Northern Australia, New Guinea, and surrounding islands


Tropical forests, wetlands

Flightless feathered family

The cassowary is a large, flightless bird most closely related to the emu. Although the emu is taller, the cassowary is the heaviest bird in Australia and the second heaviest in the world after its cousin, the ostrich. It is covered in dense, two-quilled black feathers that, from a distance, look like hair. These feathers are not designed for flight but for protection in the cassowary's rain forest habitat, keeping the bird dry and safe from the sharp thorns found on many rain forest plants. Long, strong bare quills hang from the bird's tiny wings.

Cassowaries are generally jet black as adults, but the fabulous skin colors on their face and neck vary according to species and location. Female cassowaries are larger than the males and are even more brightly colored.

What’s with the headgear?

All three cassowary species have a casque, also called a helmet, that starts to develop on top of their head at one to two years of age. The casque is made of a sponge-like material and covered with a thick layer of keratin, the same thing our fingernails are made of. Although it is quite sturdy, the casque can be squeezed in the middle fairly easily.

No one knows for certain why cassowaries have a casque. It could reveal a bird’s age or dominance, or be used as a sort of helmet or shock absorber that protects the bird's head as it pushes through the rain forest underbrush.

The name cassowary seems to be of Papuan origin. “Kasu” means horned, and “weri” means head, referring to the bird’s casqued or helmeted head.
The booming sound a cassowary makes is the lowest known call of any bird and is right at the edge of human hearing.
Some people in New Guinea believe that cassowaries are reincarnations of female ancestors, while others believe that the cassowary was the first mother.
The first cassowary arrived in Europe in 1597 for the collection of Emperor Rudolf II.

The San Diego Zoo had cassowaries in its earliest years, the 1920s. A male named Cassy arrived with a large shipment of animals from Australia in 1925. A southern or double-wattled cassowary, the young bird was allowed free reign at the fledgling Zoo, greeting visitors at the entrance or roaming the Zoo’s grounds at will, often coming up to a guest and helping himself to a bunch of grapes or a bite of sandwich! When the Zoo received a pair of southern cassowaries in 1929, a proper enclosure was built for them. They, too, were so tame they would come to the fence to be petted.

Our first dwarf cassowaries arrived in 1940 and our first northern or single-wattled cassowaries in 1941.

Cassowaries are rarely hatched in zoos and are difficult to rear. In 1862 and 1863, the London Zoo reported single hatchings, but neither chick survived. It was not until April 1957 that the first successful rearing of a cassowary chick in managed care was reported—at the San Diego Zoo. The baby’s father had lived here for 31 years before the successful hatch! His offspring lived for 15 years. Only one other cassowary chick has been hatched here; sadly, it only survived one day. Currently, there are no cassowaries in our collection.

Wealthy European collectors sought cassowaries for display in private menageries in the 16th and 17th centuries. Even today, native peoples use cassowary feathers for ceremonial headdresss. Young birds are often kept and sold for meat when they get large enough or used as dowries. There are now fewer southern cassowaries in Australia than there are giant pandas in China.

Although none of the three cassowary species are considered globally threatened, all are suffering from loss of habitat. Much of the Australian rain forest where the southern cassowary is found has now been cleared, and the birds that remain face threats from dogs, feral pigs, hunters, traffic when crossing roads, starvation, and diseases. Hunting and the clearing of forests for farmland affect cassowaries living in New Guinea and its surrounding islands.

Nonprofit organizations in Australia are working to plant rain forest trees in an effort to restore habitat and food sources for cassowaries.

Many zoos participate in a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for southern cassowaries; its North American Regional Studbook is held at the San Diego Zoo. In addition, San Diego Zoo Global is helping to support a study to place radio collars on juvenile cassowaries that are rescued and released after being hand raised to see if tracking is feasible. This would allow researchers to follow their activities and determine if the reintroduction is successful.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.