Yet again, I am totally snowed (the day job, editorial work, technical consultancy, in-progress manuscripts, etc.) and haven’t been able to complete any of the frighteningly long list of articles I am planning to blog: you know, the ones on more sheep, more anguids, Australia: land of placentals, It’s all about me, proto-narwhals and beluwhals, vampire pterosaurs, Piltdown, plethodontids, the probing guild, Cenozoic sebecosuchians, more Triassic crurotarsans, dinoceratans, pyrotheres, astrapotheres, ‘new’ big cats, more phorusrhacids, J-Lo and other fossil pleurodires, meiolaniids, passerine supertrees.. and so on. The list grows, it does not shrink. In desperation I have therefore resorted – as I did a while back with the field guide to ostrich dinosaurs – to recycling some old text, this time on cassowaries.
The following is an extract from a longer article I published on cassowaries in 2002 (Naish 2002). A previous extract from the article, concentrating on the interesting obsession that Sir Walter Rothschild had with these remarkable birds, was published on ver 1 of the blog here. The extract published here is again to do with the relationship that cassowaries have with people, though this time it focuses on fear, anger, hate and… suffering…
It is well known that cassowaries can be dangerous, and indeed together with ostriches they are the only birds known to have definitely killed humans* (see Naish 1999). On mainland Australia, the most recent recorded fatality occurred in April 1926 when Phillip McClean received an injury to the throat after running from a cassowary and falling to the ground. I have also encountered references to the death of a zookeeper named Luke James who was apparently killed by a captive cassowary, but have only read about this on the internet and am not sure as to its reliability (readers: please let me know if have access to any further information on this case).
* Bits of children have been discovered beneath the nests of African crowned eagles Stephanoaetus coronatus, but we are not totally sure that the eagles did the killing. Furthermore, there are various anecdotal accounts of Golden eagles Aquila chrysaetos killing humans.. but if you’ve been visiting the blog for a while you’ll know this. As you will – I’m sure – also know, fossil humans (australopithecines) were sometimes killed by big eagles.
Attacking cassowaries charge and kick, sometimes jumping on top of the victim. Unlike emus, which reputedly kick backwards, cassowaries can kick in a forward and downward direction. They may also peck, barge or head-butt. The commonest injuries they cause in humans are puncture wounds, lacerations and bone fractures. Serious injuries resulting from cassowary attacks are most likely to occur if the person is crouching or is lying or has fallen on the ground. When confronted with a charging cassowary it is clearly unwise to crouch or turn one’s back on the bird. Claims that jogging incites cassowaries to attack (supposedly because the sound of running feet imitates a foot-stamping rival cassowary) do not withstand scrutiny as walking people have been attacked more frequently than joggers.
However, cassowaries do not attack indiscriminately and a recent study by Christopher Kofron (1999) of 221 recorded attacks by Casuarius casuarius johnsonii showed that attacks are mostly due to association of humans with food. Several attacks (7) appeared to be a territorial reaction to the presence of humans in an area where the cassowary was feeding while some (32) were clearly defensive – the cassowary either protecting itself or its chicks or eggs. McClean’s death in 1926 was not the result of an unprovoked attack: he had struck the bird with the intention of killing it and had then fled. James is supposed to have been attacked after taunting the bird. By far the greatest number of attacks (109) involved soliciting of food by the cassowary. In areas where humans have taken to feeding cassowaries, some cassowaries act boldly and aggressively in expectation of being fed and will run up to or chase people, sometimes kicking if no food is offered. Kofron reports that such behaviour was not recorded in his study area prior to 1985. Human feeding would thus appear to have modified cassowary behaviour and in fact cassowaries are naturally wary and highly unlikely to attack without provocation.
Cassowaries will also kick or peck at doors and windows, sometime breaking panes of glass or screen panels. In these cases they are presumably attacking a reflection which they perceive as another cassowary. They will also kick or chase cars, again because they appear to associate the human occupants with food. Cassowaries dislike dogs and will attack them without provocation, presumably because feral dogs and dingos often prey on cassowaries. Between June 1996 and February 1997, six cassowaries were killed by dogs in the Cairns area and, of 35 cassowary attacks recorded by Kofron on dogs, 29 were in self-defence. Cassowaries also dislike cats. Attacks on horses and cows have also been recorded and C. casuarius is anecdotally credited with having killed small horses (C. Walker pers. comm.). These attacks were presumably territorial in motive [in the adjacent image, note that the cassowary’s crest is leaning to the side. This is common, and perhaps do it with the fact that the birds actually use the crest to move foliage and leaf litter when foraging. It may therefore demonstrate handedness, though I don’t think anyone’s studied this].
Cassowaries have not proved easy to breed in captivity. While chicks were hatched as early as 1862 and 1863 (both at London Zoo), these did not survive and the first successful hatching and rearing of a chick appears to be from 1957 when a single C. casuarius chick was raised at San Diego Zoo. The male parent of this chick was a long-time resident of the zoo and had been there for 31 years. In recent decades several collections around the world have had success in hatching and raising cassowaries. Among the more notable have been Edinburgh Zoo (Scotland), Airlie Beach Wildlife Park (Australia) and Denver Zoo (USA). Airlie Beach has proved Australia’s most prolific cassowary breeding collection, having produced 22 birds to date, while Denver has the world record – between 1977 and 1992, 98 chicks were bred [adjacent photo of very gnarly Double-wattled cassowary from here].
It is not advised that captive cassowaries be kept with other species as they may attack and kill them. At Currumbin Sanctuary, Queensland, a cassowary killed an ibis and attacked some eastern wallaroos that entered its enclosure. However, cassowaries have also been successfully housed with other animals without incident.
PS – I also have stuff on cassowary ecology, reproduction, morphology, and on fossil cassowaries. I will blog it if there is enough demand. For previous articles on ratites see More on what I saw at the zoo and Walter Rothschild and the rise and fall of Sclater’s cassowary. One day I’ll do kiwis and moa.
Refs – –
Kofron, C. P. 1999. Attacks to humans and domestic animals by the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) in Queensland, Australia. Journal of Zoology 249, 375-381.
Naish D. 1999. Big bad killer eagles. Fortean Times 122, 48.
– . 2002. Cassowaries. The meanest, coolest birds alive (perhaps). In Downes, J. & Freeman, R. (eds) CFZ Yearbook 2002. CFZ (Exeter), pp. 168-198.