Susan Buckland: Biculturally barking bird

By Susan Buckland

COMMENT

French attempts to stop English words from invading their language have been as successful as their involvement with the Battle of Waterloo. But they shouldn't worry. Their ability to find words that mimic the calls of animals and birds has it all over the English.

I'm a real fan of the French animal and bird noises. You may think "woof woof" sums up a canine conversation, but get French people barking "aou aou," and you enter new dimensions of dog talk.

French rooster chat is similarly illuminating. "Cocorrico" is the sound issued forth from pursed French lips.

"Bee bee," they bleat when impersonating goats. And French frogs, in case you are wondering, go "croua croua".

Of course you will say the English rendition of quacking gets close to the duck mark. But try "coin coin" (pronounced "qua qua") with your nose pinched for French nasal intonation and you will attract every May 1 marksman for miles around.

So when I came upon the word "cagou" in a New Caledonia newspaper, I wondered if some creature had inspired it. A photo of a national sports team showed "cagou" splashed on every shirt.

The meaning of the word then unfolded in a souvenir shop. They sat in a row of beaky, stuffed birds peering from their shelf. The real thing hisses like a cat and barks like a dog, the shop assistant said. The cagou turned out to be New Caledonia's national bird, but sadly there are more stuffed than live examples these days.

The cagou has suffered the fate of many other South Pacific native birds where introduced species and deforestation have drastically reduced their numbers.

I wanted to see one in its natural habitat before leaving New Caledonia, but my plane was within hours of departure. The option was to see an enclosed cagou in the city's Zoological Gardens.

I heard him before I saw him. A hoarse sound, like a throat clearing. Then he appeared from behind a bush and scrutinised me in that cocked-head way of birds.

He looked surprisingly plain - like a pigeon on a diet. But get this bird excited and you'll be treated to a spectacular flourish of feathers spreading from the crown like an Indian head-dress. Would he treat me to the glory of his plumage? The minutes ticked by and the famous feathers remained clamped out of sight. All I got was a series of disapproving barks.

A deflating experience until Jacques came putt-putting up on a moped and introduced himself. The cagou and other birds in the gardens came under his care. Jacques patted the back seat of the moped. "Op on. We see more birds."

Off we went past enclosures of exotic birds which enchanted with brilliant song and feathery displays. They are all Jacques' friends. And he knew that the cagou had something in common with the kiwi. New Caledonia's national icon can't fly.

New Caledonians are proud of their barking, flightless birds that mate for life. And Jacques loves looking after them. There they are in gardens above the city with fabulous views over bays where people swim and windsurf year round in subtropical temperatures.

The most accessible place to see the cagou in its natural habitat is about an hour south of Noumea in Blue River Park. But Jacques does worry about the vulnerable, isolated populations living in the last primary forests of the Grand Terre. At least in the park predators are being eliminated to aid the birds' survival.

Go early to Blue River to catch the cagou in full plumage, advises Jacques.

As for the name of the bird, I learned that "cagou" derives from an onomatopoeic mix of Melanesian and French. Kagu plus aou equals cagou. And what could be better than a bicultural bark?

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