Let’s talk about cassowaries for a minute.
The endangered southern cassowary lives in Mission Beach, Queensland, about halfway between Townsville and Cairns.
And if you’re not careful, they will mess you up.
Well, according to the signs they will, and those signs are very convincing. There are no shortage of warnings that tourists should be ‘cass-o-wary’ because should a cassowary decide to destroy you, it will likely succeed.
These large flightless birds subsist on fruit, and they’re a vital part of the ecosystem because their scat distributes seeds throughout the environment. It’s hard to miss a cassowary poo – the large purple piles of seemingly undigested fruit seeds are often found on walking tracks in the surrounding parkland.
It was on one of these trails that we spotted our first cassowary.
After reading the many signs about how we should under no circumstances feed a cassowary, I was feeling pretty wary. This was further enhanced because the picnic area was enclosed in a gate to keep cassowaries out.
I was convinced that if I encountered a cassowary, it would for sure try to kick me with its powerful feet and slice me with its deadly claw. But I also really wanted to see one in the wild. It was a conundrum.
Jared and I started down the path, pointing out scat and potential cassowary paths as we went. Then, we heard a low rumble. It reminded me of the quiet drumming noise emus make when threatened, and I was convinced this was the cassowary version.
I remembered the warnings and instantly revealed my cowardly true colors.
“I’m out,” I said, backing away in the direction of the carpark, leaving Jared to contend with the vicious bird.
Just then a park ranger on a sputtering motorbike roared out of the bush and disappeared down the trail.
“Whoops. Sorry about that,” I said, sheepishly re-joining my husband to continue into the woods.
When we did see a cassowary a few minutes later, it made no sound. Roughly 20 meters ahead of us, it was the size of a small emu with fluffy black feathers and a telltale protruding head plate, making it look like something out of Jurassic Park.
We stared, awestruck, as it slowly marched across the path and into a nearby creek.
It turns out that cassowaries are in fact quite shy, and like most animals, only retaliate when directly threatened. For all of the warnings there has (according to Wikipedia) only been one recorded death, back in 1926 when a shit kid and his shit brother decided to club a cassowary to death.
In the ensuing tussle, the older boy tripped and fell; the cassowary then kicked him in the neck, inflicting a deadly wound. It’s a gruesome story, but I’m short on sympathy.
We had no idea at the time, but that was the first of several cassowaries we would see while in Mission Beach. One wandered into the caravan park the same afternoon, which I discovered when I emerged from the women’s toilets only to come face-to-face with it under the clothesline.
They are strangely beautiful up close, a mix of bright colors and mismatched features; like the old layered flip books where you could experiment with combining the head, body, and legs of various animals to create a new species.
We even saw some baby cassowaries running rampant through a grassy field, supervised by their father—it’s the male cassowary who incubates and rears the striped chicks while the mother moves on. Cassowaries are probably at their most dangerous during breeding season, but that still doesn’t mean they’re on the hunt for humans.
It’s really the cassowaries who need to be wary of us. Not only do we destroy their land, but humans can’t seem to resist hand-feeding them, which only draws the giant birds closer to suburban areas where they’re more likely to get hit by cars or attacked by dogs.
Best to employ the conservation rule of thumb with cassowaries: if you encounter one, look but don’t touch, so future generations can have the privilege of doing the same.
For more information on the cassowaries of Mission Beach, visit www.missionbeachcassowaries.com