Mission Beach is home to the endangered southern cassowary, a large bird with black feathers, bluish purple head and neck and red wattles. It is an essential member of Far North Queensland and the Wet Tropics region because it helps to regenerate the rainforest by dispersing the seeds of trees and plants.
In normal circumstances, the bird is usually very shy and will run from humans. However, like the wallabies in the area, some cassowaries have developed an immunity to humans (which, despite being illegal, is probably encouraged by people feeding them). They can be found crossing the street and entering or exiting the forest near popular roads.
While it is certainly a delight to see these magnificent animals, their lack of fear toward humans also increases their risk of danger. The most frequent cause of death for cassowaries in the area is car strikes. People speeding on curving roads may not be able to stop in time when they see a cassowary on the road. Other threats to their existence include loose dogs, feral pigs and loss of habitat due to residential and agricultural development.
Community for Coastal and Cassowary Conservation, or C4, is an organization that monitors the local southern cassowary population with the help of the public. They track cassowary sightings “to help identify individual cassowaries, their movements, where they cross roads, their interactions, mating habits and dispersal of juveniles” to learn what activities affect their existence.
I didn’t see any cassowaries on my first visit to Mission Beach, but I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a father with his chicks this time. The chicks are a brownish yellow color and followed along after their dad as he crossed the road.
Interestingly enough, the female cassowary takes no part in raising or defending her babies once she lays her clutch of eggs. It is the male of the species who sits on the nest to incubate the eggs as well as feeds and teaches them once they hatch.
I have heard that cassowaries can become dangerous to humans, especially if their young are nearby and they feel threatened. Their sheer size demands our respect, but, if that isn’t enough, they have a sharp claw on each foot that can tear you to shreds. If kicked by their powerful legs, you can sustain severe internal damage, or they can beat you up with the protrusion on their heads. You should definitely keep your distance and never approach a cassowary (plus, it is illegal to touch any endangered animal) in the wild, even for a photo. Remain in the car if you happen to spot one.
That being said, if you are in the area, then you should make it a point to visit Mission Beach and see these amazing animals for yourself. Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see dad taking his kids out for a stroll like I did.