Who said dinosaurs went extinct? The Southern Cassowary certainly doesn’t think so…
Deep in the rainforests – and occasionally patrolling the beaches, roads and campgrounds of Far North Queensland – an ancient creature struts its stuff. A tall casque sits atop its head whilst two wattles droop from it’s neck – yes, it’s a Southern Cassowary. The Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuaris) is a large flightless bird found in North Queensland and Papua New Guinea. They forage on the Forest Floor for fruits, of which some can only be digested by the Southern Cassowary; hence the importance of protecting this federally listed endangered species.
The cassowary has coarse hair-like feathers which give it a glossy and rough appearance when seen close up. Its wing stubs carry a small number of long, modified quills which curve around the body and appear rather imposing but serve little function other than decoration. Each heavy, well-muscled leg has three toes, with the inside toe bearing a large 12cm long dagger-shaped claw used for fighting other birds, not humans as we have been led to believe. Newly-hatched chicks are striped dark brown and creamy white for approximately 6 months then the stripes fade and the plumage changes to plain brown. As the young mature, the plumage darkens, the wattles and casque develop and the skin colour on the neck and wattles brighten.
There are 5 factors in the decline in numbers of the Southern Cassowary, that have made it an Endangered species:
- Ongoing loss of habitat through clearing for residential development and agricultural expansion
- Fragmented habitat – ever decreasing forest size (especially from roads and subdivisions)
- Car strikes – road kills are the number one cause of adult cassowary deaths
- Feral pigs – impact on their habitat and eat eggs
- Dogs – attack cassowaries and can often cause death because they are especially aggressive to chicks and juveniles. This also leads to a dislike of Cassowaries by civilians as it encourages a mentality of ‘the Cassowary attacked my poor dog’ regardless of the truth of the situation in which the dog most likely initiated conflict and the Cassowary is a native Endangered species whilst dogs are declared a pest when feral.
Unfortunately the media does not portray any species of Cassowary in a positive light but as I discovered on my trip to Cape York, the Southern Cassowary is one of the most curious, inquisitive and pleasant birds to share company with, and certainly not deserving of the reputation it has been given. The only time to exhibit extreme caution around the Southern Cassowary is when the Male is taking care of young chicks and even in this situation if you give them room to move you will be fine. If you do stumble across one with young, and it does get defensive, the best option is to hide behind an object, like a tree, or try to appear taller than you are by putting your hands in the air.
I encourage you to slow down when driving through the bush no matter where you are in Australia but also treat yourself and go looking for Cassowary this year, if you’d like to see Southern Cassowary in the wild feel free to contact us on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can recommend locations to see these ancient and misunderstood birds.