The Cassowary Is Big Bird Gone Bad
The cassowary—Australia's six-foot-tall, 180-pound jungle bird—is a pushy, hard-pecking, head-butting, talon-swiping thug on the loose, and humans trespass in its habitat at their own risk. But on our writer's wary quest to confront this beast, he learns to spare a little sympathy for a fightless victim just fighting to stay alive.
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I’ve come to Australia in search of a giant dinosaur bird called the southern cassowary, but so far all I've found is Bruce: 300 pounds and 12 fluid ounces of forty-something bearded banana farmer balanced on a bar stool like a fat ballerina and squinting hard at his index finger.
“See, it's the claws you have to look out for,” Bruce explains. He draws his finger down his T-shirt, throat to navel. “Like razors. They hook one in you and splat!—you're unzipped like a laundry duffel.”
Bruce and I are sitting in the El Arish Pub, a living monument to cold beer and bad taxidermy at the edge of Licuala State Forest in Mission Beach, North Queensland, well up Australia's northeast coast. The El Arish is a banana man's grange, a place where plantation laborers pass rainy Sunday afternoons swilling VB stubbies, watching rugby, and swapping stories. With 12 feet of rain per year, Mission Beach residents have plenty of talking time. Luckily, the cassowaries that live in the area's jungles are providing plenty to talk about.
In April, a busload of Japanese tourists was held hostage by a hungry adult bird as it head-butted the vehicle's door. In May, rambunctious teenage cassowaries totaled five cars in a hotel parking lot, karate-chopping the hoods. In August, the birds chased a few hikers, forcing the temporary closure of Licuala. Then, in September, at the Australian skydiving championships in nearby Tully, parachuters gawked in amazement as an aggravated cassowary chased a ranger's motorcycle up and down the landing strip, attacking the bike with a five-inch talon and slicing the mudguard like a Ginsu through a can.
“Thing is, they're usually shy,” explains Bruce. “Except when they eat fermented bush fruit. Then they get drunk, and mean.” He signals for another beer. “And, mate, that's where your trouble starts.”
Australia is famously full of deadly critters and tall tales, but the southern cassowary is both real and, occasionally, dangerous. Casuarius casuarius lives up to 40 years, and at over six feet and 180 pounds, it is Australia's largest land animal—a member of the 80-million-year-old ratite family and cousin to extinct giants like the elephant bird of Madagascar and the New Zealand moa. (The only other habitat for the southern cassowary and its two smaller cousins, Casuarius bennetti and Casuarius unappendiculatus, is the dense jungle of Papua New Guinea.) The cassowary's black, hairlike feathers carpet a body as furry as a sheepdog's, its neck rises from fluorescent crimson to deep blue, and its head is capped with a fin-like helmet of tough, keratinous skin. This assemblage is balanced on two three-foot legs capable of bone-crushing kicks and tipped with three formidable claws: one five-inch spike and two short, sharp hooks. And like most birds, the cassowary has a mating call; witnesses compare the male's to the wheezing of an old truck with a sick ignition.
In short, the cassowary is hard to miss. The reason I haven't seen one—the reason most people have never even heard of such a bird—is that cassowaries are also rare, and getting rarer. Down from an estimated population of 2,500 in 1988, there are just 1,200 birds today. In 1999, the southern cassowary officially became an endangered species.
“If you do see one,” Bruce says, straightening on his stool, “don't turn your back. And don't run—they hate joggers. The pounding of feet triggers fight-or-flight in them, and they don't fly. . .”
“Hold on,” I say. “You're honestly telling me that if I come across a giant, drunken dinosaur with razor claws and a battering-ram helmet, I should stand my ground?”
Bruce drains his beer and motions beyond the saloon doors, where the jungle howls with rain. “If you don't believe me, mate,” he says, “head out there and see for yourself.”
Around Mission Beach, “out there” is the North Queensland Wet Tropics—a 264-mile-long sliver of 100-million-b.c. jungle running south from Cooktown to Townsville. This particular patch of green is the oldest jungle on the planet, pre-dating the extinction of the dinosaurs by 35 million years. The cassowary evolved amid the Wet Tropics, thriving on figs, quandongs, and other distinctive fruits. Unfortunately, this area is choice habitat for humans, too. And when humans and giant birds share the same real estate, sooner or later they're going to clash.
No comprehensive data on cassowary attacks exists, but it's possible to make estimates. In 1999, Christopher P. Kofron, a ranger for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, compiled a list of 221 attacks reported since the mid-1800s. Scattered among the lists of people chased, charged, kicked, pushed, pecked, jumped on, and head-butted are some serious injuries. The only death—that of a 16-year-old hunter named Phillip McClean, who caught a claw to the jugular—occurred more than 75 years ago.
