Wary Cass another of Cyclone Yasi’s victims
Life was not meant to be easy for cassowaries.
I am writing this as I enjoy an escape at my in-laws hideaway retreat in the middle of a rainforest in Far North Queensland. It’s raining.
Heavy tropical rain is best experienced in a dense rainforest setting. It is a unique form of entertainment for a city slicker - especially when many of the other trappings of modern city life are non-existent. There is no mobile phone coverage, no town water - just a bore - a sub-soil waste management distribution system and very poor and infrequent radio reception even with an aerial. My link to the outside world is a satellite broadband set-up for internet - no television.
This wonderful spot is about 40km inland from the coast, nestled into the foothills of the Cardwell Range. The average annual rainfall is usually around two and a half metres (2,500mm) but two years ago they had 4,151mm. This year they have received their annual average in just two months (February/March) thanks to a weather event called Cyclone Yasi and that is partly why I am here.
My in-laws’ abode and the surrounding rainforest were directly in the path of that cyclone and suffered extensive damage. The house is repairable but the rainforest will take many decades to recover to its former glory. It is also cassowary country.
Cassowaries are an endangered species of large flightless rainforest birds that can grow up to 2 metres tall, weigh up to 85 kilograms and run up to 50 kilometres per hour. The adult displays a brightly coloured head and neck and their habitat is restricted to the tropical rainforest of north-eastern Australia and from southern New Guinea to Indonesia.
My in-laws regularly saw adult cassowaries and chicks but since Cyclone Yasi no adult birds have been seen. During the hot and exhausting cyclone recovery efforts at this retreat one lone cassowary chick has befriended them. They had seen the bird fossicking for food with his adult father at the beginning of the year but it seems father did not survive the storm.
The wet tropics rainforest surrounding their home has been ripped to shreds and the tree canopy has disappeared leaving the birds exposed to the elements. Natural food such as native fruits, wild berries and fungi is scarce and sources of fresh water are filled with forest debris so the chick appeared at their home suffering starvation and heat exhaustion.
Being sensitive to the threat of this animal becoming accustomed to hand feeding a feeding station and water source has been set up in the nearby forest. The adopted bird that they have nicknamed Cass has become accustomed to a diet of bananas, apples and tropical fruits but also enjoys less typical food like tomatoes, oranges and pineapple. Unlike their own children they have not managed to convince Cass to eat vegetables.
Cass rewards their hospitality with regular daily visits usually in the dim light of morning and peers in the bedroom window or stands guard at the screen entrance door.
Even in this friendly environment Cass remains in danger. Dogs and humans in cars are constant threats. Environmental scientists estimate that the total Queensland population of cassowaries is somewhere between 1200 and 1500 birds and based on previous cyclone statistics as many as 35 per cent of the local population may have perished in Cyclone Yasi.
There have been 67 recorded road deaths in north Queensland in the past fifteen years with 15 birds killed in the last 18 months.
Large roadside signs have been erected pleading with motorists to slow down but a close examination reveals they are peppered with bullet holes. So much for conservation.
While both Cass and I have enjoyed the hospitality of my in-laws and without the trappings of modern city living there has been one excellent fringe benefit. My brother-in-law has a collection of fine reds that we are consuming with as much gusto as Cass consumes his new food diet.
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