for gliding to escape danger. 

These birds are carnivorous and eat a variety of small animals including worms, snails, insects, and lizards.  They find most of their prey in the leaf litter and soil.  If digging is required, they use their beak, not their feet.  They are the only birds to possess ‘nasal corns’, structures covering the nostrils that prevent debris from entering when prodding in the soil.  Another unique characteristic of this bird is that it has only one-third the red blood cells and three times the hemoglobin per red blood cell compared to other birds!

 Kagu with feather crest on display. 
Before Europeans colonized New Caledonia, there were no natural predators for these birds.  Europeans brought cats, dogs, pigs, and rats.  Feral pigs and rats will eat Kagu eggs and chicks; cats and dogs go after both young and adult birds.  It is estimated that there are only between 250-1000 mature Kagus remaining in the wild today.  They also suffer from habitat loss caused by mining and forestry.

Kagus are protected in New Caledonia and have been the subject of conservation efforts, including breeding and releasing, and eradication of the unnatural predators.

Submitted by Sara Oliver, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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