8.16.2010

Consider the Cassowary

cassowary skeleton, Thomas Smillie, c. 1906
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Cassowary, 1745
Double-Wattled Cassowary

If I were a cassowary
Far away in Timbuctoo
I would eat a missionary
Hat and boots and hymn-book too
British children's rhyme, c. 1880
• • •   • • •    • • •
What made me start thinking about this bird? All day I've been caught up in its outlandish magnificence. 

The cassowary, living paleo-avian incarnation, avatar of dinosaurs, is part of the ratite group, one of the oldest evolutionary branches of birds with living descendants. Originating in Gondwana— the Southern super-continent of approximately 550–500 million years ago— ratites now comprise a few flightless birds sprinkled across the southern hemisphere, the cassowary specifically, is native to Australasia. The name is a corruption of the Malay suwari or kesuari which seem to refer to a tree as well as the bird.

Standing more than 5 feet tall and weighing up to 130 pounds the bird has a long, usually black, hair-like coat* with head and neck presenting astonishing swaths of blue, yellow, red and orange. Also brightly colored are the pendulous and nearly obscene wattles characteristic of two of the three species. But one of its most distinctive features is the horny protrusion or casque that crowns the head.


The cassowary figures in Melanesian art and spirituality— particularly as a fertility symbol and powerful female creator figure. Some tribes believe the birds are reincarnations of female ancestors. This seems to be an intriguing and empathetic reading of the bird's social habits. Author Bruce Bagemihl elaborates:
The cassowary is considered by many New Guinean peoples to be an androgynous or gender-mixing creature. This bird possesses many of the physical attributes of strength, audacity, and ferocity traditionally considered masculine. Yet numerous New Guinean cultures also consider the cassowary to be an all-female species (or each bird to be simultaneously male and female), and often associate them with culturally feminine elements....The androgynous cassowary is also considered to be an intermediary of sorts, between the animal and human worlds.
This "androgyny" becomes more believable in knowing that the male is smaller than the female, and the male alone incubates the eggs and stays with the young until they are about nine months old. 

The birds can run thirty miles an hour, and can jump five feet into the air simultaneously kicking a foot dressed with a 4-inch talon. (So is it more likely to be a female out creating havoc? As the males are at home taking care of the kids?) A swift downward slash of the foot can easily do mortal damage. One nature website notes: "[the cassowary's] inclusion in the British Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) is wholely justified and their potential to injure, maim and even kill should never be underestimated."

I love this bird.
* Now I am in no way advocating hunting but it struck me that the cassowary would make a particularly amazing chubby, with the horn as a closure adding a Rick Owens-ish edge.
1940s chubby

2 comments:

debbie koenig said...

Love this post! When I first saw the movie "Up," I assumed Kevin was based on a cassowary. Given what you wrote about its gender issues, now I'm even more convinced. (Kevin turns out to be a mom, natch.)

angela said...

Hey that's really interesting! I want to look into that. Wow so you went to Australia? and saw them?

Who knew that gender issues would come into play with this bird!!

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