Cassowaries (genus Casuarius) are very large flightless birds native to the tropical forests of New Guinea and northeastern Australia. Some nearby islands also have small cassowary populations, but it is not known if these are natural or the result of the New Guinea trade in young birds. They are frugivorous; fallen fruit and fruit on low branches is the mainstay of their diet. They also eat fungi, snails, insects, frogs, snakes and other small animals. Recently, they have also been observed to attack humans, though this usually only occurs in self-defense when humans intrude upon the birds' territory or cause them to feel threatened.
- Southern Cassowary or double-wattled cassowary C. casuarius of Australia and New Guinea.
- Dwarf Cassowary C. bennetti of New Guinea and New Britain.
- Northern Cassowary C. unappendiculatus of New Guinea.
The Northern and Dwarf Cassowaries are not well known. All cassowaries are usually shy, secretive birds of the deep forest, adept at disappearing long before a human knows they are there. Even the more accessible Southern Cassowary of the far north Queensland rain forests is not well understood.
The evolutionary history of cassowaries, as all ratites, is not well known. A fossil species was reported from Australia, but for reasons of biogeography this assignment is not certain and it might belong to the prehistoric "emuwaries", Emuarius, which were cassowary-like primitive emus.
The Southern Cassowary is the second-largest bird in Australia and the third-largest remaining bird in the world (after the ostrich and emu). Adult Southern Cassowaries are 1.5 to 1.8 m (5 to 6 feet) tall, although some may reach 2m (6 feet 8 inches), and weigh about 60 kilograms (130 pounds). They have a bony casque on the head that is used to batter through underbrush, making them the only armoured bird in the world. Females are bigger and more brightly coloured.
A cassowary's three-toed feet have sharp claws; the dagger-like middle claw is 120 mm (5 inches) long. This claw is particularly dangerous since the Cassowary can use it to kill an enemy, disemboweling it with a single kick. They can run up to 50 km/h (32 mph) through the dense forest, pushing aside small trees and brush with their bony casques. They can jump up to 1.5 m (5 feet) and they are good swimmers.
The 2004 edition of the Guinness World Records lists the cassowary as the world's most dangerous bird. Normally cassowaries are very shy but when disturbed can lash out dangerously with their powerful legs. During World War II American and Australian troops stationed in New Guinea were warned to steer clear of the birds. They are capable of inflicting fatal injuries to an adult human. Usually, attacks are the result of provocation. Wounded or cornered birds are particularly dangerous. Cassowaries, deftly using their surroundings to conceal their movements, have been known to out-flank organized groups of human predators. Cassowaries are considered to be one of the most dangerous animals to keep in zoos, based on the frequency and severity of injuries incurred by zookeepers.
More recently, Cassowaries have been known to lose their natural fear of people. As a result, large areas of Australian National Parks have been temporarily closed to avoid human contact with the bird.
Females lay three to eight large, pale green-blue eggs in each clutch. These eggs measure about 9 by 14 cm (3½ by 5½ inches) — only ostrich and emu eggs are larger. The female does not care for the eggs or the chicks; the male incubates the eggs for two months, then cares for the brown-striped chicks for nine months.
Southern and Northern Cassowaries are threatened species because of habitat loss; estimates of their current population range from 1500 to 10,000 individuals. About 40 are kept in captivity in Australia. Habitat loss has caused some cassowaries to venture out of the rainforest into human communities. This has caused conflict particularly with fruit growers. However, in some locations such as Mission Beach, Queensland, tourism involving the birds has been launched.
- Stay in Touch, Philip Clark (ed), The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 1990. Cites "authorities" for the death claim.
- Underhill D (1993) Australia's Dangerous Creatures, Reader's Digest, Sydney, New South Wales, ISBN 0-86438-018-6
- Readers' Digest, June 2006 issue.
- C4 - Cassowary Conservation based in Mission Beach
- The Cassowary Bird
- ARKive - images and movies of the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)
- Cassowary videos on the Internet Bird Collection