Ask a ten year old what the largest bird in the world is and the chances are you will get the right answer – the ostrich. Asked about the second largest and the odds are still very good that they will be able to name the Emu. Go for third place in the size league and you may well start to get blank looks from all but the keenest young ornithologist. The answer is the Cassowary – and not only is it endangered but is also classified as the world’s most dangerous bird.
The rainforest of the north eastern coast of Australia is home to the Southern Cassowary and as the third largest bird on the planet it is strange that its reputation is not greater. Certainly, it is a remarkable looking animal, almost like something out of ‘Jurassic Park’ with its large casque (a horn like crest which indicates age and dominance) positioned, dinosaur like on its forehead. Estimates vary but it is thought that only around 1500 of this mysterious and ancient creature still survive in the wild.
Many female birds do not share the same brightly colored plumage as the male of the species. The female Cassowary, on the other hand, does and is stronger and bigger than the male. During the mating ceremony it is the male who takes the passive role and the female can take up to three different mates contiguously. The final partner she attracts will be the one to rear the young. That’s correct, after a month or so of courtship the female lays the clutch of eggs and removes herself from the scene. The hapless male is left to incubate the eggs and look after the young. He may never be able to request a DNA paternity test but nevertheless it is unlikely that all of the brood will be his.
Not only this, during the fifty days and nights it takes to incubate the eggs the male will most often lose up to about a third of his body weight as he cannot wander far to forage for food. Cassowaries are, however, omnivorous although their preferred food is fruit. They will eat small vertebrates and invertebrates when necessary. When surprised this inhibited and diffident bird will choose to run – and boy can they run. They can run at speeds up to fifty kilometers and hour through dense rainforest. However, when they are cornered they can maim or kill people and have (rarely) done so. The Guinness World Record Book puts them at the top of the list of birds dangerous to man.
Most of its habitat has been declared a World Heritage rainforest and this charismatic and bizarre looking bird – often as tall as a man – sometimes finds itself in conflict with a rather more common ape-like mammal whose settlements extend right up to the edge of the rainforest. This of course would be man and when natural disasters occur, such as Cyclone Harry in 2006, much of the rainforest can be flattened and become useless for foraging which means that the shy Cassowary must go looking for food.
The human inhabitants of the outlying towns do not hunt the birds but the reserved and somewhat timid nature of the bird means that both species easily become a danger to the other when they come in to contact. During the aftermath of Cyclone Harry four of the birds were found dead in a single township. That in itself is not a huge number but when it is considered that these were only the ones discovered and measured against their total population it becomes obvious that these birds and humans should not really mix.
When reduced to begging in enclaves of humanity, the birds can often lose some of the wildness. Although they never become tame they do become seemingly more docile towards humans and this can sometimes lead to regrettable accidents where the birds become frightened (they are naturally skittish) and do damage with their claws, one of which is almost five inches in length. Their inner toe in the medial position looks like a dagger. When panicked these birds have been known to kick – and sometimes kill – dogs and humans. Tall tales abound but there is little real evidence of this species being an avian equivalent to a ninja army or, for that matter, hunting people in a ‘Planet of the Cassowaries’ type scenario.
Although the danger presented by cassowaries is real it has been somewhat exaggerated and it is almost unheard of for one of the birds to instigate an attack. In the vast majority of cases the birds have been approached by people wanting to feed them. The birds suddenly panic and usually chase or charge their ‘victim’. Urban myths abound about the birds being able to disembowel a man with their claws. The last record human death by cassowary was in 1926. The claws however cannot do this – though they can leave a nasty puncture wound up to two centimeters in diameter.
It is hoped that with the right kind of intervention that the species can be saved. With cyclones of ever increasing severity and the pressure from human population threatening the bird, the Southern Cassowary is in dire straits at the moment. Even when it makes its incursions in to human territory it may find food but it will never be at home. Unlike the ostrich and emu, to which it is related, the Cassowary is most at home in the rainforest where the vegetation is dense and it can disappear from view quickly. By preserving and hopefully extending the rainforest it is hoped that this beautiful but shy species can be left to its own devices – and thrive.