Range:

New Caledonia in the South Pacific

Habitat:

Tropical and dry forests

Are you a kagu?

With its pearl-gray feathers, bright orange legs and bill, brilliant red eyes, a head crest like a cockatoo’s, and bold stripes on its wingtips, the kagu has a most unusual look for a bird that lives on the ground. This rare, flightless bird is from the forests of New Caledonia’s main island, in the South Pacific. About the size of a chicken, the kagu lives in rain forests as well as drier forests. It has specialized feathers called powder downs; these feathers make a powder that cleans and waterproofs the kagu in its wet habitat. Although it is similar to herons and egrets, the kagu has no known close relatives.

At home on the ground

When making their home, kagus choose a place on the ground that is naturally sheltered by rocks, but they can also live under tree roots or in holes in dirt banks. Kagus generally perch on low-hanging branches or tree trunks, but they also use vines, raised roots, or rocks for resting places. They forage for food during the day and preen before sleeping at night.

The kagu has skin flaps that cover its nostrils. Called corns, they may keep dirt from entering the nose when the bird digs with its bill.
The kagu’s wings are fairly large for a bird that is basically flightless.
The kagu is native only to New Caledonia. The native people’s word for kagu is kagou, meaning “ghost of the forest.”
The kagu is the national bird of New Caledonia and is found on the country’s emblem.

We are currently one of just a few zoos in the United States to house kagus, with the San Diego Zoo receiving its first pair in 1927 from the Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, Australia. In 1944, another rare and precious kagu was given to Admiral William Halsey, who was the U.S. Navy’s commander of the South Pacific during World War II, as a thank you from the government of New Caledonia. Admiral Halsey, in turn, bestowed the bird to our Zoo, perhaps after experiencing the bird’s screaming calls each morning!

New Caledonia’s Parc Zoologique et Forestier entrusted us with an adult pair of kagus in 1997, in hopes that we would be able to begin a kagu community in San Diego. We are proud to do our part in helping to make sure kagus are around for future generations to enjoy.

Today, both the Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park have kagus, and we have had 21 hatches, including 2 in 2013, between our two facilities. The Zoo’s kagus can be seen in the aviary at our bus loading station and in aviaries in the Zoo’s Northern Frontier. Kagus at the Safari Park live in our off-exhibit Bird Breeding Complex.

As the national bird of New Caledonia, the kagu's image is used frequently to promote its economy. But its crest feathers—the bird's crowning glory—were so prized by the makers of ladies’ fancy hats in the 1800s that the kagu almost became extinct. Predation by introduced dogs, cats, pigs, and rats brought to the main island also caused kagu numbers to drop. With the bird’s popularity as a pet and even as a food source, and an 80-percent loss of its forest habitat, the kagu soon became endangered.

Fortunately, New Caledonians are working to protect their national symbol, and San Diego Zoo Global is working with the New Caledonia government to create a DNA bank for future studies. Successful reintroductions have been carried out in a national park where predators have been controlled. The mysterious kagu has more secrets yet to be uncovered!

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.