The Southern Cassowary is a rare and ancient bird who makes it’s home only in the tropical regions of North Queensland and Papua New Guinea. These giant birds belong to the Ratite family which includes Ostriches, Emus, Rheas and Kiwis. They can trace their origins all the way back to the time of Gondwana and the fracturing of the continents.
Cassowaries are heavy flightless birds and they are enormous. They are the third tallest after the African Ostrich and the Australian Emu. The female (who is larger than the male) can reach a height of around two metres and can weigh in excess of seventy kilograms. They primarily eat fruit but they are, in fact, omnivorous, consuming everything from small insects to mammals. We once watched a male and his three chicks devour the carcass of a Bandicoot in the filtered shade of a clearing. Thankfully a passing local had noticed the road kill, and the family’s interest, so they had thoughtfully tossed the body back into the forest, keeping the quartet of precious birds safe from traffic.
Cassowaries are highly valued up here and their care and preservation is important to the people who share their beautiful part of the world. Unlike many other species of bird, Southern Cassowaries can often be told apart by their size, habits, location and particularly their casques. The loss of an individual is cause for much sadness in the local community.
The Southern Cassowary is a keystone species in the rainforests of Tropical North Queensland. One of the reasons that this precious remnant of Gondwanan forest is still with us is due to this wonderful creature. As the Cassowary slips through the dark tangle of undergrowth it swallows up whole fruit, digesting all but the seeds. The seeds are then passed by the bird in another part of the forest , all surrounded in a steamy pile of rich fertiliser.. The Daintree has such a unique diversity of rare, prehistoric plants and animals thanks in great part to the Southern Cassowary and it’s very effective seed distribution.
The female Southern Cassowary is solitary, territorial and dominant. She spends most of her time alone, generally seeking the company of others when it’s breeding time. When ready she selects her mate and, as happens in nature, it’s often the male with an impressive casque and brilliant colouring who makes the grade. From our observations though, she will sometimes seek out a smaller or less impressive mate if she knows from experience that he has a good record in parenting. You see, the females wander off after laying the eggs and the job of guarding the nest, hatching the chicks and raising the young is the fathers job alone. So, to a wise and observant female, a diligent proven dad is probably better than a newer pretty one.
The Southern Cassowary has a fearsome reputation and visitors to the Tropical North are often cautioned to watch out for the towering “killer birds”. Of course, this is not really the case. The Cassowary does have a razor sharp talon in the inner of it’s three toes. These talons can measure up to twelve centimetres in length and they are used for self defence. When threatened the bird will raise itself up to it’s full height and powerfully strike out with it’s mighty foot. The keyword here is “threatened”. If the bird is respected and you keep your distance from them and their chicks, they will quietly go about their way. We are lucky to come across them quite often and in over twenty years we have only witnessed a bird “turn” a couple of times. On both occasions it was because someone suddenly approached it, thankfully both birds and humans were unharmed.
The Southern Cassowary is rare and endangered but thanks to the Daintree Rainforests’ World Heritage status and changing attitudes, we are seeing more than ever before. Every year we break our previous record of sightings and we have had the great pleasure of watching generations grow and thrive. So often stories from the wildlife front are very sad but it is heartening to remember that we can make a big difference and it is possible to preserve precious wildlife and their habitats.