Australia is known for its dangerous and aggressive animals and that also applies to some of its birds. When people think of flightless birds, the ostrich most often comes to mind, frequently followed by the emu. Cassowaries are shorter than emus. but they are heavier, second only to the ostrich in weight. There was one recorded instance of a Cassowary killing a human but that encounter was believed to have been initiated by the man and the bird was defending itself. When left alone, wild cassowaries are shy of human contact and will avoid it when possible.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Aves
Order - Casuariiformes
Family - Casuariidae
Genus – Casharius
Species – C. casuarius (Southern), C. unappendiculatus (Northern), C. bennetti (Dwarf)
Common Names – Southern Cassowary, Northern Cassowary, Dwarf Cassowary
There are three species of cassowary - the southern, northern, and dwarf. Of the three, only the southern is found in mainland Australia while all three can be found in New Guinea and Indonesia. They are mainly herbivores, preferring fruit, but they will also eat some smaller animals. Unlike many species of birds, the females are larger and more brightly colored. Their bodies are a uniform dull black with feathers that can easily be mistaken for hair, but their necks and heads are colored red, orange, and neon blue with two species also having long red wattles. On the top of their heads, all the way to the beak, is a tall rounded mound of keratin known as a casque, which might help to protect their heads.
Females are larger than males and usually do not tolerate their presence. During mating season, however, females will allow an acceptable male to remain near her until she lays her eggs - up to five eggs are laid in a scraped out nest lined with dried leaves - and then the female moves on, potentially to another mate, leaving the males with the duty of raising the young. He will incubate the eggs for three months and then the young will stay with him until he drives them off, usually in about a year.
The sounds Cassowaries make tend to be very low frequency booms that help them communicate through the dense rain forest. On their three toed feet, the middle toe sports a 5 inch claw which they use as a very effective weapon, jumping and punching their opponents with the sharp appendage. While they are capable of violence, it is usually not their first choice and they tend to simply remove themselves from situations where they are uncomfortable.
Cassowaries are closely related to emus, kiwis, and rheas. Cassowaries and emus are believed to have descended from a common ancestor about 25 million years ago.
The northern and southern cassowaries are red listed as vulnerable and the dwarf is listed as near threatened primarily due to hunting and habitat loss and fragmentation. The hunting is not considered sustainable and the statuses for all three species will get worse if major changes are not implemented.
International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
National Geographic September 2013
Save the Cassowary
The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds by Peter Slater