This Saturday is World Cassowary Day! So Steph (not Liz, obviously) is delighted to bring you a guest post by regular bird guest poster Michael on this magnificent bird. Forgive the tagging – although Hayley couldn’t join us for this post, I can never let go an opportunity to tag something Ornithology’s David and Margaret, and nor should I be expected to. If you’d like to hear more from him, you should follow Michael on twitter.
Statement from Liz: FOR THE RECORD, it was I who suggested that we get Michael and/or Hayley to commemorate World Cassowary Day. I can’t say I’m delighted to share a continent with prehistoric murder birbs, but I respect them and their homicidal ways, and I wish them well. (I also wish they had a whole continent just to themselves, where they can be TERRIFYING in peace, but I understand and acknowledge that my attitude of Birb Separatism is problematic.)`
World Cassowary Day is a chance to celebrate one of Australia’s most iconic and frankly weird-looking birds. So, with Hayley otherwise occupied, I’m going to fly solo and muster up a quick review of this gigantic, rainforest-dwelling, prehistoric-looking and misunderstood beast (although it’s hard to top First Dog on the Moon’s typically evocative paean to this incredible dino-bird).
Cassowarys, at least the ones I’m talking about, are more correctly known as Southern Cassowarys – there are two more species (the northern cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus) and dwarf cassowary (Casuarius bennetti)), both of which live predominantly in New Guinea. The Southern Cassowary also is mostly found in New Guinea, but has a small toe-hold in tropical Australia, in the coastal rainforests of the Cape York Peninsula. It’s part of the ratite family – a loose group of large flightless birds, including the ostrich, emu, kiwi and rhea, as well as a bunch of long extinct monster bird species that weighed over 200kgs.
Cassowarys are often treated as if they’re modern-day dinosaurs, but that’s a bit misleading. The precise evolutionary connections between all ratites are still being fleshed out, but it’s pretty clear that gigantic flightless birds initially evolved to fill a vacant niche about 65 million years ago, after the dinosaurs had gone extinct, but before mammals had really got their shit together size-wise. Their common ancestor isn’t a velociraptor or a t-rex, but a family of squat, small South American birds that can fly, the tinamou.
Despite this relatively timid heritage, cassowaries have a reputation for being vicious, angry, killing machines, dubbed the “most dangerous bird on earth” and “terrifying.” Typically though, humanity has vastly overstated the threat that cassowarys pose, while merrily destroying their habitat, running them down with cars and driving them steadily towards extinction. Yay! It’s not like this is some vicious killer, preying on defenceless children – the only person ever killed by a cassowary literally tried to beat it to death with a club for no apparent reason, so a few kicks in self-defence seem eminently reasonable to me. They do have a pretty fearsome set of claws, but most of their kicking is at trees, to shake loose the delicious tropical fruit that makes up their diet. And the casque on their head that looks like it’d be used for butting into things is actually spongy and helps cassowaries hear each other’s deep booming calls.
There are some hints that these birds have a dark side – a female cassowary was so enraged at being snubbed by a life-sized concrete cassowary statue despite her smooth courtship moves that she smashed the statue to pieces – so if one takes a shine to you, it might be best to resign yourself to a life in the rainforest (they can live up to 60 years, but they don’t mate for life, so you might be able to sneak off after a year or two).
Meanwhile, the Australian population of cassowaries is dwindling, via a combination of habitat destruction, irresponsible dog ownership and reckless driving. 6 cassowaries were killed on the roads in the first half of 2015, and previous research estimated about 75% of all cassowary mortality was down to cars and dogs (just 13% died of natural causes). Meanwhile governments at best do nothing and at worst actively cut funding to organisations conserving and rehabilitating injured birds. Obviously cassowaries should be protected for their own sake – what kind of country would allow a prehistoric-looking monster-bird to go extinct on their watch? – but they’re also a critical component of rainforest ecosystems, chowing down on tropical fruit and pooping the seeds all over the place. Something magical happens in the process, with pre-pooped seeds much more likely to germinate than seeds that hadn’t gone on a magical journey through a 200kg bird’s gut.
These beautiful, weird, fascinating and ecologically critical birds are a goddamn Australian icon – one which we’re on the path towards losing thanks to short-sighted governments and an apathetic population. On this World Cassowary Day make your voice heard – write a letter to Federal and Queensland environment ministers demanding that the Recovery Plan is implemented, donate to Birdlife Australia or a cassowary-specific conservation project and let’s try to keep these impossibly strange creatures around.
Rating: 5 feathers
FURTHER STATEMENT FROM LIZ: I had no idea of any of this! Except the bit about how we’re killing them, which isn’t good, guys, come on, the proper attitude to birbs is to politely ignore them and let them get on with their birb lives.
I am now somewhat less terrified of cassowaries, which is to say, no more terrified than I am of any other avian lifeforms. Unless, of course, you put a cassowary in the friendzone, which is apparently bad. Quick check: do cassowaries wear fedoras?