“The inner or second of the three toes is fitted with a long, straight, murderous nail which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. There are many records of natives being killed by this bird.”-Thomas E. Gilliard, Living Birds of the World, 1958.2
Southern cassowaries, Casuarius casuarius, get a tough reputation. They are formidable birds for sure. At 5-6 feet tall and up to 187 lbs they are the 2nd heaviest and 3rd tallest bird in the world.1 And with 5-inch dagger sharp claws on each foot and an ability to jump up to 5 feet in the air, they can mess up a human if necessary.2
But the truth is these very shy, solitary, shaggy, bewattled, veloceraptor-meets ostrich-looking, flightless birds probably just want to be left alone in whatever rainforest habitat they have left in New Guinea, Indonesia, and northeastern Australia to eat some fruit, have some babies, and splash in a stream. And while they are capable of killing humans and their dogs, they seem to be injured and killed by humans and dogs far more often. Habitat destruction and fragmentation have brought cassowaries into closer contact with people. Together habitat destruction, hunting, and road kills are putting so much hurt on the southern cassowary that it is endangered in its tiny range in Australia and vulnerable across the rest of its range.2
If you want to have a good cry I recommend the documentary “BBC Natural World-Cassowaries”. Maybe it’s those eyes, their human-like size, their charming, awkward movements, their sort of helpless, out-of-place presence in the Australian suburbs, whatever it is, you really feel for them.
It just seems hard to be a cassowary (from a human point of view). Besides the getting hunted and run over by cars and losing their habitat, their general life histories don’t sound like much fun. They are solitary and violently territorial. Cassowaries will avoid other cassowaries or else engage in dominance fights. Females are bigger and tougher than males. They mate with multiple males during the breeding season while the males build the nest, incubate the young, and raise the chicks (this part actually looks pretty nice minus the high chick mortality rate). If a male and his chicks, who hang out together for several months post-hatching, ever come across the mother of those chicks, they better run for it because that mother will attack all of them if they aren’t careful.3 And they do all this over an average lifespan of 40-50 years.2
POWERFACTS!: Cassowaries’ calls have the lowest frequency of any known bird call. We can barely hear it. One of the hypotheses for the function of the head casque (that thing on its head) is that it amplifies the deep bellowing sounds they make. Some other thoughts are that it helps them charge through thick forest vegetation (they can run up to 30 mph through dense tropical forest!!), that it is used as a weapon in disputes, or that it helps guard their head from falling fruit.2