Birding Without Borders

Day 347: The Wary Cass

An encounter with a dinosaur bird keeps the tally inching higher.

December 13, 2015: Cairns, Australia — A couple of days ago, I got an email from a man named Perry Marshall who lives outside of Cairns. He had read an article about my quest in the Cairns Post newspaper and wanted to help. “We have a 165-acre property in Kuranda,” he wrote. “And we can almost guarantee a sighting of a male cassowary and two chicks. Give us a call.”

I’m always leery of the G-word in birdwatching, but this sounded pretty good. Del and I called Perry and arranged to stop by his property this afternoon. “We often see cass and chicks around 3:00 at one of the creek crossings and around 4:30 at our bridge,” Perry said.

The cassowary is a very strange animal. There are three similar-looking species, the Dwarf and Northern which are restricted to New Guinea (and rarely seen) and the Southern, which also inhabits northeast Australia. The Southern Cassowary is the world’s third-tallest bird (behind the Ostrich and Emu) and second-heaviest: Females can tower more than 6 feet and weigh 130 pounds. The cassowary has a glossy-black body, thick legs and feet, and the complexion of a dinosaur. The bird’s head and neck is unfeathered with bright blue skin, dangling pink wattles, and a menacing-looking casque.

Among other things: The cassowary produces the lowest-frequency bird sound, below the lower limit of human hearing. It has no tail. Females mate with several males and the males dutifully take over care of eggs and chicks. The seeds of some rainforest trees germinate more rapidly after passing through a cassowary’s gut. The cassowary can swim quite well and spends a significant amount of its time in water. It might live to be 50 years old, though more than half of today’s known cassowary mortalities are struck by cars. And, famously, in 1926 a Southern Cassowary killed a 16-year-old Queensland rancher by kicking him in the throat (the bird’s sharp claws are five inches long), earning this creature the dubious title of “world’s most dangerous bird” in the Guinness book of world records.

“Let me just gas up a couple of quad bikes,” said Perry when Del and I arrived at his property, the Barron Falls Estate, shortly before 3:00. He gave us a short tour of the estate, which includes a historic post office and Australia’s largest Durian plantation, before we set off into the forest on the quads.

The ATV was a new mode of transport for my big year, but I wondered whether the sound of its revving engine would spook the birds. Perry assured us that the local casses are used to it. “I had a couple of guys here recently who sat quietly, hoping one would walk past,” he said. “Suddenly they turned around and the cassowary was standing in between the quad bikes, checking them out! You’ll be working on something outside and one will pop its head over your shoulder to see what you’re doing. The birds are very friendly and curious, but they startle you sometimes.”

We spent the next hour exploring ATV tracks in thick forest. At intervals, Perry hopped off his quad to point out an interesting tree, bullet ant, or cassowary track. Piles of scat were everywhere with the seeds of fruits cassowaries like to eat. Then, just as I was wondering whether the star bird would appear, it walked around the corner.

The male and two chicks were near the bridge, just as Perry had predicted. “They have a regular daily routine,” he said. We watched them walk closer, and closer, until the bird was in my face, just a foot away. Talk about friendly! The cass family stuck around, even settling down for a nap nearby, until Del and I finally had to leave.

Perry says he thinks there are eight cassowaries on his property, and 80 percent of visitors get to see one. They are wild, but are occasionally fed bananas (which explains why they’re so friendly). You can get a two-hour tour of the Barron Falls Estate for a reasonable price, quad bikes thrown in, no experience required. It’s less than half an hour’s drive from Cairns or you can take the Skyrail, a 7.5-kilometer gondola which stops at Barron Falls. Neither Del nor I had heard of the place before, but it seems a pretty good bet if you’re looking for a cassowary adventure!

New birds today: 7

Year list: 5763

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