Meet the Southern Cassowary: Australia’s largest land animal and the tallest bird (yes, it’s a bird) on earth. The adult Cassowary stands as tall as six feet (1.83 meters) and weighs in at an average of 130 pounds (59 kg), though the heaviest on record was a whopping 183 pounds (83 kg)!
Dubbed “the most terrifying bird on earth,” among other insults, the Cassowary has a reputation for being dangerous. One that is not well-earned. A single human death by a Cassowary has been reported; it happened in 1926 and the teenage victim was trying to club the bird to death. So the Southern Cassowary is potentially dangerous? Well, it stands 6-feet tall, weighs 150 or so pounds and has claws. You be the judge. It's also a bird, so next to a Sparrow it looks pretty intimidating. It's also gorgeous. Allow us, then, to allay your fears and make you a fan (just as we are) of this amazing avian creature.
To say this big bird has an odd appearance is an understatement. The adults have a bright blue head with a half-moon shaped helmet or “casque” atop its head, and crimson wattle that hangs from its neck. Remember the flying dinosaurs from the movie, Jurassic Park? The Cassowary was the inspiration. Reminiscent of dinosaurs, Cassowaries are the only birds in the world known to have protective armor. The head casque is made of cartilage and a tough, horn-like skin that protects the bird's skull while it moves headfirst through the thick forest undergrowth. And though they won't take flight, Cassowaries do have vestigial wings tucked under a mass of wiry, hair-like feathers.
Shy and retiring, Cassowaries are happy to romp around in their forest habitat and go about their business. Solitary by nature, Cassowaries briefly tolerate each other during the mating season, when males make low, booming calls to attract nearby females. It's the female Cassowary who is dominant, however, and it’s she who selects a male for breeding. She lays a clutch of large green eggs, then the male is left in charge of the incubation and chick-rearing duties while the female moves on - usually to other males.
The Cassowary has huge legs with three-toed feet that are thick and powerful. Equipped with a lethal, dagger-like claw (4.7 in/12 cm long) on their inner toe, the bird can easily tear flesh - though they're meant for digging in the undergrowth of the rain forest and for protecting themselves against predators.
Stories of Cassowaries attacking are exaggerated. If the birds get used to being fed by people (which changes their behavior), they can become aggressive if you withhold food from them. SO DON'T FEED THE CASSOWARIES. The birds are also very protective of their chicks during breeding season. In the extremely rare event you encounter a Cassowary, the best thing to do is to remain calm and back away slowly and raise your arms to appear taller. Don't run away; the birds are fast runners and can attain speeds of up to 30mph/50 km/h on land. Cassowaries can also jump to heights of 9 feet and they're great swimmers.
Often called “Gardeners of the Rainforest,” these beauties really are the good guys. Vital to the survival and diversity of the rainforest, the Cassowary spreads the seeds of over 100 types of trees and shrubs via their droppings. Unfortunately, this fine feathered friend is now endangered. Much of the Australian rainforest where the Southern Cassowary lives has now been cleared, and the birds that remain face threats from dogs, feral pigs, hunters, and motor vehicles. In fact, a “Be Cassowary Wary” campaign down under was attempt to make people more careful about driving speeds. Why did the Cassowary cross the road? To get to the other side of their habitat - which has been invaded. Three female adults were killed in a six-month period last year alone. With only an estimated 1500 birds remaining, that's significant.
The moral? Please do enjoy the view if you see a Southern Casswary, but do be cautious of the beautiful beast. Nearly every doctor who locums in Australia returns with at least one great Cassowary story they’ve lived to tell about. We'd love to hear yours.