Be Wary of Cassowaries: But in Australia, Lend a Helping Hand

Cassowary and chick, Queensland, Australia. (Photo Courtesy of Dan Gordon, via Wikimedia Commons)

Australia has been blindsided by one natural disaster after the next, recently, and now officials down under have added giant birds with prominent crests, blue necks, and red wattles—cassowaries—to their list of those in need of relief. When Cyclone Yasi swept across Queensland on Australia’s northeast coast, hundreds of homes were destroyed, and a portion of the rainforest where these endangered, six-foot-tall frugivores lurk was thrashed. Winds reached a limb-snapping, fruit-crushing 170 mph at the cyclone’s core, stripping trees bare.

Of the roughly 1,000 Australian cassowaries still in existence, an estimated 40 to 200 live in the hardest-hit area, Mission Beach. Fruit knocked to the ground likely will keep for a few weeks, but afterward, it could be as much as 18 months before the rainforest recovers. So much debris now lies on the forest floor, cassowaries actually may have trouble traveling in search of food, which worries some that the hungry birds will take to roads, risking car-collisions in addition to starvation. After Cyclone Larry in 2006, about a third of the region’s population of cassowaries died, some because of cars or dogs.

Cassowary crossing, Queensland. (Photo courtes of djpmapleferryman, via Wikimedia Commons)

What’s to be done? Believe it or not, the government's  Cassowary Response Team is dropping fruit from the air, courtesy of several Far North Queensland retailers. These donations may not be fit for sale, but they’re still ripe—deliciously over ripe—for cassowaries. Rangers are establishing 20 feed stations, which will be moved or rotated so the iconic birds don’t form any bad habits. No one wants them to become dependent on humans, for it would endanger all involved.

In fact, officials have warned residents to stay well clear of the birds, should any venture out of the woods looking famished. "It's vital that members of the public don't feed cassowaries—for their own safety and in the interests of the birds' survival long term,” said Kate Jones, the Queensland sustainability minister. A cassowary’s long legs and three sharp toes are downright rhinocerosish, and they’re said to be able to disembowel a threat—or a melon, parachuted in?—with a swift kick. Striking birds, aren't they? Though just one person has died this way, the cassowary has the infamous distinction of being the planet's most dangerous avian, at least according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Not so from the perspective of Queensland's rainforest, however: Cassowaries are a keystone species, and help the woods by disseminating seeds. Post fruit-drops, maybe a few trees will sprout up whose yield usually is found only in stores.