The cassowary is one of the most bizarre and remarkable looking birds on earth. In many ways, it doesn’t really look like a bird: it stands over 5ft high, has shaggy feathers that look like fur, has a 5 inch spike-like claw on each of its feet, a horn-like casque atop its head, and a bright blue-and-red wattled throat. It looks prehistoric, it really does. They are also hardly known outside of Australia. There are three species of cassowary, two that live in New Guinea and one – the largest of the three – in Australia. Cassowaries are ratites, related to ostriches and emus. Of all the birds left on earth, only ostriches and cassowaries have been proven to have attacked and killed people. (I’d be amazed if harpy eagles haven’t killed small children in Amazonia, but this has never been recorded officially.) Cassowaries have earned quite a reputation for aggression over the last few years due to the appearance of a few spectacular videos on YouTube showing them throwing their weight around. It is because of their reputation for being the most dangerous bird on earth that we were in Queensland, Australia to film them for Biggest and Baddest.
I can only imagine what it must be like for someone who hasn’t heard of cassowaries to come across one for the first time! Perhaps a honeymooning couple from New York, out in northern Australia for the real outback experience, deep in the hot, unfamiliar jungle, a few hours’ hike away from the nearest road. Suddenly out steps what looks like a hairy velociraptor, and worst of all, it’s not remotely afraid, it’s huge, and it’s coming at you!
The first time I saw one, foraging for berries along a forest track, I was absolutely thrilled, but I really wanted to see one with its young, and I really wanted to see one in dense bush, not along the side of a track. Unusually for birds, it is the male cassowary that incubates the eggs and fends for the young while they grow. With only eight days available to us we worked tirelessly, spending every waking hour out looking for cassowary or interviewing local experts. Finally, with two days to spare, we spotted a male with two young on the edge of a road in the Daintree National Park. No sooner had we pulled into the side of the road than the cassowaries took off into the bush. This was my chance.
There was no way the film crew could follow through the dense bush, but our fixer Tim, who was both very nimble and a decent camera operator, grabbed a small camera and rushed after me. It took us some time to catch up with them, they move so rapidly through dense bush, but finally we caught sight of them ahead of us. We approached with caution, not wanting to disturb them too much; cassowaries aren’t usually aggressive but they will defend their young with understandable vigor. They were going at quite a clip, but were foraging as they went. I could see them picking bright red fruits from the ground and throwing them down their throats as they were moving. Suddenly, one of the babies spotted a lovely looking red berry only about 6 feet away from where I was crouched, concealed behind a bush. It hurried over and grabbed the berry, then looked up and spotted me! The delight of finding a juicy morsel was immediately replaced with the shock of seeing an unknown assailant hiding behind a bush! It let out a squeak of terror and tore off. The sound attracted its father who came rushing over to see what all the fuss was about. When he spotted me he reared up to his full height, towering over me, and shook his feathers in warning. I stayed dead still, not wanting to appear to be a threat. At that, the three birds picked up their pace. We knew we only had one more chance to get a decent shot of them, so Tim & I raced off through the forest, making an arc in the hope of getting ahead of the birds as they crossed a dry river bed that we could see ahead of us through the trees. We jumped down into the rocky gulley just as the three cassowaries crossed, then they disappeared into the dense forest on the other side.
In getting this shot, the three cassowaries crossing the river bed in the background with me crouched in the foreground, Tim got one of the best shots of the whole series. As a result of our dedication in chasing after this family of cassowaries where the rest of the crew couldn’t follow, I had the experience I was hoping for, we got a wonderful shot for the show, and Tim got hired as a camera operator for four more episodes! What an amazing result all round!
Don’t miss the full story on Biggest & Baddest this Friday at 8/7c.