Habitat, Appearance and Claw Attacks

Cassowary Habitat, Appearance and Claw Attacks

Cassowary Habits - Courtship and Calls plus Nests & Chicks

Cassowary Feeding Habits and Threats plus Mythology & Fossils

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The name Cassowary is derived from a corruption of the Malay word Suwari according to John Crawford in his 1865 book "A grammar and dictionary of the Malay language", pages  178 & 25.  It was apparently initially printed as Casoaris by Dutch Physician James Bontius in 1658 in his "Historiae naturalis et medicae Indiae orientalis", page 71.

There are 3 different species of Cassowary, these being the Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius (also known as the Australian Cassowary or the Double-wattled Cassowary), the Dwarf Cassowary Casuarius bennetti, and the Northern Cassowary Casuarius unappendiculatus.  The 3 species form the Casuarius genus within the Casuariidae family, which is part of the  Struthioniformes order.

Photo of Cassowary
Photo of Cassowary
Many thanks to Polish photographer Michal Zacharzewski for the use of this photo.


The three species exist in the tropical forests on New Guinea and Northeastern Australia. Also some islands in the vicinity of New Guinea have small populations of Cassowary, but it is not known whether these are natural inhabitants or a result of trading when young birds were bought from New Guinea.

All three species inhabit similar Habitats, but usually avoid meeting one another, since they prefer different altitudes. Thus the Northern Cassowary lives particularly in low land forests, the Southern Cassowary in middle latitudes, and the Dwarf Cassowary in the mountain rain forest. However there are overlaps to the Habitats and no sharp dividing lines; In areas in which the other species do not occur, the Dwarf Cassowary can descend all the way down to sea level.

Appearance of the Cassowary

Cassowary are large birds, adults being between 1.2 and 1.8 metres in size.  The Southern Cassowary is the largest of the three species and is actually the third largest bird in the world, being only smaller than the ostrich and the Emu.  The Southern Cassowary reaches 1.50 to 1.80 m.

The Cassowaries weigh 35 to 60 kilograms (77 to 130 pounds), with the Southern Cassowary being the heavier of the 3 species.   They are related to the emu, to which they have a somewhat similar appearance.   Their plumage is black, with a blue and red color on the neck.   As in the other strutioniformes, Cassowaries have atrophied wings and are unable to fly.
Their small wings fold under the body of the bird, apparently to protect the flanks.

They have a characteristic large bony protuberance, called a casque (meaning helmet in french), on the head.   The function of this casque is still puzzling. The traditional explanation is that the device offers protection from head injuries during fast movements in the dense forest.  The birds also use the helmet to brush aside leaves and dig loose earth in the search for food. The main function might lie however in the pronouncement of rank - in other words, the size of the helmet may reflect the social status of an individual and thus play a role in social behavior. The helmet constantly grows, although slowly, during the animal's entire life.

It is difficult to differentiate the gender of Cassowaries. Females are on the average somewhat larger, have brighter colors and larger helmet. However this is not a reliable way of distinguishing the two genders.

Claw and Attacks of the Cassowary

Although they are rather shy birds, it is not wise to approach them them too closely, as they can become terribly aggressive.

They have three toes on each foot.  The middle toe of each foot is 10 to 12 cm long, this being around double the length of the two outer toes, and can be used as dangerous weapon.  A kick of a Cassowary's foot with its sharp claw can produce a deadly ripping wound.

Its first defense is to escape in the vegetation.  However a cassowary that is injured, has chicks nearby or knows itself surrounded or trapped is more dangerous than otherwise.  Evidence exists of an uprovoked attack on a village in Papua New Guinea, where least two people died. That particular bird had however grown up in captivity before it was released in the wild.

Normally preceding an attack the bird takes a threatening posture, in which the feathers are fluffed up and the head is bent to the ground.  The neck swells and the body begins to tremble. A male can also use this display in order to drive away another male from its territory during the reproductive season.  If it then actually comes to an attack, the Cassowary hits with both legs at the same time. The centre claw can thereby cause the heaviest injuries.
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