Kagu

Rhynochetos jubatus

Last updated: November 9, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock.com

The endangered kagu is the only bird in the world with nasal corns!

Kagu Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Eurypygiformes
Family
Rhynochetidae
Genus
Rhynochetos
Scientific Name
Rhynochetos jubatus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Kagu Conservation Status

Kagu Locations

Kagu Locations

Kagu Facts

Prey
Worms, snails, lizards, insects, larvae, spiders, centipedes, millipedes,
Main Prey
Worms
Name Of Young
Chicks
Group Behavior
  • Solitary/Pairs
  • Community-minded
Fun Fact
The endangered kagu is the only bird in the world with nasal corns!
Estimated Population Size
Fewer than 2000, with between 250 and 999 mature individuals
Biggest Threat
Dogs, cats, pigs and rats
Most Distinctive Feature
Nasal corns - they are the only bird in the world with them
Distinctive Feature
Light blue-gray plumage, striped wings, red legs, red bill, red eyes, large crest
Other Name(s)
Kavu, kagou, cagou
Wingspan
About 30 inches
Incubation Period
33 to 37 days
Age Of Independence
14 weeks
Age Of Fledgling
They wander from the nest as early as 3 days, but continue to sleep in the nest or nearby up to 10 weeks
Habitat
Rainforest or drier lowland forest or shrubland in New Caledonia
Predators
Dogs, cats, pigs, rats
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
  • Solitary
  • Group
  • Pair
Favorite Food
Worms, snails and lizards
Special Features
Light blue-gray feathers; bright, red-orange legs and bill; nasal corns; large crest; red eyes; cross-banded, dark and light striped wings; feathers called powder downs
Number Of Species
2
Location
New Caledonia
Average Clutch Size
1
Nesting Location
On the ground

Kagu Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Grey
  • Blue
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
20 to 30 years
Weight
25 to 39 ounces
Height
22 inches
Length
21.5 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
2 to 3 years for males; unknown for females
Venomous
No
Aggression
Low

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The endangered kagu is the only bird in the world with nasal corns!

Kagus are endemic to the main island of New Caledonia. They are the only living species in their family, and one of only two species in the Eurypygiformes order. They are flightless, carnivorous birds that live on the forest floor and forage in the wet, dense leaf litter for food. With light blue-gray feathers and bright, red-orange legs and bills, these birds don’t look like one might expect a ground-dwelling bird of the forest to appear. Although they cannot fly, they can run, jump and glide to try to evade predators, and they are known to raise their fancy crests, spread their wings and dance in circles with potential mates or around their rivals. The kagu is endangered, but conservation efforts are underway to save their population.

Incredible Kagu Facts

  • Kagus are only found on the main island of New Caledonia.
  • This bird is endangered with fewer than 1,000 mature individuals.  
  • Kagus are generally thought of as cute birds.
  • When kagus strut, they look a bit like a cross between a cockatoo and a penguin.
  • These birds are so loud their morning duets are called screaming challenges.
  • Kagus are monogamous and likely mate for life, but they enjoy their solitude when it is not breeding season.
  • Young kagus may stay with their parents up to six years, helping to defend younger offspring.
  • Dogs are the most destructive predators of kagus.

Where to Find Kagus

The kagu is found in only one place on Earth. It is endemic to Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean. At just over 6300 square miles, this island is roughly the same size as the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. However, kagus occupy only a small portion of the island, and their range is highly fragmented. The birds do not migrate, and no evidence of their existence has been found anywhere else, although a similar extinct species, Rhynochetos orarius, was found on nearby islands.

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Kagus live in the rain forests or in the lowland forests and shrublands where it is drier. They spend most of their time near rocks and roots, where they can forage easily for food among the leaf litter on the forest floor. They tend to seek shelter and often hide their young under tree roots or nestled in indentations in dirt banks.

Kagu Nests

This bird does not go to much trouble making its nests. A kagu nest may look like nothing more than a random pile of leaves on the ground. In a terrestrial habitat where leaves are so abundant, this is certainly a convenient method of building a nest.

Scientific Name

The kagu’s scientific name is Rhynochetos jubatus. Jubatus derives from a Latin word meaning crested. Rhynochetos is a word of Greek origin, combining the prefix rhyn-, which refers to nose, with the suffix -ochetos, which means channel or duct. This name refers to the bird’s nostrils which are covered with flaps called nasal corns, that no other bird in the world has.

The taxonomy of the kagu has been a matter of contention for many years. It was a part of the loosely connected Gruiformes order, which consists of crane-like birds grouped by physical similarities, for a long time. However, ornithologists contested the inclusion of a number of birds in that order almost since the time it was first named. The kagu, along with one other bird, the sunbittern, were moved to their own order, Eurypygiformes, in the 1980s. Within that order, the kagu is the only living species in its family, Rhynochetidae.

