Cassowaries look like they walked out of the dinosaur age. They are ratites, also known as flightless birds, and they are related to emus, ostriches, kiwis and rheas. Found in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia, wildlife biologists call the cassowary the world’s most dangerous bird because they have been known to kill people. The second heaviest bird in the world, cassowaries are slightly lighter than ostriches. They are also a little shorter than ostriches and emus, making them the third tallest birds in the world.
Why do Australians say to “be cass-o-wary”? We discover more about this prehistoric, imposing murderbird.
1. Cassowaries have been known to kill anything that threatens them
They are usually shy and reclusive, preferring to avoid conflict and run away. However, if they are cornered they can become aggressive and fight with head-butts and pecks. They also kick with the lengthy razor sharp claws on their feet, breaking bones and slicing up their enemies.
2. Cassowaries have a crest above their eyes called a casque
This helmet-like protrusion is covered with keratin and it is used to help the cassowary move through forest underbrush. The casque can also be used in mating rituals to attract mates. Cassowaries also use the casque on their heads to protect their skulls from falling fruit, their food of choice.
There is a possibility that the casque of a cassowary helps them communicate with other wildlife. Cassowaries make a loud, deep call that sounds like bellowing. A casque could amplify and broadcast their call by functioning as a resonance chamber.
3. Cassowaries are strong swimmers and they can run very fast
Cassowaries travel quickly through narrow tracks in the dense forest bush, reaching speeds of 50km per hour. They can also jump up to 1.5 metres, and they swim to cross rivers. Sometimes they take a dunk in the sea.
Cassowaries jump to land kicks on their opponents when they feel threatened, but they will not attack for no reason. Usually, they attack to defend their territory and their young. Just because they are human sized, some humans think it’s a good idea to attempt to get up close and feed them, causing up to 200 cassowary attacks a year.
4. Cassowaries eat fruit and other animals, but they also eat their own poop
Cassowaries in the wild eat fruits that fall from the trees in their native habitat. They also eat fungi and mushrooms, and they hunt snails, lizards and rodents for extra protein. Cassowary droppings contain half-digested fruit, so they eat each other’s poop as well as their own.
The digested fruit seeds pass through the cassowary’s stomach and fall to the ground in their droppings. Cassowaries are the gardeners of the rainforest and play a key role in germinating flora because they eat fallen fruit whole and help to distribute large or poisonous tree seeds that no other animals can consume. Some tree seeds do not grow if they don’t pass through a cassowary.
5. Cassowary babies are raised by their fathers
From June to October, female cassowaries breed with multiple partners. The male cassowary struts around the female cassowary and makes low booming noises to woo her. Once she has laid her eggs, she leaves them for the male to take care of. The male cassowary incubates the eggs and raises the chicks that hatch for nine months, never leaving the nest even to eat or drink. Cassowary dads teach their children how to forage and fend for themselves.
Cassowaries lay up to six green eggs that hatch into striped, brown chicks. These chicks reach maturity at about three years old. At about 9 months, cassowary fathers chase off their young to get them to live on their own. If they are not chased off, they can stay with their fathers for up to 16 months. Adult cassowaries can weigh up to 160 pounds and stand at nearly 2 metres in height. They live up to 50 years, although they can live longer in captivity.
6. Cassowaries are usually solitary
They have a home range that they live in, which occasionally overlaps with other cassowary territories. If two cassowaries meet, they fluff up their feathers to look intimidating and rumble at each other until one of them leaves. Fully grown female cassowaries are larger and more aggressive than their male counterparts.
When cassowaries communicate to one another, they do so by making low, loud booms. They also strut around, shake their heads, and swell their throats and necks to attract a mate. They also hiss and whistle to one another, and when threatened they clap their bills and rumble.
7. Cassowaries have killed at least two humans
Most cassowary attacks on humans are caused by cassowaries associating people with free meals. Feeding cassowaries is illegal in Australia because cassowaries become dependent on people for food and lose their natural shyness, later becoming aggressive when people don’t feed them. The last recorded human death caused by a cassowary was in 1928, where a cassowary killed a 16-year-old boy in self-defence.
8. Cassowaries are endangered because of humans
Feral pigs and dogs tend to attack and kill cassowaries, but they also face threats from habitat loss and from being run over by cars. The cassowary is listed as Least Concern in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, but their population size is decreasing because their habitat is threatened by urban development. They are also hunted for meat and their feathers in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Bonus cassowary facts:
Cassowaries don’t live or reproduce well in captivity, which makes conservation efforts difficult.
Cassowaries are kept captive and their feathers are traded as currency in tribes.
One major event that damaged cassowary populations was a cyclone that flattened a main cassowary habitat, killing cassowaries and causing food shortages.
The Australian government makes corridors for cassowaries to travel through as they look for food. This prevents cassowaries crossing roads and being hit by cars.