Kagu

science

Let me tell you about the time I met a kagu. In case you've never seen a picture of one before, the kagu, Rhynochetos jubatus, is the national bird of New Caledonia, and was extremely endangered in the early 1980's, getting down to about 60 or 70 individuals in the world. The kagu is the only surviving representative of an entire family of birds which was once endemic in New Caledonia. Their problem--as with many island bird species--was that they were totally unprepared by evolution for the introduction of mammals like pigs, dogs, rats and cats. In many ways, kagus are rather odd birds. They nest on the ground, bark like dogs, hiss like snakes when threatened, and can't really fly. None of these superhero-like abilities equipped them well for dealing with ground-dwelling mammalian predators, and when the effects of habitat reduction were factored in, it looked as if the kagu was doomed to go the way of the dodo or the moa.

Luckily, a concerted effort was made to protect the species, lead by a remarkable man called Yves Letocart (who I was lucky enough to meet while I was there). Non-native predators were trapped or shot, and a captive breeding programme established to build the numbers up before reintroducing individuals back into the wild. Now, there are around 1,000 individuals in New Caledonia, and they are breeding successfully in the wild. Since they are an endemic species, this is 1,000 in the world--still a very rare bird, but in a much better state than before.

When I was staying in New Caledonia, I spent some time in Parc de la Rivière Bleu, and caught tantalising glimpses of kagus, melting into the forest when I was too far away to see them, even with binoculars. I really wanted to see one close up--partly because I'd never seen such an endangered animal before--but I resigned myself to only seeing them from a distance. One rainy day, I took shelter in one of the thatched open-sided huts--provided in the Parc near the camping areas--to write up my field notes. I was sitting quietly, writing away, when I spotted a greyish bird wandering towards me. I saw the red beak and legs, and realized with a shock that it was a kagu. I immediately froze and watched as it slowly pottered towards me, fossicking away in the damp grass for food.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who--when in an environment where any noise would be totally frowned upon--inevitably feels an irresistible urge to cough or sneeze. The closer the kagu got, the stronger the urge to cough became. This is why I will never make a field ornithologist. I was terrified that I would cough explosively, the kagu would have a heart attack or die of shock, and I would be personally responsible for reducing the world kagu population by about 0.1%. When it was about 1m away from me, I couldn't hold back any longer, and coughed at what seemed to me to be thunderous decibel levels. I watched the kagu in horror, convinced that it was about to keel over. There were several tense moments in which terrified biologist met the gaze of mildly perplexed kagu. It stared at me--motionless for a few moments--performed the bird equivalent of shrugging its shoulders, then carried on pottering about, whereupon I remembered that breathing is fairly important prerequisite for human survival. I ended up watching it for about 20 minutes more before it finally disappeared into the forest. It was a real priviledge.

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