Stalking Feathered Dinosaurs

I recently wrote a short article on stalking wild Cassowaries in Australia for BBC Wildlife Magazine in the UK. For those that did not see it, I am copying it here. It is sort of my written response to people who often ask about the dangers I face as a wildlife photographer in remote parts of the world....


The Cassowary of tropical Australia has often been called “the most dangerous bird in the world.” Standing five feet tall, and weighing more than 100 pounds, they are impressive birds. Yet their fearsome reputation derives less from their size than from their enormous, reptilian claws, with which they are said to disembowel their enemies.

That said, I think can be forgiven for having a few misgivings at the prospect of spending a week in their company in the rainforest of northern Queensland.  I had come to stake out a location where, I was told, wild cassowaries could sometimes be seen, and with luck, photographed – up close and personal.  (Yes, several people suggested that I was nuts to even try)

Although I am willing to accept considerable discomfort in my work, I must say in all honesty that being gutted by a feathered dinosaur did not hold much appeal. But I had it on good authority that most of the time cassowaries were calm and approachable.

So when a female cassowary suddenly appeared out of the forest on my very first day, passing within just a few feet of me, I don’t know which was the stronger emotion: breathless excitement or stark terror.  Those claws really were HUGE.  As in Jurassic Park huge.

At the same time, I was equally struck by her quiet, almost regal demeanor.  Cassowary adults have few non-human predators, so they seem to walk with the slow, deliberate assurance that suggests they are, indeed, masters of their forest realm.

I would see this elegant bird again nearly every day over the course of the next week, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of her mate and their two nearly full-grown chicks.   (Chicks in name, perhaps…but with feet that looked every bit as deadly as Mom and Dad’s).  Most of the time, however, she was alone – Cassowaries being among those rare bird species in which males take on the incubation and rearing of the young.

By the end of the week, I felt I had gotten to know the entire family well and begun to feel quite comfortable in their company.  Still, they were still quite capable of surprising me.  Once, walking through the forest with the male, the sky darkened and it started to rain.  I would have expected a rainforest animal like this would be immune to rainfall, going about its business no matter what the weather.  But to my astonishment, the bird sought out the shelter of a nearby tree and promptly sat down.  Sitting under my own tree just a few yards away, I watched as he casually waited for the rain to stop before rising to his feet and continuing his rounds.

But it was on one of my last days in the field when I got my biggest surprise.  By then I had grown a bit complacent about being close to these big birds, and had begin to think of them less as killers than as gentle herbivores, faithful partners and attentive parents.  Then I got a not-so-gentle reminder of their size and power.

I had spent the morning following the male and his chicks, who were spread out in the forest, foraging for fallen seeds and fruit.  For my part, I was happily snapping pictures, keeping my distance, but never far away from the group.

Suddenly the male, who up until then had all but ignored my presence, turned around and stared directly at me with an unmasked malevolence in his eyes that I had not seen before. Then, without warning, he charged right at me.

Simply said, this did not look good.  It sounds silly now, but I instinctively swung my camera over my mid-section thinking it might block the full-clawed attack I felt certain was coming.   Otherwise, it occurred to me, my defenses were rather puny indeed.

Then, to my astonishment, he ran right past me, nearly knocking me over but leaving my belly happily intact.  Instead of ripping me to shreds, he ran directly at one of his own chicks, that had been standing, innocently enough, just behind me.  The chick seemed dumbfounded but quickly assessed his father’s intentions and ran off into the forest. Dad then turned his fury onto the other chick and angrily charged it just as fiercely.  Soon both chicks were gone, and the male quietly resumed foraging as if nothing whatsoever had happened.  For my part, it would take much longer for my pulse to return to anything remotely like normal.

Only later did I piece together what had happened.  Rather than a close call, I had been fortunate enough, I now believe, to enjoy a front row seat in the rather forceful fledging of those two large chicks.  The male’s angry charge had been calculated to chase the chicks away and encourage their own independence.  True enough: I did not see them again.

Events later that day seemed to confirm my theory:  as I was following the adult pair through the forest, they abruptly stopped in a small clearing – and began mating.  It was time to start a new family.

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