Cassowaries kick ass


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.

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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.

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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].

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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.


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Many thanks Darren.

I vote for more on cassowaries.

Most interesting. When I took my first job at the Brookfield Zoo (Chicago) many years ago, I was shocked one morning to witness a keeper bashing a cassowary with a rake. I was told that "a good offense was the best defense", and that if the bird didn't score a TKO, the stilleto claw was exceptionally good at disembowellment.
In the late 70's I met Benjamin Galstaun, an Armenian-Javanese autodidact who designed and built the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta, Indonesia. The zoo had a wonderful collection of cassowaries, and Galstaun had amassed a great deal of information on geographically based morphological differences -- which he said was a refinement of Rothchild's monograph. Unfortunately, he died before the work saw print.
Anyway, one day, my young colleague-curator there had to shift a cassowary to a new pen. The idea was to shove it into a crate and effect the transfer with total control (the zoo had enormous visitation, and a cassowary running amok was not desired). My colleague and I had a somewhat competitive relationship, and the last thing he was about to do was accept my advice to "bag the bird's head" (a standard practice for handling ratites in US zoos). Big bird became quite feisty, then passionate and vindictive. When my buddy finally gave up he was bruised, bleeding, and wearing shredded clothes. It was quite a site.
By the way, zoo keepers claim that ratite eggs make fantastic omelets.

Yes, bring us more! And more on other things as well, of course. I am especially looking forward to the passerine supertree. You've been promising that one since at least Novembre 2006.

My emus kick forward, not backward. The safest way I have found to grab them is from behind (though I will try head bagging in the future). I have the scars and stitches to show that their claws make an effective defense. Although the females act aggressively toward me during breeding season, it has been all show. When I had rheas (common), they also kicked forward.

My emus seem to also have an instinctive dislike of dogs and will try to attack them. I lost my flock of rheas to dogs, though. The rheas apparently are more sheep-like and ran until they dropped. I could find no external injuries caused by the dogs on the birds.

By roy in nipomo (not verified) on 17 May 2007 #permalink

There is an urban legend that more Allied soldiers died from cassowary attacks in New Guinea than from actual combat.

Some friends of mine spent several years from the early 1980s to the late 1990s as missionaries in Papua New Guinea, mostly in the Highlands around Mt Hagen. They tell lots of good stories - but most are entirely irrelevant to this matter.

However, they tell me that some of the Highland Papuan people have a curious relationship with cassowaries, whereby the cassowaries are semi-tamed and viewed as belonging to people. The major threat to human life from cassowaries as far as my friends were concerned was if you hit one when driving on the road. They were warned that if the cassowary was killed the "pay back" system came into play. This quasi-legal system usually applies to instances were a human is killed, and allows the village the dead person was from to claim the life of the killer (or in some cases someone else from the village the killer came from) as pay back. Strangely in at least some areas it appears that cassowaries and pigs* are so highly valued that they may be treated the same - though usually an outrageous 'ransom' would be accepted in stead. The advice they were given was that if while driving in a highland area they hit a person, cassowary or pig - they should not stop, but rather drive to the nearest large town (not the local village!) and report it to the police.
I know this is a rather different way in which a cassowary could potentially be lethal, but I thought it interesting none the less.

*regarding how much they value their pigs, they showed me several photos of papuan highland women breast feeding piglets - I have no idea how well human milk addresses the nutritional needs of a piglet, but the whole concept is rather bizarre.

By Mark Lees (not verified) on 18 May 2007 #permalink

Cassowaries really are amazing. I was fortunate enough to get close to one at a bird zoo in Miami a few years back. Too close. Man, did those handlers look nervous. It was only later that I found out how kick-ass they can be.

Good jumpers, too. Go here and here.

Was incredibly fortunate to see two wild ones together, just north of the Daintree River in far north Queensland (just before you run out of sealed roads...). Was only a brief glimpse as I was riding up a hill on my trike and didn't want to stop as my safety flag has an unpredictable effect on wildlife, but saw them for maybe 10 seconds. I hope I get another chance to see one in the wild.

