Thursday, 7 September 2006


Although I'm not going in the water while I'm up in FNQ, there is one animal I'll be keeping an eye out for—the southern cassowary, Casuarius casuarius johnsonii. Not that I'm particularly bothered by the prospect of meeting one. In eleven years of rambling through rainforests, I've only encountered two individuals. Both were at Tam O'Shanter State Forest near Mission Beach. One was mooching at the side of the road in the morning downpour. The other was strolling through the forest at midnight. That second encounter is the one that has stayed with me. I heard rustling in the leaf litter. Thinking it might be a small mammal, I followed the noise ... to a pair of large three-toed feet. The cassowary and I stared at each other for a moment—eye to eye. Then we both went our own ways, quietly and without fuss.

Cassowaries are magnificent birds. They are also quite capable of killing people. Not that they do this as a matter of course. Only one human death and seven incidents of serious injury have been attributed to Queensland's cassowaries. Still, along with the African ostrich, it's the only bird species that has killed anyone in an attack, so it's not to be taken lightly.

Cassowaries head-butt, peck and shove but nothing is as dangerous as the stiletto claw on the inner toe of each foot. The claw can be up to 12 centimetres long and 3 cm across at the base. Imagine what that can do when it's on the end of an 85 kilogram, two metre, feathered dinosaur.

Of 221 recorded attacks, 90 took place at Mt Whitfield (near Cairns), 54 at Mission Beach and 49 at Lake Barrine on the Atherton Tablelands. Not all those attacks were on humans. Among the non-human victims were dogs, horses and a cow. In fact, not all of the victims were animate. Cassowaries also got aggro with cars, windows and doors.

As you might expect, the birds did not attack without reason. In most cases, they were looking for nosh, having been hand fed and habituated to a free lunch from humans. Chooks are bad enough when they're being fed. Scale that up.

In other cases, they were defending themselves or their eggs or chicks.

The single human fatality occurred when someone tried to kill a cassowary. The bird didn't take kindly to the attack. Its assailant turned to run away but tripped. He died when the bird's claw punctured his throat.

That was 80 years ago. Although there are regular incidents at places where cassowaries meet humans, the danger to us is minimal. The danger to the cassowaries, on the other hand, is significant. I think it's a privilege to see the wonderful birds in the wild. But that's not going to stop me taking care when I'm in their territory.

Read more
Kofron, C.P. (1999). Attacks to humans and domestic animals by the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) in Queensland, Australia. Journal of Zoology 249: 375–381.


Sherryl said...

On a much smaller note, I managed to see two road runners in Tucson last year. Not at all what I expected. But the locals told me they can go years without seeing any at all.
Either I was lucky, or they don't get out enough! (the locals)
Have a good trip!

Snail said...

Roadrunners --- what fun!

I'll take photos of whatever I can. I expect to return with 300 fuzzy dark pictures.