The Guinness Book of Records lists the Southern Cassowary, the world’s third largest bird, as the most dangerous bird on Earth and, having been privileged to have been within just a few centimeters of this magnificent animal, I can certainly say that they are truly a formidable bird, and look like they could definitely dish it out if they wanted to.
In August this year, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Cairns with my wife, Kate, and son, Thomas, for fives nights. The first two were spent at Cassowary House, near Kuranda, and the rest in Cairns itself. Back in 1992, I traveled to the region for 10 days, but was not able to see a Southern Cassowary. I was also at Atherton (near Cairns) for a few days in 1995, but also was unable to see any. It is hard to imagine that you would not see one, as they stand up to 200 cm and weigh in at around 60 kg, but the Southern Cassowary is listed as Endangered, and lives in dense tropical rainforest, so it is not as if they go wandering around the streets of Cairns.
I decided to stay at Cassowary House, as it is located in the rainforest, and I thought that this would give me a good opportunity to see one, plus the name sort of suggests that they might get regular visits from their namesake. This did not guarantee a sighting, however, so I was still a little nervous about my chances. When we arrived at the accommodation, we were greeted by the son of the owners, Rowan, as one of the owners was overseas, and the other was busy finishing a book on the bird of New Guinea. The very large dogs, that were inside the main house, were not nearly as friendly as Rowan, but I was told that it was too dangerous to let the dogs outside, as the Cassowaries would probably kill them! OMG – do I really want to see one of these dog-killing birds that are listed as the “most dangerous birds on earth”?
After we settled in, Rowan gave us a quick tour of the grounds. They had a few rare birds visit their property, such as Macleay’s Honeyeater and Red-necked Crake, in addition to the Southern Cassowaries. The last place we went to was the back verandah of the property, where there was seat, a door and a bird bath. I did think that there is no way a Cassowary is going to take a bath in that thing, but did not say it out loud! On the glass door behind us, though, was a sign saying “Danger – Cassowaries” and a note saying “Refuge”. This was then explained to us by Rowan. If the male Cassowary comes around with his chicks, we would need to get inside through this door and hide out until he was gone. Well this was enough for my wife, who has a fear of Emus, and all they want to do is eat your food, she was going to be quite happy in the room, nurturing a glass of red wine and viewing anything like this from the first floor verandah. Rowan then went on to say that the female Cassowary, “Missy”, was very tame and more inquisitive than anything else, but Kate was already convinced that she would have nothing to do with these maneaters. The female had an irregular habit of dropping in, so he was unable to say that she would be around when we were there, but the male was due back with his chicks, so the refuge room door was checked to make sure it was unlocked.
My Dangerous Cassowary Encounter
I went back to the room to get my camera, and set off to check out the property. I saw a few honeyeaters and catbirds, and went back to the room to get dinner sorted. As I looked out of the window, I saw a female Southern Cassowary walk down the driveway, passed our hire car. Lucky they do not attack cars because, I reckon, it could make a mess of our small hatchback, and I would have been up for a $1500 excess payment. I grabbed the camera and zoom lens, and went down the stairs. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs, and I stopped for a minute to check that I shut the front door, as it would have spoiled Kate’s holiday if she woke up for her nap to see a Southern Cassowary helping itself to our crackers and dip. The Cassowary then proceeded to go down the side of the house toward the back verandah. I grabbed Kate and Tom and headed down there as well. A 30 second glimpse satisfied the both of them, but i stayed around to get some pictures. Unfortunately, I grabbed the wrong camera and lens combination and the size and proximity of the bird, plus the darkness of the late afternoon, made focusing very difficult. I went back to the room to get a 50mm 1.4 lens and a TTL flash.
When I got back the bird was roaming around the area picking up fallen fruits off of the floor and drinking out of the bird bath. She was still a bit close, so I sat down to just watch her. Then, to my surprise, and slight trepidation, she came right up to me and started pecking at my shoe. It was somewhat unnerving, and I had the sudden thought that this massive, potentially dangerous, bird was between me and my exit, and, more importantly, blocking the door to the refuge room!
I sat there for about 5 minutes, contemplating how I might be able to get out of this situation if she got any more inquisitive, when the Cassowary turned away and sat down on the dirt next to the verandah, where she proceeded to eat small rocks, accompanied by loud clicking noises from her large beak. Luckily for me that this was “Missy” the placid one, and not the dangerous, potential killer, male, who was taking such an interest in me. Even though she appeared quite tame, I was under no misconception that she could easily make a mess of me if she suddenly felt threatened by me in any way. So i slowly slipped past her and back up to our room. I was in awe, and very happy. I did not really get any great pictures of the Missy, but I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Thanks Rowan, and his parents Phil and Sue Gregory, of Cassowary House.