The requisite youtube links: here, and here here (demented!) and here (gettin jiggy!) and here (lucky kid indeed)

Hi Darren,I found the blog a few weeks ago researching feral cats for my masters degree. It's brilliant. I vote for more for more cassowaries. If you are looking for more interesting antipodean subjects to write on I suggest the kea (my vote for hominid-equivalent bird; -very- intelligent social omnivore; interesting), procoptodon goliah (giant, pleistocene, grappling-hook-handed kangaroo, have a look at the excellent Australian doco "Faces In The Mob" for some inspiration on macropods) thylacoleo carnifex and megalania prisca. Keep up the good work.

Many thanks to all for the comments: thanks Geoffrey, glad you like. Inspired by John's research on youtube, I did some myself.

Check this one out (here). I don't endorse the comments on the proposed affinities with Velociraptor, but there are some very cool shots here of Momma Cass (a trained cassowary at Miami's Parrot Jungle Island) leaping and swallowing big fruit. The trainer (Patrick Burness) mentions cases of cassowaries attacking people from behind and 'eating them while they're still alive'. Say what??

Here are some people risking life and limb with a wild cassowary (especially the woman that falls down), but nothing particularly dramatic happens.

And here are two individuals being fed big fruit.

Finally, this shows that, if you're lucky and/or careful, you get can close to wild birds without incident (not that I would recommend it: the people here are taking an unnecessary risk).

A bit off-topic, but I know from personal experience that advice not to stop for traffic accidents in Papua New Guinea, but rather to drive to a police station and report it was actually given officially to visitors back in the 1980's.
Also I remember that the highest denomination bill (50 Kina?) had a picture of a pig on it, since this was the most valuable thing the average papuan could think of.

As for getting close to cassowaries, it is certainly possible, but only if they are used to people I think.
We were poking around for birds in a rainforest near Mission Beach in Queensland at dawn one morning when a cassowary came running towards us. We quickly got into our car whereupon the cassowary stopped outside, obviously waiting for something.
The something proved to be bananas, so I'm afraid that we contributed to the problem of cassowaries associating people with food. However it was utterly fascinating to actually see a wild cassowary at a distance of about 3 feet.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 20 May 2007 #permalink

Here's another vote for more cassowary posts. I worked with an old hen C. casuarius for a couple of years. The keepers always entered her paddock with a wide broom to halt the intense charge she always greeted us with. It was intimidating, especially with the reputation the birds have, but just how hostile her intentions were none of us had the guts to find out. Incidentally, that owl article that Sordes linked to is wonderful--pretty dodgy, but wonderful.

I'll never forget standing nose-to-beak with a cassowary when I visited Australia in 2000. Fortunately, there was a very hefty wire mesh between me an the bird. All I could think about as I looked into its unfathomable, unblinking eyes was Jurassic Park.

When there are no modern amenities, milk formulas, bottles etc available and when no other lactating animals are there to keep a piglet alive, a woman who resorts to breastfeeding that piglet is stepping in to save its life rather than let it die. As long as the risk of disease is almost negligible, she could suckle piglets at both breasts to keep them alive. There is nothing crude or bestial in that as its only some minds that think otherwise.

By Gerard Simons (not verified) on 30 Oct 2010 #permalink

when our local zoo equivalent in the southern Philippines (the Crocodile Park) got a cassowary about a year ago, it was homicidal and would constantly bash at the fence whenever people were near and even reach its head out as far as it could (and this place borders on being a petting zoo, you can get close). It left quite an impression, and so did the bird's feet in resembling those of dromeosaurs. I recently brought my toddler there and was worried about him running too close to the cassowary's fence, but it now seems disappointingly docile and hardly moves at all. Always a great place to visit though, they are breeding Crocodylus mindorensis and have lots of hornbills and other interesting animals.