National Geographic : 2013 Sep
Bertha, or Dad. It might also explain why they have long figured in the mythologies of rain forest tribes. Some believe that cassowaries are cousins of humans; others, that they are people who have been reincarnated; still others, that humans were created from the feathers of a fe- male. However, unlike in humans, males do all the child care—they sit on the eggs, and look after the chicks for nine months or more—so they also inspire envy. “I’m coming back as a female cassowary!” one mother of five told me. Adding to their mystique, cassowaries have a reputation for being dangerous. And certainly if you keep them in a pen and rush at them with a rake—which, judging by videos posted on YouTube, some people do—they are. They are big, they have claws and a powerful kick, and they will use them. If cassowaries come to associate humans with food handouts, they can become aggressive and demanding. If you get close to a male with young chicks, he may charge you in an attempt to protect them. If you try to catch or kill a cassowary, it may fight back—and could well get the better of you. They sometimes kill dogs. But let’s get this straight. Left to themselves and treated with respect, cassowaries are shy, peaceable, and harmless. In Australia the last recorded instance of a cassowary killing a per- son was in 1926—and that was in self-defense. Dad has a territory near Kuranda, a small town in the hills behind Cairns; he has lived here for at least 30 years. His territory includes a patch of dense forest, a road, and the garden of Cassowary House, a guesthouse where I’m stay- ing for a few days. Despite the summer heat, the bed has an electric blanket—to keep the sheets dry in the sodden rain forest air. And while I sit on a veranda drinking coffee, Dad and his three chicks stroll about below. Dad’s casque veers off at an angle and looks a bit mangled. His chicks, which are about four weeks old and almost knee-high, make funny whistling-peeping sounds as they run about. He mostly stays silent—but from time to time clacks his bill, making a loud banging noise. He burps too. And occasionally he booms. That is, Fruits of the Australian rain forest. Male cassowaries raise the chicks, teaching them what to eat. Olivia Judson’s story on Antarctica’s Mount Erebus appeared in the July 2012 issue. Christian Ziegler’s photograph on pages 70-71 was awarded first prize, Nature, in the 2013 World Press Photo contest.