Photo: Cassowary and chick at Loving Nature Sanctuary - Robert and Sue Tidey

This article featured in Wildlife Lands Issue 7

Found in the rainforests of north Queensland and associated vegetation mosaics, the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) is an iconic flightless bird that is listed as Endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).  They belong to the ratite family of birds and are most closely related to the emu, ostrich, kiwi, and South American rhea.  Other relations include the now extinct moas of New Zealand and the elephant bird of Madagascar.

The cassowary is territorial, solitary and has independent but overlapping home ranges, with female territories encompassing those of anywhere from one to several males.  It is the male's duty not only to incubate the eggs, but also to care for the chicks in their first year or so.  The chicks are striped until they reach the age of approximately 6-9 months, and develop glossy black feathers and brightly coloured skin on their necks and heads when they are about 3 years old - changes which signify breeding capability.

Cassowaries are one of only a few frugivores that can disperse large rainforest fruits and are the only long distance dispersal vector for many large seeded fruits.  A vast majority of seeds ingested by the birds retain their viability and are passed whole.  The passage of some seeds through cassowaries can improve germination rates, and correspondingly its conservation is crucial to other species and ecosystems; meaning the cassowary is considered a "keystone" species.

It is estimated that fewer than 1500 individuals of this ancient species remain in Australia today (with many experts of the opinion that this figure is much lower), and given that cassowaries are long-lived, slow-reproducing animals with lengthy parental care and low juvenile survival, each death of an adult bird has the potential to influence population dynamics and the population's reproductive fitness.  The most prominent threat to the long-term survival of Wet Tropics cassowaries is the clearing and fragmentation of habitat, while other notable (and often associated) mentions include roads and traffic, dog attacks, hand feeding and avian diseases.  Some of these threats have greater impact on certain age classes - with dog attacks most common on the vulnerable subadults and chicks, for example.  They have a reputation for being dangerous to people and domestic animals, but the truth of the matter is quite clearly the reverse.

Factors such as habitat fragmentation may cause birds, particularly dispersing adults, to travel further to access food and new habitat, and as a result increase the risk of road mortality for that age class.  Cassowaries have been known to congregate in areas when artificially fed on a regular basis - hand-feeding along the roadside results in the birds becoming attracted to roads and less wary of humans, and consequently more vulnerable to threats such as dog attacks and being struck by vehicles.

Many members of the Wildlife Land Trust have sanctuaries that protect the southern cassowary’s habitat, a critical step in preserving this species and the key role they play in the ecosystem. In the past we have helped to establish road signs and speed bumps near WLT member sanctuaries Cooper Creek Wilderness and Licuana Rainforest Refuge to reduce cassowary injuries and deaths.  We have also nominated a vital southern cassowary habitat - the Lowland Tropical Rainforest of the Wet Tropics Bioregion - for assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. With the combined efforts of the WLT, our members and other conservation organisations, we hope to continue protecting this magnificent species for many years to come.