Most cassowary crimes are misdemeanors. Typical was the assault on Doon McColl. In April of 1995, Doon was jogging through Mount Whitfield, a park two hours north of Mission Beach, when she heard a noise on the trail behind her.
“I turned and saw this huge black beast,” she tells me. “And I just thought, Oh, fuck.” Doon ran, then climbed a tree. The bird waited below, pecking furiously at its own neck. Hours later, it finally wandered away.
The very next week, Doon's boyfriend, Ray Willetts, was chased through Mount Whitfield. He tried to lose the bird in the jungle and spent the day flailing through thorns and lawyer vines while the cassowary trotted effortlessly behind. “He came home crosshatched and bleeding and like ÔMy God, Doon, it was Jurassic Park!' ” Doon recalls.
With millions of acres of wide-open spaces, it's hard to imagine Australia having suburban-sprawl issues. But along the highly coveted tropical northeast coast, one of the country's fastest-growing regions, forest is being razed at an average of 16,549 acres per year, and more than 370,000 people live within 20 miles of cassowary habitat.
“When you fragment the cassowary's environment, it's basically a death sentence for them,” says George Mansford, the 68-year-old chair of the Australian Rainforest Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group. “The remaining bird populations are concentrated in just a few islands of rainforest connected to one another by thin corridors of jungle. When you cut these corridors with house lots and highways, you have problems. And that's exactly what finally happened at Mount Whitfield.”
Mount Whitfield is an island of rainforest surrounded by sprawl from the booming 130,000-person coastal city of Cairns. Its 741 acres are sandwiched between the airport, several housing developments, and the Captain Cook Highway.
Ten years ago, this was the epicenter of cassowary attacks, and today the Mount Whitfield trailhead still bears a menacing NO JOGGING sign. But these days, a three-hour trot here will yield nothing more terrifying than a bush turkey. In 1996, Cairns's last cassowary, a 30-year-old female locals called Blue Arrow, met her fate in a suburban backyard.
Cassowaries are experts at gutting dogs, and Blue Arrow was no exception. In fact, the old girl was successfully moving in on two bull terriers when 73-year-old Jim Barry tried to pull the dogs away; instead he ended up knocking the big bird off her feet, and off her game. The cassowary managed one last kick—sending Jim flying into an adjacent vegetable patch—before the dogs took her throat.
“And that's the pattern,” says Mansford. “Habitat fragmentation, human interaction, dead birds. I don't want the next generation of Australians to have to visit museums to see one. But unless we change the way we think about development in this country, the cassowary is doomed.”
These days, when a bird gets mauled by dogs or hit by a car, they call Cameron Allanson, 41, the ranger in charge of the Mission Beach Management Unit, which oversees five national parks in prime cassowary territory. In the battle to keep Mission Beach from becoming another Cairns, Ranger Cameron is a frontline foot soldier.
The Mission Beach cassowary population is down from roughly 70 adults in 2000 to approximately 40 today, making it the most vulnerable in Queensland. Driving around, it's easy to see why. Mission Beach is a sleepy town smack-dab between the Gondwana rainforest and the white-sand beaches of the Coral Sea, and, as with the Cairns of 20 years ago, both birds and people want to live there.
Today is Cameron's day off, and he's keen to spend it with his wife, Shayne, puttering around their shaded porch with a refrigerator full of cozy-wrapped beers and a fresh pack of rollie ciggies. Like many houses in the Wet Tropics, theirs is on a small lot backing directly onto the rainforest, only a few miles north of town. It features a sort of exposed basement equipped with laundry room, office, and cold-storage freezer. In this case, the freezer does not store hamburger.
In the past four months, Cameron's jurisdiction alone has lost four birds to car accidents. To keep the cassowaries from crossing the road, a 165-mile “cassowary corridor” has been proposed, and the town council has launched an awareness campaign for local drivers. Until the speed bumps and CAUTION: CASSOWARY signs kick in, more cassowaries are likely to succumb to traffic, and then the big freezer, where Cameron keeps cassowary roadkill until it can be shipped to the Atherton University biology department in Cairns for study.
“Ah, mate,” Cameron says, pulling back the thick black plastic to expose a frozen bird's ankle, thick as a wrist. “So many things you don't know when you first start a job like this. Like when you pick up the dead bird, you have to fold it up before it gets rigor mortis. When it stretches out hard at its full size, it won't fit.”
According to Cameron, the birds do actually seem to dislike joggers. He's watched more than one Lycra-clad tourist go screaming down the road, Walkman flailing, cassowary in pursuit. Still, he reckons that most attacks aren't motivated by a hatred of Reeboks but by something simpler: food and sex.
