You need to be casso-wary

When in Far North Queensland, we visited Hartley’s Crocodile & Wildlife Park near Cairns.  The creature that took my attention was a southern cassowary haughtily marching along the fence of its large enclosure. If you want a bird with wow factor, this one’s a stunning example.

A southern cassowary, for those who’ve not seen one, is a very tall intimidating bird with a boney helmet on its head, a bright blue neck and drooping red wattles. Unless you’re waddling around a zoo, you’ll only see these in tropical rainforests in north-east Queensland.

Why you should be wary of a cassowary

Cassowaries are actually quite shy and prefer to disappear into the forest before you remotely figure out they’re there.

The ladies are bigger and more brightly coloured than the men (as it should be). Height-wise they can grow to 2m (6.6ft). They’ve got tiny wings hence no flying about – and each of their three-toed feet has a second toe sporting a very sharp dagger-like claw.

This claw is why you need to be wary of a cassowary. If you annoy one too much, it could slice you with that claw and spill your intestines onto the grass below. You certainly don’t want to chase one through the dense forest either because they can jump up to 1.5m (5ft), swim across raging rivers and over the sea, and belt through dense forest at speeds up to 50kph (31mph).

However, in the real world, there’s only one documented death of a human from a whack by a cassowary and that was way back in 1926. Two boys, 13 and 16 year old brothers, saw a cassowary on their Dad’s property and because they were idiots, thought they’d kill the bird by whacking it with clubs.

The bird kicked the 13 year old, who ran off. His older brother then struck the bird. He tripped and fell and the cassowary took the opportunity to kick him in the neck which probably severed his jugular vein. One kaput 16 year old. Personally I vote for the bird.

If you like statistics, there were 221 attacks in 2003 of which 150 were against humans. This was mostly because humans fed the cassowaries (a big no-no) and the birds came to expect or snatch the food. Most of the other attacks were because the male was defending its nest.

This was my favourite painting to do. Who’d have thought cassowaries and boots could be such fun. Sadly I made it too tall and then couldn’t decide if I should cut the bottom part of the boot off, or the top of the cassowary’s head. The compromise was to fold down the top so you can open up the painting and see the lot.

Cassowary hi-jinks

The boney helmet on top of a cassowary’s head (called a casque) grows as they age, but it’s not really known what the casque is for. Perhaps it:

  • helps them smash through undergrowth so they don’t hurt their heads
  • enables them to push leaf litter around while scratching for tasty treats
  • enables them to smack other cassowaries around when fighting over who’s the biggest dude in the forest
  • amplifies low-frequency sounds made by cassowaries who are ready for a bit of naughty fun. That’s my theory. Feel free to make up your own.

Cassowaries munch on fallen fruit (their favourite), flowers, fungi, snails, insects, fish, frogs, rats, mice and dead creatures. Because they eat fruit whole, they’re VERY important for distributing plant species through the forest.

Each year, their solitary lifestyle is interrupted when a female or male decide it’s time for a bit of sexual proliferation. Males may share a female, but females will not tolerate another female hanging in their space.

In May or June, Mrs Cassowary lays 3-8 eggs in a heap of leaves, then Mr C moves in for nine months to incubate the eggs and look after the little chickies. I’m starting to think female cassowaries have it all worked out.

Wild cassowaries are thought to live to about 40 to 50 years. It’s endangered because humans run vehicles over them, dogs attack them, they get shot, tangled in fence wire, habitat destroyed by humans or cyclones, or they die from disease. Then feral pigs eat their eggs and other creatures eat their food supplies. It’s not a marvellous outcome.

So treat these birds with respect and behave yourself in the forest, then you needn’t be too wary of the magnificent cassowary!

My desk with the cassowary painting in action