Be Cass-o-wary

Skyrail Nature Diary: August 2005

Standing at two metres tall and weighing in at up to 85kg, the Southern Cassowary claims its place as Australia’s heaviest, flightless bird.

This unique species is endemic to Australia’s Tropical Rainforests and is classified as being endangered; in fact, there are only believed to be between 900 and 1,500 of these majestic birds left in the wild.

The Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) is a member of the Ratite family of flightless birds, which also includes the Emu, Kiwi and Ostrich. It is a particularly distinctive looking species, easily recognisable with its strong legs, shiny black plumage, bright blue neck, red wattles and prominent head casque.

The Cassowary casque, a bone-like structure protruding from the top of its head, can be used to determine a cassowary’s age (the larger the casque the older the bird). The casque is also thought to deflect foliage when the Cassowary is moving through the dense rainforest.

The Cassowaries attractive markings make it easy to spot in the rainforest undergrowth, as does the birds’ impressive statue. Mature females can grow to 85kg whilst their male counterparts weigh in at 40kg.

Generally speaking, Cassowaries are solitary creatures, however, this all changes in the breeding season which is from June to October.

Interestingly, it is the male Cassowary which is responsible for hatching the eggs and rearing the chicks. Given that hatching takes approximately 50 days, and that the male bird then spends another year watching over the chicks, it is usual that a male Cassowary will only have one partner per season. In contrast, the female Cassowary will move on after laying her eggs, often breeding with several partners during the year.

Whilst incubating the eggs and raising the chicks, the male Cassowary becomes fiercely protective. In fact, cassowaries are considered potentially dangerous at this time of year, and with an 8cm middle toe (claw) on their feet, there is little wonder why!

Cassowaries will not, generally, attack without provocation, however you should not approach a Cassowary when it is nesting or with its chicks. They can jump and kick, which can result in nasty injury and/or death (although the only recorded fatality was in April 1926, near Mossman).

It because of the Cassowaries endangered status, and its potential nasty streak, that you will notice signage instructing you to stay away from the birds and not to feed them. Also, at this time of year, there are a series of television commercials reminding locals and visitors to be Cass-o-wary! Please take heed of signage and commercials and avoid contact with a Cassowary in the wild.

If you do ‘meet’ a Cassowary in the wild, do not approach it; slowly back away from the bird, facing it all times, and hold a bag or piece of clothing in front of you to deflect a potential kick.

Cassowary’s can live up to 40 years of age and are considered a keystone species in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests.