Cassowary, Double-wattled or Southern


Casuarius casuarius or Casuarius uniappendiculatus or Casuarius bennetti


The cassowary is a large, flightless bird, very distinctive with a short neck and wedge-shaped body. Feathers are coarse, bristly, and glossy black in color. Head is equipped with a tall, grayish, bony casque or helmet on top. The skin on the head is pale blue, becoming darker down the neck. Two very powerful legs; feet with three toes; a claw is located at the end of each toe.

Family

Casuariidae

Order

Casuariiformes

Class

Aves

Range

Australia, New Guinea and adjacent islands

Habitat

Dense jungles, low swamplands and rainforests

Life Expectancy

40 to 50 years in the wild and up to 60 years in captivity.

Sexual Maturity

Approximately 4 years old

Diet

Cassowaries feed on fallen fruit, particularly the fruit of laurel trees, but will eat almost anything, including dead rats, birds, live skinks, reptiles and even fungi that they might find on the ground. In the Zoo, it is fed gamebird diet, ratite pellets, rabbit chow, fruit mix, chopped apples, and chopped bananas.

Status

IUCN - Vulnerable

Behaviors

Cassowaries are shy and elusive birds. For most of the year they live alone. If two males meet accidentally, they stretch their bodies, fluff their feathers, and rumble at each other until one retreats. When cassowaries do fight, they raise their feathers and bend their necks right under their body, roaring loudly. Raising their head back up, they then charge each other, kicking with both feet at once. An enraged, threatened cassowary can be a deadly foe. Every toe has a sharp claw. The innermost toenail is both sharp and very long – in effect, a dagger. Female cassowaries are the dominant sex and can usually make a male flee just by stretching a little and staring quietly, or rumbling slightly at him. During the mating season, cassowaries stake out territories that measure as much as two square miles. After laying the eggs, the female loses interest and leaves. The male then incubates the eggs on a nest that is simply a cleared patch on the forest floor. A clutch of three to six eggs is typical. The eggs are mottled green and are perfectly camouflaged. The chicks, too, have a camouflage pattern. Once the chicks hatch, the male will take his offspring to his regular feeding places, teaching them to forage and find food. By 3 months, the chicks begin to lose their dazzling stripes. At 6 months, their brown sub-adult plumage is developed and the neck and head are beginning to color. The male looks after the young for about 9 months, at which time he chases them away to fend for themselves.

Adaptions

The cassowary is the only bird in the world to have any type of protective armor. The vertical bony helmet, called a casque, protects the bird’s head as it makes its swift way through the thick undergrowth of the rainforest. Cassowaries have neither fluff nor plumes to impede their progress through the underbrush. Their spiny quills protect them from rough vegetation. Their featherless necks and heads, topped by their casque, helps cleave and clear their way through the brush. Each foot of the cassowary has three forward pointing toes with strong claws to provide traction while running at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. The inner toe has a five-inch long spike that is used for defense when kicking out if cornered. The cassowary’s kick is so powerful that it can slash open the vulnerable stomach of its foe or can kill with one thrust.

Special Interests

There are four living orders and five families of ratites: the Rhea (South America), the Ostrich (Africa), the Emu (Australia), the Cassowary (Australia, New Guinea and adjacent islands), and the Kiwi (New Zealand). The cassowary’s call is very unique. It has been described as a boom, or thunder in the distance, the mooing of a cow to its calf (when calling to its young), a harsh croak and even the sound of a truck engine being started. The call has been heard over a distance of three miles away on a still night. Male cassowaries are generally smaller than the females and about 20% lighter in weight. There are three different species of cassowaries. The Australian or Southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius), has two wattles and stands over five feet tall. The one-wattled cassowary (C. uniappendiculatus), native to New Guinea, is slightly bigger and stands up to six and a half feet tall and weighs 130 pounds. The third is the Bennett’s cassowary (C. bennetti). Found in New Britain, it is not only without wattles, but also a dwarf, as cassowaries go. It is just over four feet tall. Over 100 species of plants have been recorded in the cassowary’s diet. Most seed eating birds swallow grit to help grind up food in the stomach. However, the cassowary’s stomach appears to massage the flesh off the seed. At times the fruit completes the journey through the digestive system apparently unchanged, with the flesh still attached and the seed viable. In fact, many seeds may benefit from the damaging effect of the bird’s digestive enzymes. Cassowaries are important disperser’s of seeds, depositing them many miles from where they were picked up. The survival of these plants is apparently intricately bound with the survival of the cassowary. Twenty-one species of rainforest plants require passage through the cassowary’s digestive system in order to germinate. The Southern cassowary has a long history in captivity. The first one seen by Europeans was a gift in 1596 to a Dutch merchant captain from the Banda Islands. The captain was subsequently killed by the cassowary that eventually made it back to Amsterdam. It was then presented to the Holy Emperor, Rudolf II, as a gift and put on public display for some years to follow.

Folklore

The name, “cassowary”, is Papuan in origin; “kasu - weri” means “horned - head.”

Conservation

Jacksonville Zoo History

Exhibit

Australian Adventure