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10 Facts About Cassowaries

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All birds are living dinosaurs, but the dagger-clawed cassowary especially looks the part. Here’s everything you need to know about the majestic—and terrifying—avians.

1. THE SOUTHERN CASSOWARY IS EARTH’S SECOND-HEAVIEST BIRD.

Scientists currently recognize three living species of cassowary—all of which are restricted to New Guinea, northeastern Australia, and nearby islands. Among them, the aptly-named dwarf cassowary is the smallest, with an average height of around 3 feet. Then there’s the northern cassowary, an orange-throated behemoth that can stand nearly 5 feet tall. But the southern cassowary is bigger than both: From toe to head-crest, this avian can stand 5 foot 6 inches tall. The only two birds that grow taller are ostriches and emus. Southern cassowaries do exceed the latter in weight, though; adults often tip the scales at 125 pounds. Behind ostriches, this makes them the second-heaviest birds on the planet.

2. THESE BIRDS HAVE DANGEROUS FEET.

In certain parts of their Australian range, you might come across warning signs that read “Be Cass-o-wary.” Heed this advice. Normally, cassowaries are shy, reclusive animals. But when threatened or cornered, they can become aggressive, striking back with powerful head-butts and pecks. The most dangerous weapon in their arsenal is a razor-sharp claw on the inner toe of each foot, which, in southern cassowaries, grows to be 5 inches long. The birds deliver a series of downward kicks with their hind legs that have been known to break bones and cause serious lacerations. With a well-placed strike, the claws can rip open a human belly—or throat.

3. REARING CHICKS IS THE FATHER’S JOB.

Come mating season, a female will breed with several partners. After laying her eggs, she abandons them, at which point the males take over. For the next 50 days or so, each cassowary dad steadfastly incubates his clutch. During this period, an expectant father never leaves the nest, not even to eat or drink; he even enters a strange state where he doesn’t even need to go to the bathroom until the eggs hatch. Once they do, dad spends the next nine months raising and defending his chicks. The male also teaches his growing birds how to forage so that when he eventually chases them away, the youngsters can fend for themselves.

4. CASSOWARIES ARE SURPRISINGLY GOOD JUMPERS.

What’s scarier than a 125-pound modern dinosaur with killer claws? One that can leap 5 feet off the ground. To get the most out of those toe daggers, cassowaries will sometimes jump feet-first at an attacker, with the claws slashing downward in midair. They’re great sprinters to boot, with a top running speed of 30 miles per hour.

5. A SPIKE IS HIDDEN ON EACH WING

Cassowaries are closely akin to ostriches, emus, and kiwis. Like their better-known cousins, the casqued birds have useless vestigial wings. On the tip of each is a small claw that probably serves no purpose.

6. THEY MOSTLY EAT FRUIT.

Wild cassowaries mainly dine on assorted fruits and berries that fall to the ground in the forests they call home. Every day, the typical southern specimen gobbles up roughly 11 pounds’ worth. The big birds also eat plenty of fungi—along with the occasional dead animal for some extra protein.

Cassowaries are prone to hunt down live critters like rodents, snails, and lizards every so often. Poop is yet another item on the menu. Cassowary dung usually contains half-digested fruit, which still has plenty of nutritional value, so these guys are known to devour each other’s droppings—as well as their own. Waste not, want not!

7. THE FUNCTION OF THEIR ODD CRESTS—OR “CASQUES”—IS A MYSTERY

With royal blue necks and shaggy, jet-black feathers, cassowaries look like no other birds on planet earth. Their most distinctive feature is the helmet-like casque that sits above the eyes. A bony protrusion covered with a sheath of keratin (the material which makes up your fingernails), this ornament begins to develop when the bird is around 2 years old. Scientists have long speculated—sometimes wildly—about its purpose. One theory is that casques help the animals push aside forest underbrush. The structures might also be used as a way to attract the opposite sex.

