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Cassowaries are the coolest

Hello, Luke from the Bird Department here again! Today I will be talking about the best bird in our department – Cecil the double-wattled cassowary!

Cecil is the oldest resident of the Bird Department, and easily a favorite. His hatchday is August 24, 1979, which means he will be 39 years old this summer – and that also means he is the oldest male cassowary with a known age in the world! Cecil was hatched at the Denver Zoo in Colorado, then he moved to Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas for a period of time, before finally coming home to roost here at Zoo Atlanta.

Cassowaries are extraordinary birds – there are three extant (aka still in existence) species of cassowaries: Cecil is the double-wattled, or southern cassowary; there is the single-wattled, or northern cassowary; and finally the dwarf cassowary; the closest living relative to these birds is the emu, from Australia. Collectively, these birds form the order Casuariformes and are known colloquially as ‘ratites’ along with ostriches, rheas, kiwis, and (arguably) tinamous. A distinct feature of ratites, besides tinamous, is the lack of keel bone on their sternum – which would inhibit flight even if suitable wings were to develop.

An adult female cassowary can grow to be nearly 6 feet tall and weigh upwards of 130 pounds! Cassowaries have developed several physiological adaptations that enable this species to run as fast as 30 miles per hour through dense forests; for defense, this species has long, sharp claws on each of its three toes – some of which can grow up to 5 inches and are used to kick at predators, backed by their powerful legs; they are adept swimmers, crossing rivers and wide bodies of waters; and perhaps most impressively, they can leap up to 5 feet in the air! A major, vital role that these birds fulfill is as seed dispersers in their native range – and therein, they are considered a “keystone species,” or a species with a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community.

Cassowaries also have some interesting headgear – what we call a casque! The main purpose of a casque is thought to be an amplifier of their low, booming vocalizations, although several other purposes have been proposed – including head protection during their dashes through the rainforest. Cassowaries are naturally solitary, and come together only for breeding – during which time they have elaborate, ritualistic courtship displays. Their eggs are brilliant, being bright green to pale blue-green and in clutches of three to eight eggs. Interestingly, the male cassowary assumes all duties associated with bird parenthood, from incubation through chick rearing, and the female does not participate at all.

If you come to Zoo Atlanta and catch our Cassowary Keeper Talk (1:15 p.m. on Mondays and 2 p.m. on Wednesdays), you will have the opportunity to see our bird experts engaging Cecil using our voluntary positive enrichment training program! We ask Cecil for a variety of naturalistic behaviors, and he is then reinforced with his favorite diet items when he cooperates – grapes and oranges. Besides participating in our training program, Cecil also seems to enjoy patrolling his habitat (aka his territory) and sleeping on his heating pad. There is so much to learn and to love about Cecil, and about cassowaries in general, so we hope to see you around this season!
Luke Krider
Keeper III, Birds

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl