Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Kagu ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter ~ 7/5/15

Well mission accomplie thanks to your moral and spiritual support, so here is the iconic Kagu of New Caledonia after a great trip there. We went to Rivière Bleue national park about 90min drive west of the capital Noumea, meeting our excellent guide Jean-Marc Meriot at the park entrance at 7:00am. He took us straight to a Kagu territory where we had a wonderful time with these strange and fascinating birds. They were bigger than I’d expected being 50-55cm/20-22in long.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian
The first one we saw was a very shy juvenile running away through the forest so Joy and I were a bit afraid that we might have difficulty getting decent photos. We needn’t have worried as we soon encountered a family party only too willing to join in the fun, though poor light in the rainforest was a bit of a problem. It had been very wet on the previous couple of days so it was very wet underfoot, or around beak and face perhaps if you’re a Kagu and probe in the earth for your food.

Adult Kagus have very long crests that droop down their back or over their wings. There’s some disagreement about differences between the sexes in the literature, but Guy Dutson in his Birds of Melanesia says that the females have fine barring on the upper wing. If that’s the case, the bird in the first photo would be a male and the one in the female in the second. Juveniles have barring too, but much more, which confuses the situation slightly.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by IanKagus are flightless but still have fairly long wings used for balance when rushing around and in threat displays when they show the striking black, grey and white barring on the flight feathers. The best we could get out of them was a throaty hiss when we startled them and brief views of the wings when flapped in motion, but can you see the barring just showing in the bird in the second and third photos (same individual). The one in the third photo has just grabbed an earth worm. These form an important part of the diet when the soil is damp, but they also eat lots of other invertebrates and small vertebrates such as lizards and mice. Apparently they can consume the millipedes without ill effects that other birds avoid because of the noxious substances they exude.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

Kagus form strong pair bonds that can last for years and vigorously defend territories of about 20 hectares or 50 acres in extent. They lay a single large egg in a rough nest on the ground and the young birds can stay in the parental territory for a year or two. Both adults share incubation and feeding of the young bird.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

This family was so tame that eventually we gave up using our expensive Canon gear – the birds were often too close to focus with a telephoto lens – and resorted to our phones. Joy took the fourth photo of me taking the fifth photo with my iPhone and I was startled to discover that the quality was nearly as good as with the Canon and the iPhone performed better in poor light. Smart phones have come a long way. I even took some videos and I’ll share one with you in due course.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

Kagus are rated as endangered, though recent conservation efforts have improved the situation. They suffer from predation by dogs, pigs and rats and Captain Cook started the rot in 1774 when he introduced dogs. They’ve also suffered from logging of rainforest and fragmentation of their habitat by clearing. The population reached a low of perhaps 600-700 birds in 1991 but has increased since and is thought to be about 1500 now as a result of predator control and captive breeding and reintroduction.

Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) by Ian

Conservation is helped by its iconic status and it is widely used as symbol of New Caledonia. Here it is on the 1000 French Pacific Franc note (about 12 AUD), which of course we called the Kagu. This image shows the threat display that we failed to see properly or photograph.

The bird to its left on the note is one of the Horned Parakeets and I’ll have more to say about them in the near future. In fact one of these nearly upstaged the Kagu as photographic bird of the trip and it was only a very delightful encounter with a Kagu family in a different national park on our last full day that restored the Kagu to #1 status. So I’m going to break with tradition and have the same species as bird of the week twice running so that I can give that final chance meeting due space. The Kagu was, after all, the main reason for our visit and I haven’t had time yet to touch on its very interesting taxonomy.


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Where to Find Birds in Northern Queensland: iTunesGoogle Play Kobo Books
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au

Lee’s Addition:

Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings, (Psalms 17:8 KJV)

Great photos as usual, Ian. We’re glad our prayers are helping you see more of the Lord’s great birds.

I had hoped to see a Kagu at either the Houston or San Diego Zoo on this last trip. Both places had their Kagus “off exhibit.” One of them was ill, but not sure why the other one was not being shown. At least Ian was able to find them, in the wild, which is actually better.



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