Big Bird:

In the far north of Australia the cassowary plays a central role in shaping the rain forest.

By Olivia Judson
Photograph by Christian Ziegler

On the ground in front of me there’s a large round pile of what looks like moist purple mud. It’s roughly the volume of a baseball cap, and it’s studded with berries and seeds—more than 50. Some of the seeds are larger than an avocado stone.

I kneel down to look more closely. Putting my nose just a couple of inches away, I take a sniff. It smells of fruit mixed with a whiff of vinegar. There’s also a hint of that mouth-puckering, astringent flavor you get from strong black tea. Peculiar. But not unpleasant.

What is it? It’s a bird dropping. A big bird dropping. From a big bird.

I stand up and look around. I’m in the Daintree Rainforest, two hours’ drive up the coast from the seaside city of Cairns, in the far north of Australia. Here and there, shafts of sunlight fall through the canopy, dappling the ground. On a tree beside me, I spot a Boyd’s forest dragon—a handsome lizard with a crest on its head and spikes down its spine. Somewhere nearby, insects are singing. But of a big bird—no sign.

Probably I wouldn’t see it even if it was right there, just through those trees. Despite its bigness, it blends in with the shadows of the forest.

The bird in question? Casuarius casuarius, the southern cassowary, fruit-eater-in-chief of Australia’s rain forests.

Cassowaries are large, flightless birds related to emus and (more distantly) to ostriches, rheas, and kiwis. Today there are three species. Two are confined to the rain forests of New Guinea and nearby islands. The third and largest—the southern cassowary—also lives in the Wet Tropics of northern Queensland, in the part of Australia that sticks up at New Guinea like a spike. Some live deep in tracts of rain forest, such as the Daintree; others live on the forest edge and may wander through people’s backyards.

But a cassowary is not your regular garden bird. If an adult male stretches up to his full height, he can look down on someone five feet five—i.e., me—and he may weigh more than 110 pounds. Adult females are even taller, and can weigh more than 160 pounds. Among living birds, only ostriches are more massive. Most of the time, however, cassowaries seem smaller than they are, because they don’t walk in the stretched-up position but slouch along with their backs parallel to the ground.

Their feathers are glossy black; their legs are scaly. Their feet have just three toes—and the inside toe of each foot has evolved into a formidable spike. Their wings are tiny, having shrunk almost to the point of nonexistence. But their necks are long, and bare of all but the lightest coating of short, hairlike feathers. Instead the skin is colored with amazing hues of reds and oranges, purples and blues. At the base of the neck in the front, a couple of long folds of colorful skin, known as wattles, hang down. Cassowaries have large brown eyes and a long, curved beak. On their heads they wear a tall, hornlike casque.

You need only see two or three to know that unlike, say, sparrows, cassowaries can easily be recognized as individuals. This one has splendid long wattles and a straight casque; that one has a casque that curves rakishly to the right. This clear individuality, together with their size and the fact that they do not fly, makes them strangely humanlike: They move like people, they are people-size, and they are easy to tell apart. Because of this, it’s common for people to give them names—such as Crinklecut, Big Bertha, or Dad. It might also explain why they have long figured in the mythologies of rain forest tribes. Some believe that cassowaries are cousins of humans; others, that they are people who have been reincarnated; still others, that humans were created from the feathers of a female. However, unlike in humans, males do all the child care—they sit on the eggs, and look after the chicks for nine months or more—so they also inspire envy. “I’m coming back as a female cassowary!” one mother of five told me.

Adding to their mystique, cassowaries have a reputation for being dangerous. And certainly if you keep them in a pen and rush at them with a rake—which, judging by videos posted on YouTube, some people do—they are. They are big, they have claws and a powerful kick, and they will use them. If cassowaries come to associate humans with food handouts, they can become aggressive and demanding. If you get close to a male with young chicks, he may charge you in an attempt to protect them. If you try to catch or kill a cassowary, it may fight back—and could well get the better of you. They sometimes kill dogs.

But let’s get this straight. Left to themselves and treated with respect, cassowaries are shy, peaceable, and harmless. In Australia the last recorded instance of a cassowary killing a person was in 1926—and that was in self-defense.

read from from Nat Geo