Kagu Appearance

Kagus do not look like one would expect a bird that lives on the forest floor to appear. They are the lightest gray with just a hint of blue. Kagus have a tall crest of feathers, reminiscent of a cockatoo, that they can raise when threatened, during mating displays or other times at will. They also have dark and light stripes running across their wings, perpendicular to their bodies. The kagu’s feathers have a slightly fluffy appearance, and the birds have special feathers called powder downs, which produce powder that helps to keep the bird dry.

Their bright red-orange legs stand out in sharp contrast to their plumage. The kagu’s red eyes are striking in appearance and reportedly help them see better in the dim light of the forest. Kagus have long, pointed bills that are also red-orange, with corns that cover the nostrils and help prevent dirt and debris from getting inside.

kagu with orange flowers in background
The Kagu uses its beak to find insects and invertebrates in the ground.

iStock.com/NataliaVo

Juveniles are similar in appearance to adults, except for their coloring. Their plumage is a mix of light and dark brown, enabling them to camouflage better in their environment.

Size

Kagus are roughly the size of a chicken, but they have an appearance more closely matching that of a small heron or egret. They grow to approximately 22 inches in height and have a wingspan around 30 to 32 inches. Their weight ranges from around 1.5 to 2.4 pounds.

Kagu Behavior

Kagus are flightless birds. They spend their lives on the forest floor, searching for food among the leaf litter and the rocks and roots. The birds are most active during the day, and perch on low branches, tree trunks, vines, roots, and rocks when they are not foraging. They are fast on their feet and will jump over obstacles and glide down from ledges like a parkour runner to evade predators.

These birds engage in strutting with their crests raised high and their wings held down and out. This behavior is common during courtship and when encountering a rival. It is coupled with a dance, turning in circles around one another before strutting away, together or in opposite directions. Kagus can be somewhat aggressive in defending their territory but are otherwise rather docile birds. If cornered, they will flap and fan their highly patterned wings and raise their crest, perhaps to confuse the pursuer long enough to make an escape. Sometimes parents will fake an injury to lure predators away from their nest.

One of the most notable behaviors of the kagu is their morning ritual. Every day during breeding season, and much of the rest of the year as well, the forests of New Caledonia come alive each morning with the sound of kagus. Pairs raise their voices in song, dueting with one another in what some have described as a “screaming challenge” that lasts approximately 15 minutes and can be heard for miles. Males are more vocal than females. The loud kagu calls sound a lot like a cross between a rooster and a medium sized terrier, while softer calls may sound like hisses or cackles.

Diet

Kagus dig in leaf litter and between rocks and under roots to find their food. Their long beaks are essential to their foraging habits and the nasal corns help keep them from breathing in dirt and debris as they hunt. The kagu’s favorite foods include snails, worms, and lizards. They also eat insect larvae, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and insects such as cockroaches, beetles, crickets, and true bugs. They also occasionally eat fruit.  

When hunting, the kagu stands on one leg and remains very still, sometimes for long periods of time. It waits patiently, then strikes with precision, capturing its prey. These clever birds can use their bill to shred food and extract just the tasty bits.  

Kagu Reproduction

Kagus are monogamous birds, but live mostly solitary lives. Pairs will defend their nests and their territory together and they may mate for life. They live in a clan-based social unit with one female and one to three breeding males, plus additional male offspring that act as defenders. Females produce one chick per year.

The kagu nest is no sight to behold. In fact, it is little more than a loose pile of leaves on the ground. The males and females of kagu pairs take turns incubating the single egg for a little more than 30 days.

After kagu chicks hatch, they leave the nest to wander around in as little as three days. However, it stays close by and sleeps in the nest for six weeks, and near its parents for eight to ten weeks. Young kagus are fed by their parents until they are fourteen weeks old, when they finally reach independence. Yet they still stay nearby, assisting their parents defend younger offspring, until they are up to six years old. Kagus are so family oriented, they have even been known to adopt orphaned chicks.

Predators & Threats

The kagu is endemic to the main island of New Caledonia. It evolved on a patch of land in the ocean with no predators. Unfortunately, mammalian predators including dogs, cats, pigs and rats were all introduced to the island over time. Today, these predators are the greatest threat to the endangered kagu.

Another threat the kagu faces is habitat degradation. The main island is small, but only a tiny portion has the sort of dense forest that kagus prefer. Much of their former habitat has been cleared for ranching and mining.

Yves Letocart, a conservationist in New Caledonia, recognized the dire situation of the kagu in the 1970s. At that time the population had dropped to fewer than 100 birds. In the early 1980s, he began a captive breeding program and began to eradicate stray dogs that were living in Parc Provincial Rivière Bleue, a preserve for the endangered kagu. Numbers began to rebound, but the recovery was slow. This was partly due to the low hatchling rate of the kagu, and more to the destruction dealt by dogs.

