Travellers to North Queensland have a chance of sighting an endangered icon of the north’s wet, tropical rainforest. The rainforest-dwelling Australian Southern Cassowary is one of just three species of cassowary in the world. It is the world’s third largest bird and one of Australia’s largest land animals.
An adult cassowary stands up to two metres tall and weighs 47kgs, with the female being larger than the male. This flightless bird is closely related to the emu, ostrich and kiwi and can live for 30 to 40 years in the wild.
Usually a solitary bird, the cassowary seeks out a mate during the breeding season which begins about May each year and lasts 5 to 6 months. The female will mate with a number of males, each time laying a clutch of 3 to 5 dark, blue/green eggs in a metre-round nest on the forest floor.
The male cassowary is the perfect father, taking sole responsibility for incubating the eggs and raising the chicks. He will sit on the nest for around 50 days, going long periods without food or water and carefully turning the 16cm long, half-kilogram eggs up to four times each day to ensure they are kept warm.
The newly hatched chicks are cream coloured with brown stripes and stay with their father for up to 18 months, learning to forage for rainforest fruits and insects. The male then abandons his sub-adult offspring, evicting them from his territory.
Threats to the Cassowary
The Southern Cassowary is classified as endangered and scientists believe there are only 1200 to 1500 left in the wild.
The cassowaries’ major threat is development, with 80% of their original habitat cleared for agriculture and housing over the past century. Each bird requires about 75 hectares of rainforest in which to live and breed and birds displaced by clearing usually die due to stress, predation or starvation.
Nature can also take its toll. When Cyclone Larry crossed the coast near Innisfail in 2006 the rainforest was stripped bare and cassowaries were forced to rely on food left at feeding stations by rangers or to scavenge around houses and picnic areas. Five years later Cyclone Yasi devastated much of this country and cassowaries were again dependent on almost 100 feeding stations scattered throughout the rainforest.
Other threats to the cassowary include dog attacks and vehicle strikes, both of which have increased with increasing development.
Cassowaries Essential to Rainforest Survival
These big birds play an essential role in the survival of their rainforest habitat by dispersing the seeds of more than 150 rainforest plants. Cassowaries are the only native animals large enough to eat many of the larger fruits. The seed takes about 10 hours to pass through the cassowary’s digestive system before being deposited in its own mini compost pile, thus ensuring ideal conditions for germination and the growth of the seedling. The smell of the dung also deters seed predators, such as the white tailed rat.
Easily accessible areas where visitors have a chance of spotting wild cassowaries are in the rainforests of the Atherton Tableland and along the coastal strip between Townsville and Cooktown. Here roads, villages, and caravan parks are often fringed by the rainforest habitat of the cassowary and the chances of a sighting are as good as you’ll get.
While these birds are generally shy and avoid contact with humans, a chance meeting in thick rainforest can be dangerous, especially if you end up between a father cassowary and his chicks.
Cassowaries have a large claw on each foot with which they kick when threatened. The last recorded human fatality was in 1926 when a 16-year-old boy was killed when running from a bird he had been attacking. However, there have been more recent attacks, such as the unprovoked one at the Babinda Boulders in early 2012. A tourist had his shirt ripped and was kicked over a two metre drop into the creek by a large male bird.
If You Do Spot A Cassowary
If you do spot a cassowary it is important to admire it from a distance. If you are on foot and feel you are too close, or the bird is acting aggressively, back slowly and quietly away from it and place a tree or backpack between you and the cassowary. Don’t stomp noisily on the ground as this may be interpreted by the bird as a territorial threat.
Never feed a cassowary. Not only is it illegal and dangerous, but if they become used to people they are more likely to be killed by cars or dogs. Also don’t leave food, fish scraps or fish bait at campsites and picnic grounds (even in bins) as this will encourage cassowaries to forage in areas close to civilization.
You should also keep domestic pets under control, with dogs on a leash or locked in your vehicle.