The cassowary, native to the tropical forests of New Guinea, nearby islands, and northeastern Australia, has the reputation of being the most dangerous bird in the world. Although the danger presented by cassowaries is real it has been rather exaggerated, and it is almost unheard of for one of the birds to instigate an attack. In the vast majority of cases the birds have been approached by people wanting to feed them. It is in the birds’ general nature to be shy and skittish, and most attacks occur when the birds panic.
What is the danger, you may ask? The cassowary is the third largest bird in the world,sometimes weighing up to 130 pounds, and it has quite the defense mechanism; on each of its feet are sharp claws. The second toe sports a dagger-like claw that is five inches in length. This claw is particularly fearsome since cassowaries sometimes kick with their enormously powerful legs. When panicked these birds have been known to kick – and sometimes kill – dogs and humans.
Of 221 attacks studied in 2003, 150 were against humans. 75% of these were from cassowaries that had been fed by people. 71% of the time the bird chased or charged the victim. 15% of the time they kicked. Of the attacks, 73% involved the birds expecting or snatching food, 5% involved defending natural food sources, 15% involved defending themselves from attack, 7% involved defending their chicks or eggs. The 150 attacks included only one human death.
The one documented human death caused by a cassowary occurred on 6 April 1926. 16-year-old Phillip McClean and his brother, aged 13, came across a cassowary on their property and decided to try to kill it by striking it with clubs. The bird kicked the younger boy, who fell and ran away as his older brother struck the bird. The older McClean then tripped and fell to the ground. While he was on the ground the cassowary kicked him in the neck, opening a 1.25 cm wound which may have severed his jugular vein. The boy died of his injuries shortly afterwards.
An interesting fact about the cassowary is that, unlike many other birds, the female is the one who is bigger, stronger, more brightly colored, and can have up to three mates in the breeding season. The female does not care for the eggs or the chicks but moves on to lay her blue-green eggs in the nests of several other males. The male incubates the eggs for about 50 days, then protects the striped brown chicks for about nine months, defending them fiercely against potential predators.
Cassowaries have tiny useless wings with a primitive claw still attached. Their feathers are more like hair, and keep the birds dry in the damp rainforest.
The large, bony “casque” on the head has several speculated purposes; one is that is acts as a helmet, protecting the bird’s head as it runs through the underbrush. Another may be for sexual display. Still another theory about the casque is that is helps amplify the cassowary’s very-low frequency sounds, which may aid in communication in the dense rainforests where they live. This “boom” is the lowest known bird call, and is at the lower frequency limit of human hearing.