Lifespan of the Kagu

Kagus can live up to 20 to 30 years in the wild if they are not eaten or otherwise dispatched prematurely. Currently, the population of kagus is estimated at fewer than 1,000 mature individuals, and they are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

There are five or fewer known subpopulations in New Caledonia. The largest population, in Parc des Grandes Fougères, had numbered more than 1,000 in 2017. But it lost 75 percent of its families in a single season that year to attacks by two stray dogs. The next largest population in Parc Provincial Rivière Bleue was approximately 500 in 2007, but steadily declined over the next five years. Likewise, populations outside the preserves have experienced steady decline in recent years.  

The Kagu in New Caledonian Culture

The kagu is known as the “ghost of the forest” by the indigenous Kanak people of New Caledonia. They incorporated the kagu’s calls into their war dances. They also hunted the birds for their meat and used their feathers in ceremonial dress. Outsiders in the 1800s also hunted the birds almost to extinction for their valuable feathers used in high fashion.

Today, the kagu is the national bird of New Caledonia and is an important symbol in the nation’s culture. It has appeared on New Caledonian money, on postage stamps, and on government documents. For a long time, its call could be heard nightly on the national television station as the broadcast day ended. Although much work must be done to stabilize the population of the kagu, most people of New Caledonia seem to support conservation efforts for this beloved bird.   

Similar Animals

  • Green Heron – This small heron is found on the island of Hawaii and other parts of North and Central America.
  • Egret – Different species of egrets live all over the world. Like the kagu, some of these birds have been adversely affected by the feather trade.
  • Whooping Crane – This endangered crane is found in North America. Like the kagu, the whooping crane is known for its loud call.

View all 58 animals that start with K

About the Author

Tavia discovered she had a gift for teaching when she was 21 years old. Having recently changed her major from engineering to wildlife biology, she was thrilled to take on an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She began her work excited about going into the field and saving endangered species, but soon realized she could make the biggest difference by helping to educate young people about animals, the environment and science in general. Tavia loves all animals, especially the ones that need our help the most. Over the years, she has cared for many pets, including snakes, toads, a tarantula, tree frogs, a salamander, hissing cockroaches, mice, donkeys, calves, horses, and a number of cats and dogs, but dogs are definitely her favorite! She believes that together, we can make our world a better place.

Kagu FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does the kagu look like?

The kagu has light blue-gray feathers with an impressive crest something like a cockatoo. It has a bright, red-orange bill and legs, and its nostrils are covered with flaps called nasal corns. Its eyes are bright red. When it spreads its wings, cross-banding of light and dark stripes can be seen.

How big is the kagu?

The kagu grows to a height of around 22 inches and weighs between 1.5 and 2.4 pounds. It is roughly the size of a chicken but shaped more like a heron.

What is the kagu’s wingspan?

The kagu’s wingspan is between 30 and 32 inches. When the bird spreads its wings, cross-banding can be seen, with light and dark stripes. The bird fans and flaps its wings when threatened, possibly to confuse predators or rivals.

Do kagus fly?

Kagus are flightless birds. They can glide short distances and jump on and around rocks and roots on the forest floor.

How many varieties of kagus exist?

The kagu, Rhynochetos jubatus, is the only living species in its family, Rhynochetidae. There is one other species in the family, but it is extinct and only known by fossil evidence.

What makes the kagu special?

The endangered kagu is the only bird in the world with nasal corns, flaps that cover the bird’s nostrils and help prevent dirt and debris from entering when the kagu is foraging.

Where do kagus live?

The kagu is only found on the main island of New Caledonia. It is not found in the wild anywhere else in the world.

Do kagus migrate?

Kagus do not migrate. They stay in relatively small territories on the main island of New Caledonia their whole lives.

What do kagus eat?

The kagu’s favorite foods include snails, worms, and lizards. They also eat insect larvae, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, and insects such as cockroaches, beetles, crickets, and true bugs. They also occasionally eat fruit.

How many eggs does the kagu lay?

Kagus lay only one egg per year.

When do kagus leave the nest?

Kagu chicks leave the nest to wander around as early as three days after they hatch, but they stay close, sleeping in the nest for six weeks and near their parents for up to 10 weeks.

How long do kagus live?

Kagus can live 20 to 30 years if their lives are not cut short by a predator or other catastrophe. Dogs are the most destructive predators kagus face. Cats, pigs and rats are also known predators.

Are kagus rare?

Kagus are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. There are fewer than 1,000 mature individuals estimated in total today. The largest subpopulation suffered losses of up to 75 percent of its families in 2017 due to two stray dogs.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Available here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Rhynocheti
  2. San Diego Zoo, Available here: https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/kagu
  3. Paul Tolme', Available here: https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2003/Gray-Ghosts-of-the-Cloud-Forest
  4. Xeno-canto, Available here: https://xeno-canto.org/species/Rhynochetos-jubatus?dir=0&order=elev&view=2
  5. IUCN Red List, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22692211/156666402

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