Page 2 - Don't Attempt to Cuddle a Cassowary

Don't Attempt to Cuddle a Cassowary — Page 2
Story by Michael Buckley, photos by Jun Matsui

Signs for Cassowary

Just up the coast from Townsville lies Mission Beach, dubbed the "Cassowary Coast" due to several small reserves set aside for the bird. These reserves straddle highways, and the Cassowary may unfortunately become a casualty of fast-moving cars, despite road signs warning about collisions. Once it went the other way—a driver died from colliding with a Cassowary. This was a giant Cassowary made of concrete at a local mall: the driver was drunk, veered off the road at high speed at night, and crashed into the statue.

Face to Face with Giant Birds

Being tipped off by locals on the best places for Cassowary spotting, I set off on a forest bicycle trail. I stop dead when I spot a large bird ahead. It's my first encounter with a wild Cassowary. I dismount and stand behind the bike, intending to use the metal frame for self-defense if the bird should decide to attack. The other option is to shimmy up the nearest tree. But I have done nothing to provoke the bird. I hold my breath as it ambles along the bike path toward me, eyeing me warily. Then, abruptly, it turns off the path and disappears into tall grass, slipping out of sight.

Signs for Cassowary

(c) Jun Matsui

Cassowary Fighting Stick

I heard that the Nat Geo photographer stayed a few months at Cassowary House, in Kuranda. So I hired an SUV in Cairns and drove there. Cassowary House rents basic cabins. It is run by Sue and Phil, who travel Asia leading birdwatching tours. In fact, Sue is about to fly to Papua-New Guinea, the only other place apart from Queensland where Cassowaries are found. She shows me a Papuan fighting stick, made from the lethal middle claw of the Cassowary. She tells me about one trip to Papua-New Guinea where a local tribesman offered her a dowry of 5 Cassowaries, ten pigs and assorted other animals in exchange for the hand of her beautiful teenage daughter.

Around the Kuranda property, Sue leaves out feeders with bananas for wandering Cassowaries, with bins raised above the ground to prevent other animals from accessing them. There are plans to lace the bananas with miniature tracking devices to follow the movements of the Cassowaries and gain other research insights. A frequent visitor here is a male called Father Cassowary. He is dark and moody, having recently lost two chicks to hit-and-run drivers on the highway. Hopefully, next year he will be back with new chicks to rear.

I spend a day out bird-spotting with knowledgeable guide Jun. We spot lots of birds, but no Cassowaries. So instead, I have to settle for tales Jun tells about the gnarly bird. Right where we are, in the same part of the rainforest, Jun and his birder client strayed across male and female Cassowaries together. The male took no interest in the human interlopers, but the female perked up, became offended for some reason, and gave chase. Here's the thing: You can't outrun a Cassowary: in top gear, this bird can clip along at up to 40 kph. The birder shimmied up a tree in record time to escape. Jun played hide and seek with the Cassowary around large tree trunks. Finally, he reached a highway and crossed. The savvy Cassowary did not follow, knowing the risks of fast-moving cars.

Cassowary Stuffed toy

Toward the end of my trip, in Cairns, I drop into a gift shop, looking for souvenirs. The shop features lots of soft toys made in China—mainly cute kangaroos and koala bears. And then I spot a Cassowary! The perfect souvenir for me.

But holding this soft toy in my hands, it quickly becomes apparent that the designer has never seen a live Cassowary, nor even looked at a clear photo of one. Having encountered a handful of them, I can tell you exactly what is wrong with the design. For starters, the toy has vestigial wings poking out. The Cassowary is flightless. The casque is too short. It needs to be more of a conehead casque, like a hairdo from the Simpsons. But mainly what is wrong is this: the sharp vicious claws are missing from the feet. This toy looks way too friendly and cuddly and cute. The Cassowary is a bird with attitude. Keep your distance. It might work with a koala bear--but never attempt to cuddle a Cassowary.


Cassowary spotting is never guaranteed. This is a highly endangered bird. Depending on the season, chances of an encounter are higher around the town of Kuranda, which is an hour's drive from Cairns. To find out more, check out Perry's website: Also check on Cassowary House in Kuranda:

Michael Buckley's latest work is a photo-based multimedia book, Tibet, Disrupted, published in May 2016—and only available on Apple's iBooks Store or iTunes Store. This is a visual companion to his print book, Meltdown in Tibet. See the author's website, and for more details.

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Related Features:
Parahawking in Nepal - Michael Buckley
Dial-a-Bird - David Lee Drotar
High-speed Kills on the Open Plains: Falconry in Wyoming - Rachel Dickinson
The Track Less Traveled: Far North Queensland, Australia - Graham Reid

See other Australia travel stories from the archives

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