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.
About the Southern Cassowary
Southern Cassowaries are heavy flightless birds and they are enormous. They are the third tallest after the Ostrich and the 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.
Southern Cassowary diet
The Southern Cassowary primarily eats fruit but they are, in fact, omnivorous. Taking advantage of whatever they can find they consume everything from small insects to mammals.
We once watched a male and his three chicks devour the carcass of a Bandicoot in a clearing. Thankfully a passing local had noticed the road kill. In the interest of the family they had thoughtfully tossed the remains back into the forest, keeping the quartet of precious birds safe from traffic.
The Southern Cassowary is a little different to most birds
Unlike many other species of bird, individual Southern Cassowaries can often be told apart. The size, habits, location and particularly the casques of the bird can often tell us who is who.
Up close with the Southern Cassowary
This is a Cassowary who we nickname “Wrinkles”. In the first photo you can see his freshly damaged casque. We suspect that he may have taken a fall. Over time it has healed very well but that furrowed brow will always give him away.
It’s impossible not to form attachments over the years. When you have watched the progress of these rainforest giants from stripey chick to breeding parent they come to mean a great deal. The Southern Cassowary is a highly valued creature up here nowadays. Their care and preservation is important to the people who share their part of the world. The loss of an individual is cause for much sadness in the local community.
Why is the Southern Cassowary so special
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.
Family life is a little different for the Southern Cassowary
The female Southern Cassowary is solitary, territorial and dominant. She spends most of her time alone, generally seeking the company of others only when it’s breeding time.
When ready she selects her mate. And, as often happens in nature, it’s 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.
To a wise and observant female, a diligent proven dad is preferable to a newer pretty one.
The Southern Cassowary is a big bird with a big reputation
The Southern Cassowary has a fearsome reputation. 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 impressive 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 famous weapon of the Southern Cassowary
“Threatened” is the keyword here. 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 in the Daintree rainforest. In over twenty years we have only witnessed a bird “turn” twice. On both occasions it was because someone suddenly approached it.
Good news about the Southern Cassowary
In reality the Southern Cassowary is still fighting rare and endangered status. But, thanks to the Daintree Rainforests’ World Heritage listing and changing attitudes, we are seeing more than ever before on our tour.
Every year we break our previous record of sightings. Indeed, we have had the great pleasure of watching generations grow and thrive.
So often stories from the wildlife front are very grim. It is heartening to remember that we can make a big difference. It is possible to preserve precious wildlife and their habitats. We just have to try.