The Curious Cassowary

Cassowaries are very large flightless birds native to the tropical forests of New Guinea and north-eastern Australia. They are distinctive, beautiful birds with black plumage, with bright blue to purple necks, red wattles and amber coloured eyes. 

There are three types of Cassowary:

  • The Southern Cassowary or Double Wattled Cassowary found in north eastern Australia and New Guinea
  • The Dwarf or Bennetts Cassowaru found in New Guinea, Yapen, and New Britain
  • The Northern Cassowary or Single Wattled Cassowary found in northern and western New Guinea and Yapen.

Male Cassowary of Alma Park Zoo. © Teale Shapcott

The Cassowary of Alma Park Zoo is a male Southern Cassowary, our female Cassowary is currently on loan to Dreamworld to contribute to the Cassowary breeding program.  Adult Cassowaries are covered in a shiny black plumage, however they don’t have tail feathers and their wings are simply long stiff quills with a claw on each second finger.  These adaptations are thought be used to ward off rainforest vines and thorns, allowing the Cassowary to move quickly through the forest, sometimes up to speeds of 50km/h.

The tall casque on the head of a Cassowary grows with age, however, its use by the bird is unknown. The legs and feet look very similar to that of a dinosaur. They have three toes on each foot with a long dagger-like claw on the inner toe which can be as long as 125mm. These claws in combination with enormously powerful legs are fearsome weapons of defense for a Cassowary.

Habitat

The habitat of the Cassowary is the thick, humid tropical rainforests of New Guinea and northeastern Australia.  Cassowaries have also been known to venture into grassland, savanna or swamp forest when foraging for food or during mating season. The Southern Cassowary is found in the Daintree Rainforest and close to Mission Beach in northern Queensland.  The Southern Cassowary is currently endangered.

Behaviour

Cassowaries are generally shy, solitary birds, with a home range of 0.5km to 2.5km2.  A female’s home range will overlap that of more than one male which she mates with during the June to October breeding season. The female will then lay 3-5 green or green-blue eggs which the male incubates for 50 days. The male then raises and defends the brown-striped chicks until they are able to move off and establish their own territory. The young will develop the black feather colouring of the adults as they mature and they will be ready to breed at 3 years of age.

Diet

Cassowaries mainly consume fruit, however they will also eat flowers, fungi, fish, rats, mice, frogs, birds, snails and insects.  Cassowaries swallow all their fruit whole, even large fruit like apples or bananas.   The fruit diet of the Cassowary also makes it an important contributor to the health and vitality of the rainforest because it distributes large amounts of seeds throughout the rainforest via their excrement. Over 150 species of plant are assisted by the cassowary’s seed dispersal and is why they are referred to as a ‘keystone’ species and essential for the diversity of the rainforest.

Threats

In north eastern Australia, it is believed only 1500 Southern Cassowaries remain in the wild.  Identified threats to the Cassowary have been defined as:

  1. Habitat Destruction: Rainforest is being cleared at a rate of 1000 hectares a year for residential developments.  Global warming is also impacting the Cassowaries native habitat.  Cyclone Yasi in 2011 destroyed a large area of Cassowary habitat, endangering 200 birds.
  2. Road Kill: The current habitat of the Southern Cassowary is intersected by a number of roads.  Over 55% of Cassowary deaths are caused by being hit by cars.
  3. Dog Attacks:  Increasing residential developments have exposed Cassowaries to dogs.  Most of the dogs in the area are also unrestrained owing to lack of fencing on properties.
  4. Fencing:  Sub division fencing in Mission Beach is interrupting the natural paths of Cassowaries as they forage in their territories.

BBC Natural World – Cassowaries

If you would like to learn more about Cassowaries, we invite you to watch this fantastic 40 min documentary on the behaviors, life-cycle and threats to the Southern Cassowary in North Eastern Queensland.

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