The Cagou, a New Caledonian Flightless Bird

By Alfonsina Arriaga-Jimenez, UNE Discovery

Our UNE Discovery team member, Alfonsina, recently participated in a two-week research expedition in New Caledonia, where she had the privilege of exploring the magnificent rainforest in Le Parc des Grandes Fougères with the research team, where they encountered the Cagou (Rhynochetos jubatus) in its natural habitat.  While there for beetle research and walking in the forest, they spotted the bird running with its wings open and its crest standing up as a sign of defence. Though it was a fleeting moment, it left the research team with a lasting impression of the bird moving its wings but unable to fly.

The scientific name of this bird Rhynochetos is derived from the Greek words for “nose” and “long hair”, while the specific name jubatus is derived from the Latin word for crested, referring to the bird’s prominent crest on its head. The Cagou or kagu, holds a significant place in the traditional culture of the Kanak tribes in New Caledonia. The crest of the kagu has been used in the headdresses of chiefs, and its calls have been incorporated into war dances, serving as messages to be interpreted by the chiefs. The Kanak people living in the vicinity of Houaïlou refer to this bird as the “ghost of the forest.”

In addition to its unique features, the cagou possesses “nasal corns,” structures covering its nostrils, which is a feature not shared by any other bird. These corns are thought to filter out particles in the air, helping the kagu to breathe more easily in its forest habitat. The Cagou is a protected species in New Caledonia, and is rare and discreet, making it challenging to spot. It is a symbol of the country’s unique biodiversity and cultural heritage, and its population has declined due to habitat loss and predation by introduced predators such as rats, cats, dogs, and wild pigs.

During the expedition, the team observed the Cagou’s behaviour and its unique features, such as its crest, which it raises as a sign of aggression or defence. They also learned that this bird feeds on insects, snails, worms, and small lizards, and has a distinctive bark-like song. Alfonsina and the team were very fortunate to hear this first-hand while exploring the forest in another National Park, La Riviere Bleu, where the Cagou “barked” at them several times.

Unfortunately, despite its unique features and cultural significance, the kagu/cagou is an endangered species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Its population has declined significantly due to habitat loss, predation by introduced species such as rats and cats, and hunting by humans.

Currently, there are programs in place to protect the Cagou, including the control of introduced predators in their natural habitats, captive breeding, and reintroduction of juveniles into their natural habitats. These efforts are crucial to ensure the survival of this unique bird species and the preservation of New Caledonia’s biodiversity and cultural heritage.

Alfonsina’s encounter with the Cagou was a reminder of the importance of conservation and preservation efforts to protect the unique and delicate ecosystems of the world. It is essential to continue to support these conservation efforts to ensure that future generations can also have the opportunity to experience the wonder of encountering this rare flightless bird.