THE search for one of Australia’s rarest birds, the southern cassowary, started excitedly one steamy, sultry afternoon at Mission Beach in far-north Queensland – and ended with a shock.
The cassowary is a species that every birdwatcher worth his or her salt inAustralia must see at some time in their life and on a summer holiday in tropical climes I decided I would be reacquainted with this remarkable bird after seeing it briefly when I lived in Townsville a decade previously
For me it was a relatively easy journey to the cassowary’s home area because we had been visiting friends in Townsville a few hundred kilometres south of the giant bird’s range before travelling to Cairns and Port Douglas.
Persuading my family to make a detour from the route to the north was a different matter, however. My son had never shown much interest in wildlife and didn’t see the point of a stopover on the way to Port Douglas but my wife suddenly warmed to the idea of a cassowary hunt when I outlined the remarkable natural history of the bird, particularly the female of the species.
The female, in fact, represents the ultimate in women’s liberation, a feathered friend of women-kind to make Germaine Greer proud.
The male cassowary is purely and simply an object of sex for the female. After copulation, she leaves her big green eggs for her partner to incubate. “Partner” is the loosest of terms. The female has nothing to do with the male or her family again – unless perhaps meeting the male during the next breeding cycle.
After incubating eggs, the male leads his offspring into the forest to teach them how to look for food, and how to avoid trouble if danger threatens. At night he fluffs up his feathers in a soft canopy and the chicks – usually three or four of them – hide amid the quills. The male shows stoic, gentle determination to rear his youngsters, even though they might not be his own, such is the promiscuity of the female.
Dad stays with the chicks for about nine months, until the new breeding season, and then quietly wanders off into the forest, leaving the chicks to fend for themselves.
I was reminded of cassowaries and my quest to find them by a documentary broadcast by the ABC, a heart-wrenching tale of a fight for survival by one cassowary family.
In my time in Queensland, it was the pressures of expanding agriculture and mushrooming suburbia that were the main threat to the cassowaries but in recent times, as reported in the TV documentary, cyclones have devastated the surviving rainforests that the cassowaries call home.
The old threats remain, however, particularly the hazard of traffic on increasingly busy roads.
A decade earlier we had caught a glimpse of a cassowary crossing a road and this trip we hunted far and wide for the species, taking in all the local nature reserves along the Mission Beach stretch of coast where they were likely to be seen.
Checking at the information centre in the tropical hamlet, we heard that the latest sighting had been in the Licuala State Forest, home to a rare palm species, fan palms.
The search was thirsty work and my family began to lose interest in the cassowary. The possibility of coming across not only an angry cassowary that packs a kick that can kill, to say nothing of carpet pythons and death adders, made it a hostile environment for us city dwellers.
We finally returned to our car admitting defeat in the great cassowary hunt but there was the shock – a towering cassowary was waiting for us. The young male – who had learned to scrounge titbits from tourists – heard our car approaching while he was in the forest and had waited patiently for us to return from our walk, looking for a feed.