The Cassowary
The Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius var. johnsonii) is a large flightless bird which lives only in the tropical rainforests of North-East Queensland. Two other species of cassowaries occur in Papua New Guinea.
chick two juveniles about 6 months old adult
Males and females look very similar, with the females being slightly larger and heavier. The young chicks are striped until about six months old and they then have dark brown plumage until they develop their adult plumage at one year old.

cassowary foot It is the male which sits on the eggs and looks after the chicks until they are about one year old. During this time the cassowary can be aggressive towards people and dogs, especially if they get between himself and his chicks. In attack they kick with their feet that are armed with fearsome claws. Dogs in packs are a real danger to cassowaries, but other than this, the cassowary fears nothing and walks with an imperious air about his home range, which varies with the seasons.

Stories of cassowaries killing people are an exaggeration, but if they get used to being fed by people they can become aggressive if you withhold food from them.
Freddy Being such a large bird, standing up to 2 metres tall and females weighing up to 85 kilograms, they are able to swallow the largest of rainforest fruits. Their digestive tract has no gizzard for grinding up their food, so most of the seeds in the fruits are passed out unharmed and are thus distributed widely throughout the forest. Indeed for many rainforest trees, the cassowary is its only hope for maintaining its population spread. For this reason the cassowary is known as a Keystone Species, and its welfare is essential to the rainforest eco-system.

The cassowary has a distinctive casque on top of its head, which is made of a horny material. Its function is not known for certain, but it is my guess that it prevents the bird's head being scratched by 'Wait-a-while' hooks as it picks its way through the rainforest. These hooks are the whip-like flagellaria of Lawyer Vine (Calamus moti) which is actually a climbing palm. These hooks produce scratches on human skin that nearly always get infected, so perhaps the cassowary's casque is for disease prevention. Certainly if you try to follow the cassowaries in the forest, the first thing you learn to take with you is a hat.

Although their ranges change with the seasons, they also overlap at certain seasons. We often have two male cassowaries using Chakoro Nature Reserve - Freddy and Hercules. In 1996 Freddy succeeded in raising one chick through till his next breeding season. In 1997 he hatched two but they both disappeared fairly early on. In 1998 we didn't see him very often and never with chicks. In 1999 his only chick to survive to sub-adulthood was run over when Freddy was busy mating. Sadly the visiting female was also run over a couple of weeks later.
Hercules Hercules, however, managed to raise four chicks in 1998. When they were about six months old he paraded his chicks right up to my garden fence and challenged my dogs to 'come out and fight' by stamping and grunting and flourishing his feathers. Knowing full well that there was a fence between them, my dalmatians, Woody and Daisy, went up to the fence and gave a half-hearted bark. Hercules seemed to say to his chicks "you don't have to worry about these stupid spotted ones behind the fence, but watch out for the others, OK?"

Cassowaries face many dangers in their natural habitat, and most chicks are lost before they become sub-adults. A healthy female may lay 3 to 5 eggs in a male's nest and may lay for more than one male, and so there are many more chicks born than the habitat can support. When the sub-adults leave their father they have to find themselves a territory, and since the mature males guard their territories very fiercely, most of the sub-adults will be killed too. Only the fittest will survive.

The impacts of modern day human society on cassowaries come from habitat destruction for agriculture and residential development, competition for food from introduced feral pigs, dog attacks, and traffic accidents. Cassowaries are very bad at crossing roads because they seem to be unable to grasp that a car off in the distance is going to be here in five seconds. We have successfully lobbied for the Queensland Government's Department of Main Roads to introduce an 80 Kph speed limit on the main road through the World Heritage Area going to Mission Beach, and going past Chakoro Nature Reserve.
Freddy with chick
When they are in the forest, cassowaries are furtive and very difficult to photograph, but they enjoy the sunshine too, and are often seen walking along the forest edge, ready to duck for cover if anything should surprise them. Compared to the fruits we eat, rainforest fruits have little flesh and don't have much food value. Not surprisingly, the cassowaries often browse around Chakoro Farm's tropical fruit orchard to supplement their diet. The sight of Hercules jumping up and making a grab for a ripe pawpaw, sometimes three metres off the ground, is something to behold.

Cassowary breeding season is in September, when suddenly these generally solitary creatures are intent on pairing off. The surviving chicks, which will be shedding their dull brown costume for an adult set, probably indicate a good father and help him with getting a mate, but are henceforth left to their own devices.

Hercules with chicks
I have seen Freddy leading his female companion across Chakoro Farm, stopping occasionally to sit on the ground with a great flourish of feathers, as if to say "look how well I can sit on eggs". After a short sit, he gets up and takes her over to see the abiu and star apple trees before slipping into the cool, dark forest of the Nature Reserve.


The following story about Goon-doy-ee, The Cassowary, comes from a book of aboriginal dream-time stories called "Girroo Gurrll, the first surveyor" by Gladys Henry, reprinted by Watson Ferguson & Co. in 1986.

Goon-doy-ee the Cassowary
Goon-doy-ee Goon-doy-ee the Cassowary was once upon a time a dreadful man who lived on the banks of the Murray River [near Tully]. He was very agile and could run faster than anyone who lived in the district. He was also lazy and couldn't be bothered to hunt for his food. He found it easier to catch an occasional small boy or girl and eat him or her.

The tribe at last became enraged and vowed to avenge their lost children. A meeting was held of all the elders and warriors of the tribe and many plans were discussed and rejected until one old warrior spoke up. "We all know", he began, "that Goon-doy-ee is infested with lice. We will never be able to catch him asleep because the lice torment him and keep him awake at night. Let us pretend we are sorry for him and would like to help rid him of these pests." "That is a very good idea", said another, "I will offer to remove the lice from his hair. He will come into the camp and then we may be able to overpower him."

Goon-doy-ee, when he first heard the invitation, was very suspicious, but as the days and weeks went by the lice tormented him day and night and at last he was forced to accept the proposal. The tribesman took his time removing the offenders, so long indeed that Goon-doy-ee fell asleep. Instantly, with wild cries and shouts of triumph, the warriors of the tribe fell upon him and hacked his arms off. The wretched man rose to run for his life, but as he did so he turned into a cassowary, which ran around in circles, frantically flapping his useless wings.


Cassowary by Leonard Andy "Cassowary" by Leonard Andy




February 2002: Billy brings his chicks for a visit to my garden.









DK's Rainforest Photo Catalog has a library of cassowary photos

Cassowary issues - a briefing paper for Federal politicians [PDF format, 57KB]

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