The food issue is familiar. Park animals start associating people with food, and the next thing you know, it's your sandwich or your life. The sex issue is more complex. While the female birds roam the jungle during the months of May and June (the only time of year they'll tolerate a male's presence) on their annual sex bender, males stay put for up to 50 days, protecting the three to five giant, pale-green eggs the female lays and then tending to the chicks. Perhaps it's this arrangement that makes male cassowaries a bit touchy about sharing turf. Every mating season, Cameron sees it all: jealous males kicking out their reflections in car doors and windows, or disoriented and walking into, well, everywhere—pubs, houses, churches, and, increasingly, roads.
Last season, at a four-star luxury retreat in Cairns, a brood of adolescent cassowaries found its way to the hotel's pool. One of the birds snatched a purse off a bikinied tanner's chaise lounge. For the next ten minutes, the guests were treated to the sight of a grown man in a Speedo chasing the big bird round and round the patio. Finally the cassowary lost its footing on the slick Mexican tile and skated hard into the lunch buffet. Apparently, at that point, it dropped the purse.
Before Cameron and Shayne started this job, their house was owned by an old German couple named Frieda and Joseph Jorissen. They made a fair go growing lemons, mandarins, and oranges, but mostly they tended the birds, and over their 42-year tenure in Mission Beach, Frieda became the grande dame of cassowary culture. In 1977, the Jorissens donated the property to the National Parks and Wildlife Services and, by extension, to Cameron and Shayne. Little did they know that the deal came with a history, and a price.
“Basically, there were generations of birds who had grown up getting handouts off this veranda,” says Cameron. “And, mate, they were more than a little upset when we put up the fence.”
One giant female paced a deep trench around the perimeter. Others harassed their car when they came back from the grocery store, pecking the glass, scaring the kids, chasing the dog, making life hell.
“I tell you, it was a bit of a pissing contest at first, but we've got an understanding now,” he says, outlining a complex “understanding” program involving trash-can lids.
“Bird!” cries Shayne. She's been out back, examining a giant python that has eaten a neighbor's cat—you can still see the kitty's pricked ears through the snake's skin—and has spotted a 150-pound, six-foot-tall female.
I push up from the picnic table for a glimpse. And, yes, there is something in the woods over Cameron's shoulder, a spot of red. Then a head, or what looks like a head, sticking out from the jungle like a sock puppet through a stage curtain. Then it pulls back, lost in the bush.
“Did you see her?” asks Cameron, cracking me another beer.
I have to admit: I'm really not sure.
Before I leave, Cameron offers two more beers, and two suggestions on where to actually spot a cassowary.
“Well, you can go right on out across the road there,” he says, pointing to the end of their lot. “That's all lowland rainforest, right to the coast. Walk there, down to the swamps, and you'll get a real taste for it, all right. You know how to handle leeches, I reckon?”
This option is appealing, but since cassowaries, like people, prefer paths to thickets, the odds of buttonholing a bird in the bush are vanishingly small. I choose instead a flat six-mile track traversing Licuala State Forest Park, where the giant fan palms and prehistoric cycad trees start a few feet from the parking lot.
Enormous trees breach the canopy. Rain roars against the leaves and pools in muddy pits tusked by feral pigs, and the air carries a spunky, living scent. Sometimes there's a rustling in the bush, but each time I turn, nothing's there. And frankly, at this point, I'm not sure I want anything to be.
It's then that I realize that the black shape walking toward me is not a hiker. At 20 feet, it's moving forward in the deliberate manner of movie monsters.
At 15 feet, the colors on its neck are vivid and neon, its head is capped by a casque of lopsided bone, its glossy black body sprouts a foliage of quills. It picks up each giant foot and places it delicately ahead, first one, then the other, like a huge marionette. Ten feet now, then five, and the cassowary stops to regard me sideways, the velociraptor equivalent of the hairy eyeball. Is it angry, drunk, mean? Is it surprised? Hungry?
The questions stop as it again moves toward me, this time faster. Forget the theories; it's time to walk. Backward. Slowly. I keep the distance, remembering the pecked and chased and butted.
“Don't dare run,” Bruce had suggested. “And never turn your back on a bird.” But, really, how could anyone turn away? The cassowary pecks the ground, gobbling fat worms with quick chops of its beak. Its legs are turquoise and muscular, its wedge toes are finished with those famous curved razors of spike and claw, and I have no idea what to do. Look for a tree? Suddenly they all seem desperately flimsy for the job. Run? Not on your life.
Instead, I take one deliberate step to the side, offering the cassowary the trail. The bird cocks its head, then struts past. It is real. Then, just as quickly, it is gone.