Cassowaries are found in Northern Australia, New Guinea, Ceram and Aru Island. Their habitat is dense forests. They can weigh up to 165 lbs. and grow to be 5 ft tall at top of the head. Their diet consists mainly of fruit of forest trees, some small vertebrates and land snails. There are three species of cassowary – the Bennets and the northern cassowary, both of New Guinea, and the southern cassowary (a.k.a. double-wattled cassowary) of New Guinea and northern Australia. The double-wattled cassowary is the largest of the three. Females are often bigger than males, have a taller casque and brighter and more developed neck clusters.
The ostrich, rheas, emu and cassowaries, as well as the kiwis, constitute a loosely related group called ratite (non-keeled sternum). Ratites are flightless with mere vestiges of wings. Excepting the elusive and nocturnal kiwi, the first line of defense among the ratites is to depend upon foot speed (up to 30 mph) to carry them free of harm’s way. What they can not outrun, they can often outfight. A kick is capable of delivering a crushing blow, none more so than that delivered by a cassowary, a bird to which more human fatalities have been attributed than to any other. The inner of the three toes of each of the cassowary’s feet bears a long, dagger-like claw. Cassowaries are among the shortest – tempered of birds and will go on the defensive with very little provocation. The adult’s coarse plumage serves well in damp jungle undergrowth. The exposed neck bears grape-like clusters which may play a social role. The casque may serve as a crash helmet for barging through thick, tangled vegetation and/or as a spade in the search for buried food.
Though groups of adults are encountered, these birds tend to live separately, a pair associating only during the breeding season. Encounters are likely to result in serious, and not infrequently, fatal fights. In cross gender conflicts, it is often the smaller male that gets the worst of the exchange. A mated female will lay 3-6 dark green eggs in a shallow scrape. She leaves the male to incubate for the required 49-56 days, and leaves to find a new mate. An active female cassowary can leave 3-4 males on separate nests, having no part in the rearing of young.
Cassowary chicks are beige with darker striping which serves as an effective camouflage against the backdrop of the forest floor. The father cassowary watches after the brood for up to 18 months. Sexual maturity is reached during the third year. Longevity is estimated to be 18-20 years in the wild, though some in human care have attained the age of forty years. Although their status is stable in the wild, the Cassowary is under threat from hunting and deforestation of their dense wooded habitat.