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Big Bird: Cassowaries Play a Central Role in the Rain Forest

By Olivia Judson
August 29, 2013; 8:24 AM ET
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The following is an excerpt from the September issue of National Geographic Magazine.

"Cassowaries are large, flightless birds related to emus and (more distantly) to ostriches, rheas, and kiwis. Today there are three species. Two are confined to the rain forests of New Guinea and nearby islands. The third and largest-the southern cassowary-also lives in the Wet Tropics of northern Queensland, in the part of Australia that sticks up at New Guinea like a spike. Some live deep in tracts of rain forest, such as the Daintree; others live on the forest edge and may wander through people's backyards.

A cassowary peers through foliage in northeast Queensland, Australia. Females like this one can weigh 160 pounds. No one knows what the casque on her head is for, but it could be a sexual ornament. Photograph by Christian Ziegler

But a cassowary is not your regular garden bird. If an adult male stretches up to his full height, he can look down on someone five feet five-i.e., me-and he may weigh more than 110 pounds. Adult females are even taller, and can weigh more than 160 pounds. Among living birds, only ostriches are more massive. Most of the time, however, cassowaries seem smaller than they are, because they don't walk in the stretched-up position but slouch along with their backs parallel to the ground.

On a beach south of Cairns a young chick hurries to keep close to its father. If all goes well, they will stay together for about nine months, until the father decides to mate again and raise another brood. Photograph by Christian Ziegler

Their feathers are glossy black; their legs are scaly. Their feet have just three toes-and the inside toe of each foot has evolved into a formidable spike. Their wings are tiny, having shrunk almost to the point of nonexistence. But their necks are long, and bare of all but the lightest coating of short, hairlike feathers. Instead the skin is colored with amazing hues of reds and oranges, purples and blues. At the base of the neck in the front, a couple of long folds of colorful skin, known as wattles, hang down. Cassowaries have large brown eyes and a long, curved beak. On their heads they wear a tall, hornlike casque."

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