The Kagu is a highly unusual, almost flightless bird, which due to its startling ash-white plumage is known locally as the ‘ghost of the forest’. The only representative of an entire taxonomic family, the Kagu resembles something between a small heron and a rail. It has a large crest, long legs, a peculiar ‘bark’, which can be heard over a mile away. It is endemic to Grand Terre, the largest island of New Caledonia and has been adopted as the national emblem. Sadly, following predation by dogs and habitat loss the Kagu is now listed as Endangered. The Kagu experienced a decline in numbers during the 1900s primarily due to predation by invasive species. Domestic dogs have historically been the main threat to the species along with cats and pigs.
The Kagu is a practically flightless, ground-dwelling bird. Although this species lacks the muscles needed for flight, its wings are not reduced in size and can be used to glide. This species is exclusively carnivorous, feeding mainly on worms, snails, millipedes, insects and small lizards, which it finds by picking through the leaf litter. Kagus were thought to form monogamous pairs and breed in large, permanent, non-overlapping territories between up to 28 hectares in size, however more recent research has suggested that they utilise group territoriality as a form of cooperative breeding. The species is highly territorial, engaging in sometimes fierce confrontations accompanied by shrill screams. The simple ground-nest is constructed from layers of leaves mainly between June and December but can happen all year round. A single pear-shaped egg is laid, which both parents incubate for between around 35 days. Parental care lasts 3-4 months, and one chick is typically raised per year (dependent on productivity of habitat). The Kagu reaches sexual maturity at three years, but often stays within the parents’ home range for as long as ten years. A typical family group comprises one breeding pair and offspring of various ages, which assist with defending the nest. Nests are not hidden and often consist of little more than a pile of leaves on the ground, which makes the eggs and nestlings particularly vulnerable to introduced predators such as rats and dogs.
The arrival of Europeans on New Caledonia heralded a dramatic decline in the Kagu, as birds were highly sought after for pets and the lucrative plume trade during the early 1900s. The ground-dwelling bird made easy prey for the non-native mammals that were introduced during this period. Feral and domestic dogs now constitute the single greatest threat to this species. One study attributed 17 out of 21 fatalities to dogs, which roam widely hunting in forests located over 4km away and 1,000m higher in altitude than their home village. Cats also prey on Kagu, with the latter accounting for 55% of small nestling losses in a study from Rivière Bleue Park. Feral pigs are also known to opportunistically eat clutches of eggs. Kagu habitat has been degraded by foraging and rooting behaviour of deer, pigs and cows; which can have serious consequences for general forest structure and regeneration. The loss of leaf litter due to these introduced species means large areas of bare soil exist within the Kagu’s range, leaving the birds with no suitable areas for foraging or nesting. Large areas of habitat have been lost to mining, and logging has aided access to Kagu by hunters and dogs. Deforestation and forest fragmentation does not currently appear to be a major threat to this species, as sufficient habitat is believed to remain. Disease could also pose a serious threat in the future, as outbreaks in the Rivière Bleue area are thought to have killed tens of birds during the 2006-2007 breeding season.
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