Every year on the 26th September, we celebrate World Cassowary Day. But what exactly is a cassowary, why is it endangered, and what can be done to prevent a further decline of this magnificent bird that is crucial to maintaining rainforest diversity?

What is a cassowary?

The cassowary is a large, flightless bird that roams across the Southern Hemisphere, making appearances in countries like Papua New Guinea, parts of Indonesia, and Australia. It’s part of the ratite family, standing tall at about five feet, and it’s in the same club as emus and ostriches when it comes to heavyweight avians.

While cassowaries typically have a peaceful disposition, they’ve earned a reputation for being potentially dangerous. However, the last reported human fatality caused by a cassowary was more than a century ago in Australia.

These birds are built like athletes, boasting strong legs for defensive kicks, impressive leaps up to five feet, and sprint speeds of up to thirty miles per hour! They also sport formidable five-inch claws, handy for self-defence and digging up fallen fruits.

What truly sets cassowaries apart, though, is their striking appearance. With a bright blue head, red wattle, and a black body covered in hair-like feathers, they’re a visual spectacle. But the cherry on top is their individual “helmet,” thought to signal age or dominance among cassowaries, or maybe even assist them in detecting distant low-frequency sounds – a skill called infrasound.

Cassowaries are most active at twilight and are notoriously tricky to track due to their solitary lifestyle and dense rainforest homes. You can find them in various habitats like beaches, mangroves, and rainforests. Males are territorial, while females share their turf with multiple males. Interestingly, female cassowaries mate with several partners, and once they lay three to five eggs, they leave the father to babysit for about fifty days before moving on to find another mate. Unlike many species, male cassowaries take parenting seriously, spending nine months raising their young.

At around nine months old, juvenile cassowaries are given the boot by their fathers, forcing them to fend for themselves. This can be a challenging time for these young birds, as they face risks like road accidents, dog attacks, competition with other cassowaries, and potential food shortages.

Why cassowaries are so important?

Now, you might be wondering “why all this fuss about cassowaries?” Well, these birds are like the unsung heroes of the rainforest. They’re considered “keystone” species because of their unique talent for spreading large-seeded fruits, which helps maintain rainforest diversity.

Unlike many other creatures, cassowaries can gobble up those big fruits whole, keeping the seeds intact and allowing them to travel long distances. Plus, their dung serves as fantastic fertilizer, creating a fertile environment for seeds to thrive. Cassowaries have been known to consume and transport seeds from up to seventy tree species.

Furthermore, cassowaries have an exceptional digestive system that can handle toxins other animals can’t. A combination of stomach enzymes, an active liver, and a shorter intestine enables them to consume plants that would be toxic to many other species.

By safeguarding cassowaries and their habitats, we’re not just protecting these amazing birds but also promoting the diversity and ecological balance of the entire rainforest. It’s a win-win for everyone who shares these lush environments.

So how can we help protect cassowaries?

First and foremost… don’t feed them! Although it might seem like a kind gesture, offering them food can make cassowaries view humans and settlements as a food source. Unfortunately, this can lead to trouble, including more encounters with dogs and road traffic. Educating people about the potential harm of feeding cassowaries can prevent them from becoming too friendly and experiencing changes in their health and behaviour.

Preserving cassowaries isn’t just about saving a magnificent bird; it’s about safeguarding the environment and all the other creatures that share their habitat. Cassowaries play a pivotal role in the health and balance of the rainforest, and that ripples out to affect us all.

Written by: Gemma Glynn
IAPWA Volunteer