The Southern Cassowary is often heard long before the bird is seen, with its rumbling calls usually given in response to the sight of potential danger.
The Cassowary's large size, its large greyish helmet (casque) and the red wattle hanging from the neck, make it easy to identify. The feathers of the body are black and hair-like. The bare skin of the head and fore-neck is blue, while the rear of the neck is red. Both sexes are similar in appearance, but the female is generally larger than the male, with a taller casque, and is brighter in colour. Young Cassowaries are browner than adults, and have duller coloured head and neck. The chicks are striped yellow and black. If a Cassowary is approached it will generally stand its ground. If the intruder approaches too close, the bird will stretch itself as tall as possible, ruffle its feathers and let at a loud hiss in an attempt to scare the intruder off. The birds are equipped with quite dangerous claws, and will readily attack a persistent intruder, although they usually retreat into the dense rainforest.
The dense rainforest habitat and the Cassowary's secretive nature make individuals difficult to see. In certain areas birds come near human habitation seeking food. Throughout their range, Southern Cassowaries live alone, and inhabit the same area all year round.
Southern Cassowaries are found in northern Queensland. The species is also found through New Guinea and eastern Indonesia.
Feeding and diet
The Southern Cassowary feeds mostly on fruit that has fallen to the ground. The Southern Cassowary will also eat anything from snails to small dead mammals. Southern Cassowaries normally feed alone. If two males should meet, they have a stand off where both birds stand tall, fluff up their feathers and rumble at each other until one retreats. If a male and female meet, the male will move away, as the female is dominant.
Other behaviours and adaptations
The Southern Cassowary’s diet of fallen fruits and fungi includes many species which are poisonous to humans as their digestive system is adapted to deal with the toxins safely. (So the fact that you see Cassowaries eating something doesn’t mean that you can eat it.)
The Cassowaries have a good spatial memory of their territory and the male will lead the chicks around to various sources of water and fruiting trees within his territory. When the chicks become independent they know where to find what they need until they leave (or are chased out) to find territories of their own.
The innermost claw on each foot is elongated and very sharp. The birds will strike out with these in territorial disputes and defensive or offensive behaviour with other animals, including humans. The tough skin and bristle-like feathers help protect the birds from the kicks of other Cassowaries and the often spiny rainforest vegetation. They are able to readily crash through seemingly impenetrable rainforest thickets and quickly disappear from view.
The calls of the Southern Cassowary consist of an assortment of rumblings and grunts. These calls are often heard long before the bird is seen, and are usually given in response to the sight of potential danger.
The female Southern Cassowary selects a male to breed with and then lays a clutch of large green eggs in a scrape in the ground lined with plant material. Once the eggs are laid, the male is left in charge of the incubation and chick-rearing duties, while the female moves away, and may even breed again with another male. During the breeding season, the parental males are very aggressive, and attacks on humans have been recorded at this time.
- Breeding season: June to October
- Clutch size: 4
Internationally, the Southern Cassowary is listed as Vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. However, this listing may eventually be downgraded to Near Threatened as threatening processes are reduced across their range.
In Australia, the species is listed as Endangered under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Further protection is provided by the Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992, which lists the population in the Wet Tropics as Endangered, while the two populations in Cape York are listed as Vulnerable.
Their fruit diet means they are commonly sighted in commercial orchards and gardens with fruit bearing trees. Interestingly, citrus fruit is not usually eaten.
Danger to humans
Southern Cassowaries can be dangerous if cornered.
- Marchant, S. and Higgins, P.J. (eds.) 1990. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol 1. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
- Olsen, P., Crome, F. and Olsen, J. 1993. The Birds of Prey and Ground Birds of Australia. Angus and Robertson, and the National Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife, Sydney.
- Pizzey, G. and Knight, F. 1997. Field Guide to the Birds of Australia. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.
- Schodde, R. and Tideman, S.C. (eds) 1990. Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds (2nd Edition). Reader's Digest (Australia) Pty Ltd, Sydney.
- BirdLife International 2008. Casuarius casuarius. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.1. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 15 June 2010.
- Queensland Government Department of Environment and Resource Management 2010. Cassowary. www.derm.qld.gov.au/wildlife-ecosystems/wildlife/threatened_plants_and_animals/endangered/cassowary.html . Downloaded on 15 June 2010.