One of Australia's most amazing birds is the cassowary, standing
up to two metres tall, covered in coarse black double stranded feathers,
and decorated with bright colors of orange and blue on its neck
Due to a lot of rainforest having been cleared to make room for
agriculture this elusive flightless bird is now highly endangered
and lives only in the Wet Tropics area of North Queensland, another
patch of remote rainforest high up on the Cape York peninsula, and
in Papua New Guinea.
The cassowary (Latin name Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) has been
cruising around on this planet since before the super continent
Gondwana broke up in to several continents, and several distant
continents have birds related to the cassowary.
Cassowaries belong to a family of birds called ratites and are related
to the Emu, the Ostrich, the Kiwi (though there is a big difference
in size) and the South American Rhea - a less famous bird that resembles
a small emu and runs around on the plains in Patagonia. Cassowaries
are also related to the now extinct Moas of New Zealand and the
also extinct Elephant Bird of Madagascar. In New Guinea there are
two other species of cassowary too but in Australia the only species
is the Southern Cassowary.
Cassowaries are frugivorous, fallen fruit and fruit on low branches
is the bulk of their diet. They also eat fungi, insects, frogs,
spiders, snakes and other small animals, even dead ones and roadkills.
They live to about 40-50 years of age and are the second-largest
bird in Australia and the third-largest remaining bird in the world
(the ostrich and emu are larger).
Cassowaries grow to about 1.5 - 1.8 m in height, although the females
are larger and can reach 2 m and they weigh about 60 kilograms,
the heaviest recorded cassowary was 83kg. Cassowaries have a bony
casque on their head that is used to help them through the dense
rainforest vegetation, this is made of keratin, the same material
as our nails and hair.
The casque is also used for headbutting and some people believe
it is used to receive the very low frequency humming noise that
they can make.
Personally, I have another theory on the casque; one day I saw
the cassowary eating the fallen seeds of the black palm. The golfball
size seeds were still dropping and I realized that since cassowaries
eat fallen fruit they spend a good part of their life under trees
that are still dropping seeds, the impact of a golfball like seed
on the small head of the cassowary devastating, but the shape of
the casque would make the seed reflect of the cassowary's head,
from an engineering point of view the best way to reduce the impact.
And I have another theory; the cassowaries are a bunch of junkies,
tripping off their heads like human LSD users, and most likely see
pink elephants flying around the rainforest.
When you consider the fact that:
1. they daily eat many kilos of rainforest seeds that are poisonous
to humans and filled with toxic and hallucinogenic substances and
2. they have a brain that is smaller than their eye
just imagine the effect of a 2 litre milkjug filled with hallucinogenic
chemicals on a brain the size of an olive......
Cassowary visiting Rainforest Hideaway
Usually cassowaries are very shy but when they feel threatened
or want to protect their young they can lash out dangerously with
their powerful legs and jump and kick with both legs at once. Their
three-toed feet have sharp claws; the dagger-like middle claw is
12 cm long. Cassowaries are very capable of killing dogs by disemboweling
them and have injured people, though only one death has been recorded,
more on this on cassowary
attacks. They can run up to 50 km/h and jump up to 1.5 m. They
are also good swimmers.
They don't have much of a family life, they are solitary birds
but females will cruise around the forest mating with several males
during the breeding season from May to November. Courtship is initiated
by the male when a female enters his territory. The smaller sized
male must approach the larger female with caution because if she
is not in the mood she is capable of seriously injuring him. The
male begins courtship by circling around the female and making a
low rumbling sound. Both the male and the female have a phallic-looking
“pseudo-penis” appendage. However, this is not connected
to any of their reproductive organs internally. During copulation,
the male ejaculates through his cloaca—an orifice that lies
at the base of the pseudo-penis and not the tip. Males also have
what is usually described as a “vagina-like cavity.”
When they aren’t mating, the pseudo-penis is turned inside
out and retracted into this orifice.When the female has laid her
eggs, three to eight, measuring about 90 by 140 mm and pale green-blue
in color, in a shallow scrape in the ground in which the male has
placed leaves and grass, she moves on again to repeat the process
with another male. It is the male's duty to incubate the eggs for
about fifty days and also to care for the chicks for another year
or so. The chicks are striped until they are about 6-9 months old
and become a glossy black colour when they are about 3 years old.
By that time, the skin on the neck and head begins to turn color,
and the casque begins to develop. Cassowaries are capable of breeding
when they are three years old.
Cassowaries are vital to the survival of the rainforest, as many
of the seeds are too large to be dispersed by any other means. The
cassowary eats about 150 different rainforest seeds. Cassowaries
swallow fruit whole and then excrete intact fruit seeds in large
piles of dung which acts as a ready-made fertiliser, the dung helps
the seed to grow. White-tailed rats, bush rats, melomys and musky
rat-kangaroos sometimes feast on seeds in cassowary droppings. But
most seeds survive to germinate. Usually, seeds are dropped within
a kilometre of where they were eaten.
The total population of cassowaries in Australia is estimated to
be only around the 1500, they are endangered and declared a protected
The main problems for them are;
- loss of habitat through clearing of rainforest
for residential settlement and agricultural expansion (nowadays
everyone thinks the rainforest starts at the Daintree river, it
used to start hundreds of kilometres further south before the introduction
- fragmentation of habitat ( from roads, farms
- vehicle traffic (road kills are the number one
cause of adult cassowary deaths, especially around the Mission Beach
- dogs (which are especially aggressive to chicks
- feral pigs - they compete for food with cassowaries
and chew the seeds so they will not be dispersed and germinated
like when they pass through a cassowary, and pigs might even eat
small cassowary chicks.
This 'before and after' bit of artwork is situated along the road
to Cape Tribulation.
You can buy this artwork on T-shirts and stubby coolers
What to do if you see a cassowary on the road;
1. DO NOT FEED THE CASSOWARY
2. Slow down but resist the temptation to stop, honk to scare the
bird off so it goes back in to the forest.This is to prevent the
bird becoming interested in cars and to reduce its risk of being
hit or causing an accident in the future.
Cassowary at Rainforest Hideaway in Cape Tribulation
Cassowary and chicks on the main road up to Cape Tribulation