Name: Southern Cassowary
Scientific Classification: Casuarius casuarius
Alternative Names: double-wattled cassowary, Australian cassowary, two-wattled cassowary
Location: they are found in dense tropical rainforests of Indonesia, New Guinea and northeast Australia, but the casuarius casuarius johnsonii is exclusive to Australia.
- The term cassowary comes from the Papuan term kasu weri, meaning horned head, and this refers to the large crest on its head, which is called a casque.
- Southern cassowaries are large flightless birds that are related to emus, Africa’s ostrich and New Zealand’s kiwi.
- They have a large body covered in black feathers and strong legs with three toes, with the middle one wielding a dagger-like claw. If they feel threatened, they will kick out with both feet at once, and have been known to disembowel people. This is rare though, as they prefer to run off into the safety of the dense rainforest – they can do short sprints of 40km/h.
- Their featherless neck and head are colourful with hues of purple and blue with bright red wattles, and these change colour depending on their mood.
- They can stand up to 170 centimetres tall and the female is Australia’s heaviest bird at 85kg compared to the smaller 40kg male.
- Cassowaries forage on the forest floor, digging around with their feet and casque to find fallen fruit, snails, fungi and small animals. Cassowaries are important for the survival of rainforests as their droppings spread seeds around.
- During the dry winter months, the male builds a nest on the forest floor that the female lays three to five eggs into. The male then sits on the eggs for 50 days until the eggs hatch. The stripy chicks stick with dad for around 9 months and become sexually mature at 2-3 years. Cassowaries can live to 40 years of age.
- They are endangered and at risk of extinction due to road kills, dog attacks and habitat destruction.
We’ve seen plenty of cassowaries in wildlife parks like Urimbirra Wildlife Park in Victor Harbour and Birdworld in Kuranda, but the real treat is to see them in the wild. Even then, they are very shy and quickly disappear into the thick undergrowth. We saw two cassowaries on our way to Cairns from Cooktown, and another at the Ma:mu Tropical Skywalk near Innisfail.
If you are lucky enough to see one foraging for food in the undergrowth, observe it quietly and don’t approach or feed it. If you’re driving in your car, slow down to avoid hitting them. If they become defensive, their attack can be very dangerous and even deadly. Do not turn your back and run. Hide behind a tree or use your backpack as a shield.