Cassowary chicks around Rainforest Hideaway in 2009
Cassowary juveniles growing up around Rainforest Hideaway in 2010
The cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) has been wandering around this planet since before the super continent Gondwana broke up in to several continents, and they have relatives in several distant continents. They belong to a family of birds called ratites and are related to the Emu, the Ostrich, the Kiwi (though there is a dramatic difference in size) and the South American Rhea - a little known bird that resembles a small emu and runs around plains in Patagonia. They are also related to the now extinct Moas of New Zealand and the 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 (genus Casuarius) are frugivorous; fallen fruit and fruit on low branches is the mainstay of their diet. They also eat fungi, insects, frogs, spiders, snakes and other small animals, even dead ones and roadkills. They live for about 40-50 years. They are the second-largest bird in Australia and the third-largest remaining bird in the world (the ostrich and emu are larger). "Cassowary" originates from the Malay name kesuari.
The birds grow to 1.5 - 1.8 m tall, though the females are larger and can reach 2 m and they weigh about 60 kilograms, but the heaviest recorded was 83kg. They have a bony casque on the head that is used to batter through underbrush, 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.
More likely it functions to protect the head by deflecting falling fruit, the birds spend a lot of time under trees where fruit falls and golf ball sized fruits falling from twenty metres can be very painful.
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 usually solitary birds but females will cruise around the forest mating with several males during the breeding season from May to November. Around Rainforest Hideaway we have been seeing them hang out together for years, even raising the chicks together which is normally only the male's task.
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. When she 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 crucial to the survival of the rainforest, as many of the seeds are too big to be dispersed by any other birds. The cassowary eats about 150 different ones. 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 deposited within a kilometre of where they were eaten.
The total population of cassowaries in Australia is estimated to be around the 1500, they are endangered and declared a protected species. The main problems for them are;
- loss of habitat through clearing 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 of sugarcane)
- fragmentation of habitat ( from roads, farms and subdivisions)
- vehicle traffic (road kills are the number one cause of adult cassowary deaths, especially around the Mission Beach area),
- dogs (which are especially aggressive to chicks and juveniles)
- 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
- Some birds are still being shot and eaten up Cape York
It’s best not to stop if you see a Cassowary on the road, but to slow down instead. This is to prevent encouragement of the bird’s interest in cars and to reduce its risk of being hit or causing an accident.
Do not feed a Cassowary as this reinforces its interest in people and contributes to its fearless attitude.
When driving near a Cassowary, move away quickly so the bird will become disinterested.
Where can you see this bird?
They only live roughly from Mission beach to just north of Cape Tribulation and inland as far as the Atherton Tablelands.
You may encounter them on the roads in these areas so keep your speed down but do not stop and definitely do not feed them.
Accommodation places to stay where you have a reasonable chance of seeing them;
Two mating cassowaries at the Mission Beach Sanctuary
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