That Elusive Bird


 

Southern Cassowary

 

There was never a chance that I was going to get another picture as good as this one, taken two years ago. When a poor creature is captive in a cage it has precious little chance to escape the attention of a lens. It’s so sad to see a magnificent bird like this in a zoo.  We could maybe argue that no critter should ever be separated from its natural environment but surely it is particularly cruel if an animal naturally wanders over an area of up to 2.5 sq km. as the cassowary does. They are found only in North Queensland and Papua New Guinea and are listed as endangered.

Wild cassowaries can be difficult to find. There are just a few thousand in Queensland, spread across the north of the state from Mission Beach to Cape York. Google estimates between 2-4000, depending on which article you read. Needless to say, I’d set my heart on seeing one. Would we succeed? The trick is to keep going back to the places they have been recently reported, which means going into the rainforest.

 
 

 

This is fascinating in itself. In the area north of the Daintree River there are boardwalks which enable one to wander right into the heart of the rainforest.

 
 

 

The Marrdja Boardwalk, on an elevated platform, even takes us through mangrove swamp. Mangroves grow in the areas between high and low tide.

 
 
 

 

At low tide mangroves are dark and eerie places, the nodules on the ground are their roots.

 
 
 

 

At high tide it’s a different world, full of glittering reflections. Fish come in with the water and can be seen swimming through the mangrove roots and trunks.

 
 
 

 
 
 

 

Cassowary poop on the boardwalk.

We must be getting closer..

Cassowaries seek out the fruits which fall to the forest floor, swallowing them whole to digest the pulp and excreting the seed intact. They are in effect farming the rainforest for food, sowing the seed for the benefit of the next generation. This is a good strategy not just for the birds but also for rainforest sustainability and diversity, making the cassowary a keystone species.

There are even forest seeds which require the digestive process of the cassowary to help them to germinate. Primed for growth the seed is then suitably deposited, complete with a handful of general fertiliser added to the planting hole. What could be better than that?

 
 
 

 

Orchids grow high in the trees

 

Then, on the Dubuji boardwalk a little farther up the coast, I thought I heard rustling deep in the vegetation alongside the path. And was that a glimpse of a black feathered rump?

Cassowaries can grow to 2m, taller than me. They are solitary creatures and don’t take kindly to being provoked, especially if defending chicks. A vicious claw on the middle toe is enough to eviscerate a man. Or woman. It pays not to get too close.

We held back, in silence. Until..

 
 
 

 

..emerging into a clearing created by an almost dry creek bed, a cassowary and three chicks.

 
 
 

 

They stayed in full view for over ten minutes. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Light levels in the forest are extremely low making photography difficult, especially in the shadows where the birds were.

Like their relatives the emus elsewhere in Australia, it is the male cassowary which incubates the eggs and raises the chicks. The female leaves the nest shortly after the eggs have been laid, relinquishing all responsibility. Sounds fair to me. She may even go on to mate with other males, turning the tables on the traditional male/female roles in the animal kingdom.

 
 
 

 

The purpose of the ‘casque’ on the top of the head is unknown but it continues to grow with age so may be an indicator of dominance. There is also evidence to suggest that it may help the cassowary detect the low sounds made by other birds. Or it may just help protect the bird’s head as it pushes through dense undergrowth in the forest.

 
 
 

 

And if all that were not enough, we even saw cassowaries walking down the road. Twice!

 
 
 

 

The birds are true flexitarians. They won’t turn down the opportunity of carrion if they come across it. But it’s a dangerous game. Cassowaries have been killed in encounters with road traffic. My heart was in my mouth.

 
 

 

Safely back to the forest. Phew.

Nine cassowaries over two days. Four adults, five chicks. I think I can settle for that.