Cassowaries are one of the titans of the avian world. The Southern cassowary is the third tallest and second heaviest bird globally, reaching heights of around 2m and weighing in at over 55kg - second only to the mighty ostrich!
A rare and ancient bird, cassowaries are far from common, so where do cassowaries live?
Cassowaries live almost solely in New Guinea, a handful of isolated Indonesian islands, including Yapen, East Tenggara, and Maluku Island, and small parts of Queensland in northeastern Australia. They were once much more common, but their populations have declined due to hunting and the increasing presence of human settlements.
There’s no doubt that the cassowary is a fascinating creature, an ancient bird that harks back to prehistoric times. In fact, cassowaries have been dubbed “living dinosaurs” as their relatives evolved not too long after the extinction of the dinosaurs some 60 million years ago.
Southern Cassowary walking along the beach
Cassowaries are powerful and fearsome birds with a dinosaur-like claw that sports a 5-inch dagger. With their huge claws and gigantic head crests, called casques, it’s easy to see why these birds have a fearsome reputation.
However, media coverage labeling cassowaries as ‘dangerous’ is largely overhyped. Cassowaries are largely shy and prefer to isolate themselves deep in the rainforest. However, when provoked, cassowaries can be aggressive, much the same as many other wild animals.
Read on to learn more facts about where this colossal bird lives!
The three species of cassowary are native to northeastern Australia, New Guinea, and a few of its neighboring islands, some of which belong to Indonesia.
Cassowaries are secretive and isolate themselves from humans, and they’ve always been pretty tricky for researchers to track and observe in the wild.
Here are the distribution ranges of the three species of cassowary:
The Southern cassowary is the largest and most common cassowary. It lives in New Guinea and northeastern Australia.
In New Guinea, the Southern cassowary occupies the southernmost regions of the island, making its habitats in forested lowlands. Southern cassowaries are also found on Indonesia’s Seram island, some of the Aru Islands, and Dolak, an island separated from West Guinea.
In Australia, the Southern cassowary is found in around three isolated colonies in Queensland; two in Cape York (north of the town of Coen), and one in The Wet Tropics of Queensland (stretching on the northeastern coast from Townsville to Cooktown).
Two of the main spots to observe cassowaries in Australia are the Mission Beach area in the Cassowary Coast Region and the Daintree Rainforest at Cape Tribulation.
Close up of a Southern Cassowary in the wild
The Northern cassowary lives in much of north and west New Guinea. They also live on Indonesia’s Yapen Island, Salawarti, Batanta, and a handful of other isolated neighboring islands.
Like the Southern cassowary, the Northern cassowary prefers lowland habitats. Northern and Southern cassowaries rarely mix in their native range.
Close up of a Northern Cassowary
The Dwarf cassowary lives in New Guinea, New Britain, and Yapen Island.
Unlike the Southern and Northern cassowary, the Dwarf cassowary prefers higher elevations of some 3,000m. However, they do also inhabit lowland habitats.
Close up of a Dwarf Cassowary
Cassowaries live almost solely in dense, humid rainforests. They also venture into sparser woodlands, melaleuca swamps, and mangroves. Northern and Southern cassowaries are sometimes spotted foraging on beaches.
Both the Northern and Southern cassowaries prefer lowland habitats, rarely venturing beyond 1,000m in elevation. They inhabit rainforests, swamps, river estuaries, floodplains, savannahs, and sparse woodland areas.
The Dwarf cassowary prefers higher elevations (1,000m and higher). Consequently, they inhabit mountainous rainforests and other isolated hilly regions.
Wild cassowaries are elusive, and their deep forest habitats make them tough to find. However, once you get up close, cassowaries are conspicuous at almost 2m tall!
Cassowaries are mainly found in dense rainforests
Cassowaries are relatively easy to find in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, where their population numbers around 4,000. However, you’ll probably need a guided tour and a whole weekend to guarantee seeing one.
The eponymous Cassowary Coast, particularly Mission Beach, is perhaps the best area to spot cassowaries as a tourist. However, the New Guinean cassowary population is much larger than the Australian population, with an estimated 40,000 individuals.
In New Guinea, cassowaries do graze near a few isolated human settlements, but otherwise, you’ll need to venture into the heart of one of the world’s wildest rainforests to see one.
In either case, spotting a cassowary in the wild is an extremely rare event that is sure to be remembered!
Cassowaries live primarily in Australia and New Guinea and occupy some nearby isolated Indonesian islands.
The Australian cassowary population is much smaller than the New Guinean population, representing around 4,000 individuals from a total population of approximately 40,000.
A southern cassowary in Daintree National Park, North Queensland
There are around three colonies of cassowaries in Australia, all of which are in Queensland.
Two small populations of cassowaries are found in Cape York, north of Coen, a town in the Shire of Cook. The largest population is located in The Wet Tropics of Queensland, stretching up the coast from Townsville in the south to Cooktown in the north.
The Mission Beach area in the Cassowary Coast Region and the Daintree Rainforest at Cape Tribulation are two reliable locations for spotting cassowaries.
Cassowaries are reasonably common through the lowlands of New Guinea. They’re far more common in New Guinea than in Australia. The New Guinean population numbers around 40,000 or so birds, whereas the Australian population numbers around 4,000.
A Cassowary sat on the floor
Despite being most common in New Guinea, tourists are probably most likely to spot cassowaries in Queensland, Australia.
Here are a few top spots for seeing wild cassowaries:
Winter is incredibly mild - if practically non-existent - in much of the cassowary’s range. As a result, they occupy the same habitats as they do all year round.
In New Guinea, winter rarely sees the temperature plummet below 22-degrees celsius. Similarly, in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Queensland, winters are typically dry, with average temperatures of around 21-degrees celsius.
Close up of a Cassowary walking on the grass
Cassowaries have adapted to the extremely hot, humid summers of northeastern Queensland and New Guinea.
Recent studies suggest that the cassowary’s casque - the fin on the top of their head - evolved to help disperse heat from their head. In effect, this fin acts as a cooling fin or a heatsink.
Cassowaries are flightless and roost on the ground at night. These enormous birds have few natural predators - they’re generally safe by picking a spot and sleeping on the rainforest floor.
Cassowary foraging for food on the beach in northern Queensland, Australia
In total, there are an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 cassowaries in the wild, but the true figure might be higher. Australia’s cassowary population is estimated to be about 4,000 individuals.
The New Guinean cassowary population is challenging to measure due to how isolated these birds are, especially in the case of the elusive Dwarf cassowary.
The Southern cassowary is listed as an Endangered species in Australia and is classed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The less common Northern cassowary is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, as its population is thought to be more stable. Similar applies to the Dwarf cassowary, which is also currently listed as Least Concern.
Cassowaries are considered a ‘keystone species’ for their role in rainforest ecology, and there are numerous conservation initiatives to help protect them.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox