Cassowaries

Despite being the third biggest bird in the world, cassowaries aren’t anywhere nearly as well-known as ostriches and emus. This may be because they’re shy and solitary birds, living in the depths of the tropical rainforest, although they’re utterly distinctive with their bright blue and red head and large casque on their head that grows steadily with age.

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There are three types of cassowary, but I’m talking about the southern cassowary here, which lives in the tropical north of Queensland as well as New Guinea. The others (the dwarf and northern cassowaries) are even more obscure and live in New Guinea. There are only about 1,000 to 2,000 of them in Queensland – they range over large territories which means that habitat loss and roads plus the associated hits from traffic are particularly deadly to them.

To show how obscure they are, no-one really knows what their casques are for. Despite being the only animal alive today with such a thing (I think!), we still haven’t figured out what it’s for yet. Theories have included:

  • to attract mates – what, like a peacock’s tail?
  • as a ‘fruit-knocking’ tool – I know I always knock my fruit before I eat it!
  • as a weapon – but why bother when you’ve got 13cm dagger-like toes on the end of some of the most powerful legs in the bird kingdom?
  • to push past saplings etc as they charge through the undergrowth. A lovely idea, but really?
  • perhaps most likely seems to be that they have some kind of acoustic function to help hear the low-frequency booming calls they make through the rainforest.

As well being rare, solitary and living in remote places, attempts to learn more about them has also been stymied by politics and conservation issues. But consider that we seem to know more about the horns of dinosaurs like corythosaurus and parasaurolophus from a few ancient fossils than we do about the still extant cassowary.

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Cassowaries can be dangerous – they certainly have the capability to do considerable damage with their sheer size, big sharp toes (see picture above) and strong legs – they can run at 50km/h (faster than Usain Bolt) and jump 1.5m off the ground. They are the only birds apart from ostriches known to have definitively killed humans. There are endless gory stories both ancient and modern involving eagles carrying off children but no proof, although you might also want to be wary of chickens! However attacks are not common, and are almost invariably linked to provocation or feeding them (so don’t!). The one documented fatality was nearly a century ago in 1926 when a 16-year old boy with a dog tried to kill one, so you can hardly blame the bird for fighting back. So go carefully, but I don’t think you need to be over-concerned.

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That’s a dad with the young one – male cassowaries do all the childcare, and are also a bit smaller and less brightly coloured than the females.

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All the pictures here are of the one pair we saw whilst up in the Daintree rainforest. We’d been hoping to see one the whole time we were up there, and then towards the end of our stay we came round a corner of the road and there were two. Thanks to careful cropping you can’t see the other people who had stopped to look, but I was pleased with the shots I got.

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When we got back to the fruit farm where we were staying I described our encounter to the owners. They said it’s not that uncommon to come across cassowaries in the road – as far as the birds are concerned it’s just another forest clearing. However they usually try to scare them off into the rainforest as they’re at much more risk in the road.

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See more Australian wildlife

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