I was going to continue talking about birding in Sydney today, but an incident on Friday needs to be addressed quickly, before the immediacy of the memory is gone. It concerns the nature of wildlife in Australia, and is perhaps the most remarked about aspect of Australia’s wildlife, at least the impression you’d get if you’ve ever watched ten minutes of Animal Planet. The very dangerous nature of the wildlife.

You don’t have to move far off the plane to step into the danger zone. Lurking in the suburban lawns of Sydney are the deadly Funnelweb Spiders. Sharks cruise off the city’s beaches, and just yesterday a deadly species of snake was found in a suburban railway station. Further afield, there is a poisonous mammal, the platypus, many waterways are filled with the carnivorous Saltwater Crocodile, and a species known as the box jellyfish is so dangerous that it causes the closure of every beach across the entire north of the continent for several months each year, and achievement that the sharks can only look at in wonder.

Stingers, or box jellyfish, are serious business. Danger, danger, danger!

This is a roundabout way of introducing Australia’s most dangerous bird, because of course a country where an agonizing death lurk in every lake, river or law has a bird that can you kill you too. And that bird is the Southern Cassowary. Although slightly shorter than the Emu, the cassowary is a sturdier, heavier and generally larger bird.

Cassowaries, serious business. Danger, danger, danger!

I first saw Southern Cassowaries from the veranda of Cassowary House near Kurunda in Queensland. The place is great, deserving and going to get a full post in a few weeks, but as you might guess from the name one of the great draws to the place are the fairly regular cassowaries that wander through the lovely gardens. At the time I visited it was a male with two chicks that visited the gardens (there is also a female about, which is larger, but I never saw her). And watching from the safety of the veranda balcony I remember being impressed both by its overall size and the sturdy looking legs and fearsome looking claws. It was also a very beautiful bird, with long fine shaggy black feathers covering the body and astonishingly bright red and blue coloured skin on the  neck and head. The whole effect was capped off literally by a bony casque that looked ancient and weathered. The chicks, which were about the size of chickens, had brown and fawn striped plumage reminding me of the colours of young wild boars.

Check out those claws!

The whole effect made for one of those birds that  are far more impressive in life that you ever expected from books and the TV. I was certainly glad to be watching from the relative safety of the veranda, even if it meant that the photos I took were at a slightly odd angle. I waited a while (and noted the direction they left in, so as not to disturb them when I went out to do some birding. Because they are capable of doing a lot of damage with those fearsome claws and strong legs, and they are never more dangerous that when they have young chicks. I didn’t encounter them afterwards, but then again I didn’t see much of anything (some walks just don’t want to give you birds).

It was this lack of anything that led me back out again a few hours later to try and see what I could get, and I was barely out of the driveway when I found a fruiting tree filled with Wompoo Fruit-doves. These are the largest of the fruit-doves and quite beautiful and not a species I had ever seen before, so I was quite pleased. They were however quite high up in the canopy so I engaged in that style of movement birders might be quite familiar with, where you move about on the ground with your eyes fixed upwards on one spot trying to find a way around the vegetation up high, not paying much attention to what is going on much lower. I must have moved some distance backwards because I became aware of something down below, and lowered my attention and spun around to be confronted by daddy cassowary with chicks. Without realizing it I must have done exactly the wrong things and approached him and his chicks, and approached him quite close. Close enough that at this point he was actually charging me.

Scene of the horror! Danger, danger, danger!

If you ever are charged by a cassowary you should not run away, you should instead hold your ground and keep looking at it, staying still and backing away slowly. This is the theory, anyway, and while I had been told this beforehand it is one thing to be told it and another to remember it when one hundred and thirty pounds of angry clawed dinosaur is running at you. The logical part of your brain shuts down, some primitive reptilian part of you kicks in and I’ll admit that I ran.

Of course, your mind words quicker in these circumstances too, although my first though was “oh crap I’m going to get beaten up by a bird”. Then I dimly recalled that I had to stand my ground, which didn’t seem like a promising idea, but none other occured, so I spun around, stopped, and lamely held my binoculars between myself and it in the hope it would kick them and not my stomach. But the information was right, and daddy stopped chasing after me. He was still very angry though, so I slowly kept backing away, eyes fixed on his, until I was far enough away that he and his chicks went back to normal.

The family on a peaceful moment.

At which point the relief meant that  laughed to myself (and him) on that dusty forest road. It’s a rare bird that scares me more than I scare it, but I am fairly sure this situation qualifies. I continued to watch him and his chicks for a few minutes, since it isn’t often you get to spend time with such an amazing bird, until one of his chicks decided to run at me and this caused him to start stalking me again. At this point I decided to retire from the situation and leave them to as much peace as a living velociraptor ever knows.

Good advice whether you are in a car or on foot!


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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.