Beware the cassowary

| 03 Jan 2014 | 02:42

We have bear and deer to contend with. In Australia, it’s a man-sized bird

By Jenna Gersie

I always refer to it as the most dangerous day of my life. I drove for the first time on the wrong (left) side of the road and I jumped out of a plane at 14,000 feet for a 60-second freefall—but before either of these things happened, I was greeted in the morning by four Southern Cassowaries in my campsite.

In New York and New Jersey, we have black bears to worry about. Here in the Wet Tropics of northeast Queensland, Australia, we have a six-foot-tall flightless bird. Like bears, the cassowaries are not interested in eating people or small furry dogs; they are the largest avian frugivore in the world, eating the fruit of more than 240 plant species. But their appearance and behavior are frightening. With males weighing up to 120 pounds and females weighing up to 170 pounds, the birds are impressive in stature, with large bodies covered with glossy black feathers, a brilliantly-colored royal blue neck with red wattles, a prehistoric looking “helmet” or casque, and giant feet, the inner toe of which has a claw nearly five inches long!

My friends and I were just beginning to pack up our campsite at Etty Bay to leave for our skydiving appointment at Mission Beach when we heard a rustling in the grasses a few yards away. Out of the bush stepped a very large, brown bird, but we weren’t entirely sure what it was until its father, an adult cassowary, stepped out of the bush behind it. (After the female lays her eggs, the male incubates them and raises the chicks by himself). “Keep something between you and the cassowary at all times!” My firend Steve shouted, and we all jumped into our red station wagon just before the adult cassowary saw its own reflection in the car next to ours and attacked it, leaving a long, deep scratch down the length of the car door.

We stayed in the car, trying to get some good photographs, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed something large and black moving at the other end of the campsite. Another pair of cassowaries—father and chick—had emerged, and neither pair was happy that their space was being shared. Very territorial birds, the two adults started battling each other, running at each other and jump-kicking each other while the chicks stood on the sidelines. Soon, one pair of cassowaries ran up to the top of the ridge bordering the campsite, and the pair remaining near us stalked up and down the length of the ridge, figuring out their next move.

Figuring the cassowaries were too distracted by each other to want to harm us, we quietly got out of our station wagon to continue packing up our campsite—we still had a two-hour drive to Mission Beach. Quickly packing things up and then running back to the car whenever the cassowaries got closer, we managed to get most things cleaned up.

With nearly everything in the car, my friends Eva and Kelly were on the ground rolling up the last tent when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. I looked over my shoulder and two of the cassowaries were sprinting—straight at my friends. “Look out!” I shouted, and they looked up with dread on their faces. But at the last second, the two cassowaries split up and simply ran around them and past them, away from the campsite. We all breathed a sigh of relief and got in the car, our adrenaline as high as it would be in a few hours when we jumped out of the plane.

Notwithstanding our fears of the five-inch claws and the brute force of the territorial birds, our encounter with the cassowaries was an unmatched experience. In certain places, cassowary sightings are not uncommon, but for the most part, you are lucky to witness these ancient avians. The truth is that little is known about cassowary populations, but the southern population of cassowaries in Queensland is listed as endangered and the northern population is listed as threatened.

Cassowary populations have decreased due to land clearing for farming, development, and urban settlement, which eliminates the fruiting trees on which the cassowaries depend. (Those trees depend on the cassowaries, in turn; there are few animals that can disperse some of the larger seeds found in the rainforest. Piles of cassowary dung contain hundreds or even thousands of seeds.) Vehicle strikes are a major cause of cassowary mortality, and while at home we have road signs with images of deer, here in Queensland we see road signs with cassowary silhouettes. Added to these human-related causes of threats to cassowaries are natural catastrophes, particularly cyclones. When these storms tear down rainforest trees, the cassowary’s already fragmented habitat is further destroyed and fruiting trees become less available.

A recovery plan for cassowary populations, including habitat protection and enhancement, threat abatement, and community engagement programs, is currently being implemented to protect the dwindling populations. Feeding programs involving hundreds of volunteers cutting up fruit have taken place after natural events such as Cyclone Yasi in 2011. Bumper stickers proclaiming “Be Casso-wary!” and interpretive signs in national parks draw attention to these iconic creatures of the Australian rainforest, and those lucky enough to see them have a rare glimpse into the elusive rainforest.