Do you know of Cassowaries? They are lovely, enormous, dinosauric (made that one up) birds on north-eastern Australia. There are two species (both of which are endangered), but there used to be three. The third is extinct. (I told the Aboriginal story about the Cassowary in the sky here, and there is a poem about them here.)
There are thought to be fewer than 500 Southern Cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) left in Queensland, and their population is in a steep decline, due to the fragmentation of habitat, and high attrition rates due to fatal encounters with cars on the increasing number of roads that cut through rainforest.
Cassowaries are ratites, like ostriches and emus, and they are of Gondwanan origin (i.e. after Pangaea split up into Laurasia and Gondwana). I said dinosauric before because they really look like living dinosaurs. Rumour has it that they can strike out with a backward facing claw (described as “dagger-like”) on their feet, just like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It is said that they can eviscerate a man this way.
Cassowaries have long blue necks, red wattles, and massively thick legs. Their feathers lack barbs and fall across their bodies like thick black hair. They also have hollow bone casques on their heads, with which they can make a sound like a didgeridoo.
I tell you all these things because (a) cassowaries are awesome and I love to tell you about awesome nature and (b) because I want you to understand just how rare and special but also intimidating it is to run into one of these guys in the wild. Alone.
I was running through the rainforest at dawn, completely alone, as I did every morning of my stay in those ancient Gondwanan remnants. They were lovely and the dawn chorus almost deafening. I was captivated by those forests, the slippery, root-y trails which wound up and down through creeks and ridges.
On this particular morning, as I was toddling along, I heard a loud, distinct KEE-RUNCH, just off the trail to my right. I stopped dead, slowly turning my head to see a cassowary standing not 2 meters away from me. It looked at me, dipped its head to the ground and continued eating the fruit that had fallen there.
I stared, with my mouth hanging open. This bird was taller than I was, probably about 1.8 m (~6 ft), and I was just completely awestruck. It didn’t mind me at all, just kept eating. After about 10 or 15 minutes (during which I did not move at all and may or may not have had an insect fly into my open mouth), it picked up its head, and simply faded into the undergrowth, vanishing silently and completely in just a few seconds.
At which point, I suddenly snapped to and remembered that there had been a camera hanging around my neck the whole time. I fumbled with it as if it were a bar of slippery soap, and managed to snap one, single, pathetically blurry photo before the bird completely disappeared. A Loch Ness photo, if you will, with a blurry blue neck in the undergrowth.
So I was lucky enough to encounter one of the fewer than 500 individuals left of this species in the wild, just not lucky enough to have a brain at the time.
PS. The title of this post is a pun. A pun on wary. Just FYI.