The southern cassowary is a large, colourful, and flightless bird that lives in the dense tropical rainforests of northeast Queensland. Many members of the Mission Beach community are active in striving to secure the survival of this amazing bird.
Community groups have worked to save large tracts of rainforest from developers in order to save the cassowary’s habitat. The southern cassowary is related to other flightless birds, including the Australian emu, Africa's ostrich and New Zealand's kiwi and now-extinct moa. It is as tall as an adult human (up to 170 centimetres). The female southern cassowary is Australia's heaviest bird and at full height it is taller than most humans.
The bird’s colours are striking and luminescent, with shiny black plumage and a colourful naked neck and head that is brilliant blue and purple. It has long, drooping red wattles, amber eyes and a helmet-like structure known as a casque. Amazingly, the bird’s skin colour changes according to its mood, brightening when aroused.
A tailless bird, the cassowary’s wing stubs carry a small number of long, modified quills, which curve around the body, giving the appearance of a tail. They have powerful legs and dagger-like sharp-clawed toes, which they use as a defence if cornered. They will kick out with both legs at once. They can injure and have been known to kill other animals and even humans.
As with most birds, unless protecting nearby chicks, they are more likely to race off if alarmed rather than attack. They can spring through the rainforest at forty kilometres an hour. A full-size cassowary charging at you would be intimidating. The thing to do in that rare event would be to drop and cover and appear less threatening to the bird. The best advice to follow is to not feed or attempt to interfere with wildlife. You not only endanger yourself by defying this advice, but you endanger the wildlife.
Up to twenty percent of the cassowary population around the Mission Beach area may have been killed in motor vehicle accidents, mainly caused by the birds coming into the town seeking a feed. The safest place for the bird is in the forest, fossicking (foraging) for its food. The cassowary, by means of its fossicking behaviour, is responsible for spreading the seeds of hundreds of different plant species, thereby contributing to the diversity of the rainforest eco-system.
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