The Fascinating Flightless Cassowary

The Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) is a large flightless bird found in the Seram Islands of Indonesia and the tropical rainforests of Aru, as well as New Guinea and northeastern Australia. Cassowaries have a reputation for being bad tempered and dangerous, a reputation that has been reinforced by the 2004 edition of the Guinness World Records, which lists the Cassowary as the most dangerous bird in the world.

Reaching a weight of 85 kgs, the Southern Cassowary is the second largest bird in the world (after the Ostrich), and is the largest of the three-member Cassowary family. It has hard, stiff plumage, a blue face and neck, a brown casque (horn-like crest) and a red nape. Because of the two red wattles hanging down its throat, the Southern Cassowary is also referred to as the Double-wattled Cassowary or Two-wattled Cassowary. The plumage of the Southern Cassowary is sexually monomorphic, but the female is larger than the male, is dominant and has brighter colored bare parts, as well as a longer casque. The plumage of the immature Southern Cassowary is plain brown.

This solitary bird only pairs in the breeding season, which occurs in late winter or spring. The male Southern Cassowary is a stay-at-home dad. He builds the nest, incubates the clutch of three to six eggs and raises the chicks. The nest, which is a mattress-like structure made out of herbaceous plant material, is built on the ground in a sheltered area, such as among tall grass.

The Cassowary is an elusive bird, preferring to hide out in dense foliage and long grass, avoiding contact with humans. But when disturbed, and especially when cornered or threatened, Cassowaries are known to lash out with their powerful legs, and are fully capable of inflicting a fatal blow to an adult human.

The Cassowary’s prehistoric-looking casque is the subject of much debate among avian experts as to what its purpose is. One possibility is that it serves as an identifying feature for determining the sex of the bird, with the female’s casque being longer than the males. Other suggestions are that the casque is used by the bird to batter its way through thick underbrush; is used as a tool for pushing leaf litter aside when foraging; or it may be used as a weapon in dominance disputes. Research indicates that it is very likely that the Cassowary uses its casque in some form of acoustic communication.

Fruit on low branches, or fallen fruit, is the mainstay of the Cassowary’s diet. In rain forests they serve an integral role in the ecosystem as they swallow the fruit whole and distribute seeds in the excrement across the jungle floor. They are also known to eat fungi, insects, snails, frogs, insects and even snakes.

Sadly, loss of habitat has caused a drastic decline in Southern Cassowary numbers. In the Mission Beach area of Australia alone, Cassowaries have lost around 50 percent of their vital habitat over the past decade. With the encroachment of man, hand feeding the birds has become a problem, as the food offered is seldom good for their state of health. Southern Cassowaries are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List of Threatened Species, which means that avian conservationists are aware of the problem and will no doubt take whatever steps are necessary to stop the decline, and even reverse the current situation.