Birds – Cassowaries

The Cassowaries are more numerous in forras than the Ostriches, Rheas, and Emeus combined, as Rothschild, in his magnificent monograph of the genus, recognizes eight or nine species and ten or more subspecies, and states that, owing to the uncertainty of localities whence have come many of the living specimens brought to Europe, and the disappearance after death of the most characteristic coloration of the bare skin of the head and neck, our knowledge of the species is doubtless still limited. They are confined in their distribution to the Papuan subregion, i.e. New Guinea with the islands in Geelvink Bay, Salawatti, New Britain, probably the Solomon Islands, the Aru group, northern Queensland, and the island of Ceram in the Moluccas. They are curious, large birds, some of them standing five feet or more in height, and perhaps their most marked external character is the peculiar bony helmet or casque on the forehead, this, and the naked head and neck, being brightly colored; the skin of the neck is also much carunculated and wattled in various places. The bill is generally shorter than the head, laterally compressed and with the culmen curved downward near the tip, while the wings are quite rudimentary, the only external evidence being some five or six long, black, barbless quills; there are no tail-feathers. The legs and feet are very strong, for they too are very fleet of foot. As already indioated, the two outer toes are provided with obtuse curved claws, while the inner is armed with a long, straight, powerful, pointed claw, “which is a dangerous weapon.” As in Emeus the body is covered with stiff, hair-like feathers in which the after-shaft is as long as the principal shaft. ” The old birds are black, the young ones brown, and the nestling, when hatched, is striped longitudinally above.”

The following account of their habits is from Rothschild : “All Cassowaries are inhabitants of forests, while the rest of the large living Palaeognathae are denizens of steppes and deserts. Their food seems to consist of all sorts of vegetable matter and fruits; but they also pick up insects and any creeping thing that comes in their way. In captivity, at least, they kill and devour chicks and small birds when they come across them. They also, like Ostriches, Rheas, and others, swallow quantities of stones and gravel to assist digestion. They are entirely diurnal, sleeping from sunset till morning.

“The voice of the Cassowaries is a curious sort of snorting, grunting, and bellowing, usually not very loud, and differing according to the species.

“Their temper is generally sullen and treacherous, and they are extremely pugnacious, even the different sexes often fighting at other seasons than the breeding season.”

The nest is placed on the ground, often in a pile of leaves, and, unlike many of their relatives, only one female lays in a nest. The eggs vary from five to eight in number, and have a strong, coarsely granulated surface. “When fresh they are evidently all of a light green color, but when exposed to the light they become first more bluish, then grayish, and finally almost cream-colored.”

In size they are between five and six inches long and about three and one-half inches broad. Wallace, deriving his information from native sources, says of the Ceram species that both male and female take turns in sitting on the eggs, but from observations made on birds in captivity it appears that the duties of incubation fall entirely on the male, who also assumes charge of the young until they are able to shift for themselves.

The Cassowaries, according to Rothschild, are easily separable into three groups, based on both external and anatomical characters. Externally the groups may be distinguished as follows: 1.The casque compressed laterally; the fore neck with two wattles. This embraces two species, Casuarius bicarunculatus and C. Casuarius, with seven subspecies. 2. The casque depressed in front; fore neck with a single wattle. Of the one-wattled Cassowaries there are two species (C. Philipi and C. Uniappendiculatus) and four subspecies. 3. The casque as in the last but the fore neck without a wattle. These forms, called the Mooruks, include four species, C. papuanus, C. Picticollis, C. Bennetti, and C. Loriae, each, except the last, with two subspecies.

It will not be possible in the space at command to give descriptions of all the species, nor is this perhaps desirable, but I venture to attempt a pen picture of one or two. The oldest known species is the Common or Ceram Cassowary (C. Casuarius), a specimen of which was brought alive to Amsterdam in 1597. It is a species of moderate size, with a large, though not high, sloping casque of a dark brownish horn color. The head and occiput are Nile-blue, darker in the upper part of the hind neck, the lower two thirds of which is scarlet, while the chin, throat, and fore neck are dark blue. The wattles are large, lappet-shaped, much roughened, and of a deep pink color. The naked lower sides of the neck are bluish purple in front and bright scarlet behind. The plumage is of course black throughout. This species is reported to be rather abundant in the interior of Ceram, but it is extremely shy and difficult to approach, so much so, indeed, that no European naturalist appears to have seen it in the wild state. The eggs are said to be excellent eating.

The Violet-necked Cassowary (C. c. Violicollis), a subspecies of the last, is found in Trangan Island, of the Aru group, and takes its name from the bright violaceous color of the neck. The type specimen is now living in England, and Rothschild thus describes its so-called “song”: “It lowers its head and neck and remains in this position — with head and neck stretched out straight in front — for about fifteen seconds, with the bill open and gradually inflating its neck, without making a sound; then, bowing and jerking its head so that the bill and wattle clap together, it emits some barking grunts, apparently with great effort.”

Still another subspecies is the Australian Cassowary (C. C. australis) of northern Queensland. It is a very large form, with the wattles more than five inches in length. Its habits have been very entertainingly described by Edward Spalding, as quoted in the Rothschild memoir, and among other things he says: “I have found the Cassowaries to be excellent swimmers, and frequently tracked them across a good-sized creek or river. On Hinchen-brook Island, situated about 1 1/2 miles from the mainland, they have been frequently met with.”

Mr. Spalding had a young specimen in captivity for some time and speaks of its voracious appetite. “This bird has frequently devoured at a time as much as three quarts of ‘loquats’ and several fair-sized oranges whole, besides its usual amount of bread per diem, about three pounds. . . . In confinement they become very tame, and may be allowed to walk about the place without restraint, coming when called, or more often running after and following after any one accustomed to feed them. If disappointed or teased, they not infrequently ‘show fight’ by bristling up their feathers, and kicking out sideways or in front with force sufficient to knock a strong man down, a feat I have witnessed on more than one occasion. These birds are very powerful, and dangerous to approach when wounded. On more than one occasion a wounded bird has caused a naturalist to take to a tree; the sharp nail of the inner toe is a most dangerous weapon, quite equal to the claw of the large kangaroo, and capable of doing quite as much execution.”