Seeing the Great Barrier Reef Before It Dies


Don't Attempt to Cuddle a Cassowary
Story by Michael Buckley, photos by Jun Matsui

The fine art of spotting this charismatic bird—without provoking its more fearsome side...

(c) Jun Matsui

The first thing you notice about this bird is the size—the Cassowary is the second biggest bird in the world, after the ostrich. Its large brown eyes seem to stare straight at you. The neck supports a bizarre head with vibrant blue coloring—dark beak, long red wattles, and a lopsided casque. The next thing you notice is the powerful claws on the feet, just like those of a dinosaur. If the bird is bounding toward you like a mini T-Rex, the next thing you'll notice is that your heart is pounding out of your rib-cage. Because the dagger-like middle claw is capable of slashing the jugular of a large mammal. Like me.

Actually, there are three birds bounding towards me. A male Cassowary and two chicks. Fortunately, no aggression intended. The birds are delighted to see Perry, who practically raised the male. Plus they are looking for hand-outs in the form of bananas.

Cassowary chicks
(c) Jun Matsui

I have a comforting piece of metal between me and the birds. I am sitting on an all-terrain vehicle, used to get around Perry's personal rainforest. Perry and his family care for large fruit orchards near their homestead, growing durians and other exotic fruit. Fruit is the favorite food of Cassowaries, which will actually jump up to pluck fruit from low-lying branches. Cassowaries are the gardeners of the rainforest: they eat wild fruit but excrete whole seeds in other parts of the rainforest—the only such distributor. Cassowaries also dine on yams and other forest fare. They are opportunists though. Perry has seen them fighting over a dead rat, obviously a delicacy. He has also spotted them eating a baby chicken and a snake.

Cassowary dung

Perry's parents bought this majestic piece of rainforest in northern Australia as a quiet retirement place. And then, over time, they developed a special rapport with the resident Cassowaries. This family-run outfit has had a long relationship with a male Cassowary they simply call "Cass," who brings chicks back every year to show them off.

By great fortune, Perry's family property later came to join the Barron Gorge National Park, created to preserve old-growth forest. So Cassowaries today have an expansive area to roam around here without interference from humans. Perry conducts walking tours and ATV tours of the enchanted rainforest here. Previously these were thought to be among the world's youngest rainforests, but researchers later revised their opinions and declared some rainforests in north Queensland to be among the most ancient in the world, with rare plant species that hark back to the days of the dinosaurs. Indeed, there are majestic fig-trees with huge roots running amok. Trees that are hundreds of years old. We find a bush with a weird flower and fruit that I have never seen before: even Perry cannot identify it.

Ancient rainforest, pre-historic bird: patrolling this domain is the Cassowary. Males and females only get together in mating season, around June. The female, larger and more dangerous, lays eggs from several males—and then abandons them. It is up to the male to rear the chicks for a year, teaching them all the survival skills they need so they can fend for themselves. Which begs the question: what is the female doing all this time? Sunning herself on the beach? How did this creature evolve so that the male exclusively rears the young? That is one of the great mysteries about this behemoth that biologists are trying to solve.

Cassowary egg
(c) Jun Matsui

The mating season can be quite hazardous for those trying to spot Cassowaries. I heard of one man who was slashed on his upper arm because he came too close to fighting male Cassowaries. Not a wise move on the man's part—as Cassowaries are very aggressive at this time. Cassowaries are also known to become gnarly if you get too close to their young chicks—but that is common to all species of the animal kingdom. Cassowary contains the word "wary." This bird demands you keep a respectful distance. It will attack if provoked by someone throwing sticks or stones. An attack could send the stone-thrower to hospital, or worse.

The Noisy Birds and the Silent Killers

Inspiration for this trip came in the form of National Geographic magazine, in an issue that described the fascinating flightless Cassowary at length. A bird with attitude, a bird with a fearsome reputation. Being a wildlife enthusiast, this was the perfect excuse for me to go and explore the coast of Queensland in northern Australia. My quest started in Townsville, up the coast from Brisbane.

Australia hosts many endemic species of strange birds. Toward sunset in Townsville, three spectacular species pop up along the esplanade facing the ocean. Here you will likely hear the iconic Kookaburra laughing its head off—in stereo, with several pairs present. This is the largest member of the Kingfisher family. Then screeching flocks of Red-tailed Black Parrots arrive, gorging on fruit in fig-trees. These parrots have black plumage—with scarlet panels on the tail feathers. Competing for the fruit are squawking flocks of Rainbow Lorikeets, gathering in cacophonous communities.

Redtailed Parrots

But there are no audio clues like this for spotting the elusive Cassowary. Cassowaries live in dense rainforest and make no vocal noises. At least, no noises audible to human ears. It is suspected that these birds send out sounds of frequencies not detectable by humans. Research is under way to find out if the Cassowary casque acts as a sounding board for audio signals.

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