CASSOWARIES Casuariidae
The three closely-related cassowaries occur in the dense lowland rainforest of New Guinea and northeastern Australia. To quote Folch (1992): "Observation of wild cassowaries is very difficult, so as yet very little is known about their behavior. On detecting an approaching human, a bird usually disappears into the dense vegetation before it is seen, with the result that tracks and droppings are very often the only evidence of its presence." I can attest to this statement; it took me 15 years and 4 trips into the habitat of all three cassowaries to finally see one Southern (or Double-wattled) Cassowary (left).

In 1983 a couple friends & I traveled throughout Papua New Guinea. We visited lowland forest at the Baiyer River Sanctuary, a location on the northern slope of the central mountains and now considered too dangerous for westerners to visit. Back then, though, an active research program existed and we stayed at the research station. One morning, while walking in the forest with a local guide, the guide stopped, whispered "cassowary!", and up ahead we saw the back end of a large, black, bushy form disappear into the jungle. From the thick coarse hair it was either a bear or a cassowary (and there are no bears in New Guinea!). It was, of course, the local Dwarf Cassowary C. bennetti, but I have never "counted" that species on my world list. The glimpse was too brief, too surprising, and was just a shaggy back end.

My friend Steve Bailey spent several months doing research in northern Papua New Guinea. He tells of walking in the forest one day and seeing what he thought was a local villager, with a brightly painted red-and-blue face, standing on the path. That was, of course, a cassowary. Steve got one quick look and it was gone. Steve and I both spent time in lowland forests of Irian Jaya where the Northern (or Single-wattled) Cassowary C. unappendiculatus occurs. For our efforts we have seen tracks and droppings.

Back in 1983, we spent parts of two days around a private home in the Mission Beach forest of coastal Queensland, Australia, hoping for the big Southern Cassowary. We viewed a lot of photos taken by the home-owner, but no cassowary. In Jan 1998, then, Rita Carratello (that's her at right with the Southern Cassowary) booked three days at "Cassowary House" in Kuranda in the mountains northwest of Cairns, Queensland. Then operated by John & Rita Squire (they've since retired but a new owner has retained it as a birders' bed & breakfast), Rita had told us via FAX that if we were willing to spend two days in their garden, our chances were good. It was raining when we arrived, so we sat on the balcony drinking ice tea & watched their feeders (MacLeay's Honeyeaters are constant visitors; Victoria's Riflebird & Spotted Catbird are regular), and heard the story of their cassowaries.

John & Rita Squire had operated Cassowary House as a (pricey) birders' bed & breakfast for 14 years. In earlier years John also acted as nature tour guide for most visitors. When John & Rita Squire first opened, there were no cassowaries visiting the property. Instead, they put up their sign (reading "Cassowary House") and ten years ago a male Southern Cassowary made his initial visit ("It just goes to show," says John, "that cassowaries can read.").

"Father," the Squire's name for this initial male, is still visiting occasionally. Sometimes "Aunt," his usual mate now that "Mother" had died, visits separately (cassowaries are solitary in the wild). Some summers they bring chicks, although this year's chick died, possibly from starvation because "Aunt" was aggressive toward it. You cannot predict when either of these birds, or any other wild cassowary (they get rare visits from prior year's offspring), will visit.

At 5:30 pm on our first day, "Father," the original male, materialized out of the forest and tromped to the kitchen door, demanding to be fed. John brought out huge bowls of fruit which "Father" gobbled down greedily. It was all very eerie.  "Father" was not the least bit concerned with us (as can be seen in the photo with him and Rita Carratello!) but had his own agenda. After finishing all of the fruit he disappeared into the forest as mysteriously as he had arrived.

For details on a visit to Cassowary House, now operated by Phil Gregory & his wife, visit their web site.

So that's the story of how Rita & I saw a wild cassowary. But cassowaries have had more impact on my life than this one visit. The story is told that years ago a Texas birder, Edgar Kincaid, was pretty fed up with humanity. He liked birds but not many people. The people he did like he gave "bird names" which have remained in use to this day (eg, "Western Grebe" for Roseann Rowlett, whom everyone still calls "grebe"). Mr. Kincaid called himself "the Cassowary" because it was the only bird known to kill people in the wild (when New Guinea natives try to snare a cassowary, the bird viciously kicks and has disemboweled some hunters). The idea of semi-official bird names for deserving birders made its way to California in the 1970s, and a Committee was formed to deliberate on appropriate names. One could have nothing to do with their own name, but the Committee decided based on what one looked like, acted like, or of what bird you reminded them. Thus via the "Cassowary" and through a long route to California, I became the "American Woodcock" (which explains "Woodcock Publications" which published Rare Birds of the West Coast in 1980).

Attacks by cassowaries on humans still occur, especially in the breeding season when an adult has chicks. There are parks in Australia that are occasionally closed due to an aggressive cassowary. What a wonder of nature is the cassowary!

Photos: The photos of Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius were taken at "Cassowary House," Kuranda, Queensland, Australia, on 3 Jan 1998. Photos © D. Roberson.

Bibliographic note:

There is no "family book" per se of which I'm aware (there are numerous coffee-table "survey" books that include cassowaries among other large flightless birds), but an excellent introduction to the family, with excellent photos, is in Folch (1992). A discussion of New Guinea species, with more fine photos, is in Coates (1985).

Literature cited:

Coates, B. J. 1985. The Birds of Papua New Guinea. Vol. 1. Dove Publ., Alderley, Australia.

Folch, A. 1992. Family Casuariidae (Cassowaries) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

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