Published online 17 December 1999 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news992123-2


Do not feed the Cassowary

When full grown, a southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) stands taller and weighs more than most people, and has a reputation for being dangerous. The cassowary is a flightless bird related to the ostrich, and, pace Alfred Hitchcock, cassowaries and ostriches are the only birds known to have killed people by attacking them.

What drives these big birds to frenzies of bloodlust? Are the streets of Australian cities patrolled by marauding gangs of these peculiar animals, intent on giving the residents a good kicking? Apparently not, says Christopher P. Kofron of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in Cairns, Queensland, Australia, in the Journal of Zoology1.

Kofron's analysis of cassowary attack patterns shows that these loveable creatures are mainly after scraps of food. They mow people down in their eagerness to clamp their beaks around a tasty morsel. Cassowaries may be big, but their attitude to life is disarmingly straightforward. Once they get the idea that human beings offer food, they assume that we are all walking meal tickets.

Of the 221 attacks studied by Kofron, 150 were on humans (105 on people directly, 45 on people in or on motor vehicles), 35 on dogs, 3 on horses, 35 on windows or doors, and 1 on a cow. In attacks on humans, all but 2 of the 150 were connected with food.

The most one expects from a cassowary is a sharp kick, peck or head-butt. These can be bad enough - a cassowary kick is quite capable of breaking bones - but the most dangerous attacks happen when the birds jump on top of the victims. Of the four such attacks documented by Kofron, one was fatal: the victim had tried to kill the cassowary, but then tripped and fell.

Kofron believes that increased contact with humans is largely to blame for cassowaries’ associating people with food. The southern cassowary is confined to coastal forest areas in northern Queensland around the town of Cairns, where housing and roads have encroached on most of its natural range. With declining supplies of their natural food resource - fallen fruit from forest trees - the birds now beg from humans, sometimes aggressively. Unstressed cassowaries in extensive tropical forest reserves to the north of Cairns, on the other hand, are shy and rarely attack people.

One consequence of Kofron's analysis is that a hoary urban legend is put to rest. It is popularly believed in Cairns that one particular habit of modern humanity drives cassowaries crazy -- jogging. Allegedly, a cassowary reads the sound of pounding feet as the aggressive foot-stamping behaviour of a rival, and this, combined with the sudden appearance of a running human, incites the birds to attack. But none of the 65 incidents on the Cairns jogging circuit for which Kofron has data involved joggers, even though they and cassowaries often meet. In all known cases, joggers have trotted off with nary a human-avian altercation. 

  • References

    1. Kofron, C.P. Attacks to humans and domestic animals by the southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii) in Queensland, Australia. Journal of Zoology 249, 375 - 381 (1999). | Article | ISI |