March 18, 2010

Endangered Strangers: The Kagu

"Darlene. Darlene! Check this out. Darlene!"


"Check it out, I'm one of those alien guys from the end of The Dark Crystal! You know, when the two races of good and bad unite into one? You know, that cool end part with the special effects? Fer reals, right?! Darlene!"

"Oh give it a rest Frank."

"Come on Darlene, you gotta hand it to the guy. He does really look like me."

The Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) is a almost flightless bird that dwells only in the thick forests of the island of New Caledonia, a French territory that lies off the east coast of Australia. Because of its rarity and remote habitat, much is still an mystery about this enigmatic avian. Scientists are not even sure which major category of birds to place it with, and intense debate continues today...

The Kagu is the only living member of it's family Rhynochetidae, and possesses several other unusual traits, such as it's very visible light-gray coloration, which is unusual for a floor dwelling forest bird. It also has a feature, interestingly called 'nasal corns' possessed by no other bird (hence its scientific name: rhis = nose, chetos = corn), as well as having only 1/3 the red blood cells and 3 times the hemoglobin as other avians.

However, this rare bird may be threatened with extinction before we even understand its unusual features.

The Kagu builds a nest on the ground, in which it lays a single egg. Because of this, its eggs and nestlings are very vulnerable to introduced predators. New Caledonia had no mammals, save bats, before the arrival of human beings --- but since then, dogs, cats, rats and pigs have been brought to the island, all of which would happily snack on a lone egg or nestling. Initially subsistence hunting and capture for pets initiated the species' decline, but today, predation of eggs and young, as well as habitat loss due to the mining and forestry industries plays a larger part.

In recent years however, the situation has become more hopeful. The Kagu occupies a place of high regard on New Caledonia, being considered an emblem for the territory, with the bird's distinctive call even being played every night as the local TV station signs off. The Kagu is now the subject of highly dedicated conservation projects, as well as captive breeding, both of which are proving to be successful. If only we could tie more species' survival to the image of their respective host nations (see the recovery of the Bald Eagle), all endangered species might have a better chance!

So, at least for the strange and wonderful Kagu, for now, things are looking (crests) up!

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