A more interesting hypothesis involves how these birds communicate. Cassowaries emit very deep bellows—the lowest bird calls known to man. Perhaps their casques amplify and broadcast these sounds by acting as a resonation chamber. It’s believed that certain crested dinosaurs (like Parasaurolophus of Jurassic Park fame) produced various calls in the exact same way.

8. THEY’VE BEEN KNOWN TO LIVE FOR DECADES (AT LEAST IN ZOOS).

Naturalists don’t know how old a wild cassowary can expect to get. That said, a few southern cassowaries have reached their 40th birthdays in captivity. Under human care, northern cassowaries can top that figure—one bird reached the age of 48 and another specimen may have been as old as 61 when it died. Meanwhile, the average lifespan for captive dwarf cassowaries is just 26 years.

9. CASSOWARIES HAVE STRANGE GENITALIA.

Both sexes sport a phallic-looking “pseudo-penis” appendage. However, it isn’t connected to any of their reproductive organs internally. During copulation, the male ejaculates through his cloaca—an orifice that lies at the base of the pseudo-penis and not the tip. Males also have what’s usually described as a “vagina-like cavity.” When they aren’t mating, the pseudo-penis is turned inside out and retracted into this orifice.

Such peculiar anatomy has given the cassowary a unique place in New Guinean culture and folklore. For example, the native Mianmin people tell stories about a human woman with a penis who somehow transformed into a cassowary. Another indigenous group, the Umeda, put on a regular ceremony called “ida.” A big event that lasts for two days and nights, the ritual involves a fertility dance which calls for two male dancers who represent a pair of cassowaries. Each player is given a heavy mask and is coated with charcoal from head to toe.

10. AT LEAST ONE UNFORTUNATE HUMAN HAS BEEN KILLED BY A CASSOWARY.

In April 1926, 16-year-old Phillip McLean and his younger brother, Granville, set two family dogs on a wild cassowary near their farm in north Queensland. Things quickly got out of hand. The bird fought back, driving away Granville and one of the canines with a couple of kicks. This didn’t deter Philip or the other dog, as both remained in the fray. Suddenly, the cassowary charged Philip, who fell backwards while trying to flee. Pushing its advantage, it pounced onto the boy and gouged away at his throat. A short while later, the elder McLean died of blood loss. To date, this is the only verified report of a cassowary taking human life.

In 1999, Christopher P. Kofron—then a ranger with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife service—analyzed 150 documented cassowary-on-human attacks. Twenty-two percent of these cases came down to the bird defending itself, its eggs, or its chicks. Another 5 percent were triggered by somebody who’d gotten too close to a cassowary’s food.

The remaining 73 percent of the incidents involved a cassowary that associated people with free meals. For decades, well-meaning Queenslanders have been handing out bananas, watermelons, and other treats to these dangerous animals. This has led many cassowaries to lose their natural shyness around humans in populated areas. Today, feeding a wild one is against the law, but the practice still continues—so if you live in cassowary country, make like you're at the zoo and don't feed the birds.

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9 Things You Should Keep in Mind Around Someone Observing Ramadan
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To mark the ninth (and most holy) month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. Often compared to Lent in Christianity and Yom Kippur in Judaism, Ramadan is all about restraint. For one month, Muslims observing Ramadan fast during the day and then feast at night.

By abstaining from food and water (as well as sex, smoking, fighting, etc.) during daylight, Muslims strive to practice discipline, instill gratitude for what they have, and draw closer to Allah. To be respectful and not annoy observers, here are nine things you should never say or do to someone observing Ramadan.

1. DON'T JOKE ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS.

A traditional iftar meal.
A traditional iftar meal.
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Although it might be tempting to joke about Ramadan being a good excuse to lose weight, it is a time for spiritual reflection and is a serious matter. Observers undertake the challenge of fasting for religious and spiritual reasons rather than aesthetic ones. And, once the sun sets each night, many Muslims prepare a hearty iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) of dates, curries, rice dishes, and other delicious foods. The suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) is often fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and dishes that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. So the idea of a cleanse is pretty far from their minds.

2. DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.

An Indian Muslim student recites from the Quran in a classroom during the holy month of Ramadan.
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There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, but not all of them observe Ramadan the same way. Although most observant Muslims fast for Ramadan, don't assume that every Muslim you meet has the same methods, traditions, and attitudes towards fasting. For some, Ramadan is more about prayer, reading the Qur'an, and performing acts of charity than merely about forgoing food and drink. And for those who may be exempted from the daily fasting, such as pregnant or nursing women, the elderly, or those with various health conditions, they might not appreciate the reminder from nosey busy-bodies that they aren't participating in the traditional way.

3. SAY "RAMADAN MUBARAK" INSTEAD OF "HAPPY RAMADAN."

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A sign which reads "Ramadan Kareem" in Arabic is seen pictured in front of the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai.
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Rather than wishing someone a happy Ramadan, being more thoughtful with your choice of words can show that you understand and respect the sanctity of their holy month. Saying "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem" are the traditional ways to impart warm wishes—they both convey the generosity and blessings associated with the month. The actual party comes after Ramadan, when Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, an up to three-day festival that involves plenty of food, time with family, and gifts.

4. DON'T BE A FOOD PUSHER.

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Even if the idea of not eating or drinking all day might be unfathomable to you, don't push food onto anyone observing Ramadan. While fasting all day for a month can cause mild fatigue, dehydration, and dizziness, don't try to convince participating Muslims to eat or drink something—they are fully aware of any side effects they may feel throughout the day. Instead, be respectful of their decision to fast and offer to lend a hand with something like chores, errands, or anything unrelated to food.

5. ACCEPT THAT WATER ISN'T ON THE MENU.

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Muslims who observe Ramadan don't sip any liquids during daytime. No water, coffee, tea, or juice. Zilch. Going without water is even harder than going without food, so be aware of the struggle and accept it. It's all part of the sacrifice and self-discipline inherent in Ramadan.

6. RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRIVACY.

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Some Muslims choose not to fast during Ramadan for medical or other personal reasons, and they may not appreciate being badgered with questions about why they may be eating or drinking rather than fasting. Children and the elderly generally don't fast all day, and people who are sick are exempt from fasting. Other conditions that preclude fasting during Ramadan are pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menstruation (although, if possible, people generally make up the days later).

7. BE MINDFUL OF ENERGY LEVELS.

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Eschewing food and drink for hours at a time can cause lethargy, so be aware that Muslims observing Ramadan may be more tired than usual. Your Muslim friends and coworkers don't stop working for an entire month, but they may tweak their schedules to allow for more rest. They may also stay indoors more (to prevent overheating) and avoid unnecessary physical activity to conserve energy. So, don't be offended if they aren't down for a pick-up game of basketball or soccer. We can't all be elite athletes.

8. DON'T OBSESS OVER FOOD AND HUNGER.

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One of the worst things you can do to someone on a new diet is to obsess over all the cheeseburgers, pizza, and cupcakes they can't have. Similarly, most Muslims observing Ramadan don't want to have in-depth conversations about all the food and beverages they're avoiding. So, be mindful that you don't become the constant reminder of how many hours are left until sundown—just as you shouldn't joke about weight loss, you shouldn't call attention to any hunger pangs.

9. DON'T BE AFRAID TO EAT YOUR OWN FOOD.

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Although it's nice to avoid talking about food in front of a fasting Muslim, don't be afraid to eat your own food as you normally would. Seeing other people eating and drinking isn't offensive—Muslims believe that Ramadan is all about sacrifice and self-discipline, and they're aware that not everyone participates. However, perhaps try to avoid scheduling lunch meetings or afternoon barbecues with your Muslim colleagues and friends. Any of those can surely wait until after Ramadan ends.

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