Human-sized Birds

Southern Cassowary, Queensland, Australia

There are four bird species on the planet that are as tall as humans: the Ratites. They are all flightless.

 

Birds that are classified as ratites are so-named from the Latin ratis, for raft. A raft is a vessel that has no keel, and a ratite is a bird that has no keel. In bird anatomy, feather muscles attach to the keel or sternum (breastbone); and if there is no keel, the bird is flightless.

Emu, Mareeba Wetlands, Queensland

In an earlier era, there were more ratites on earth. Today there are these four tall species–ostrich, emu, cassowary, rhea–and New Zealand’s dwindling population of small ratites, the kiwis.

 

Ratite Wikipedia

Southern Cassowary adult with chicks, Queensland, Australia

They date back 56 million years, and look as prehistoric as they are–large round bodies on long legs, with long necks.

 

Ratites have two- or three-toed feet, often used for kicking, and lay very large eggs, the largest in the world. Omnivores, they prefer roots, seeds, and leaves; but will also eat insects or small animals if necessary. They have wings but do not fly, and instead run at very fast speeds.

Ostrich, male, East Africa

Ostrich. The largest and heaviest land bird in the world…and also the fastest. With strong legs, they can sprint up to 43 miles per hour (70 kph), and maintain a steady speed of 31 mph (50 kph).

 

They also have the largest eyes of any land invertebrate. With their excellent eyesight, nine foot height (2.8m), and sprinting abilities, ostriches have many ways to escape African predators.

Ostrich Pair, resting, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

We usually found them in the tall African grass in small groups of three and four. They disappeared quickly whenever our jeep approached, running with long strides.

 

Emus can only be found in Australia. They are the second-largest bird, after the ostrich, reaching up to 6.2 feet tall (1.9m). They were prominent in ancient Aboriginal mythology, and remain revered in Australia today as the national bird.

Australian Coat of Arms, emu on right

Emus at Mareeba Wetlands

One sizzling day on a remote preserve in Mareeba, Queensland, we were visited by a group of four emus. We were under shade, looking out at the dusty, deserted landscape when an emu soundlessly approached from around the corner. We remained still, waiting to see what would happen.

 

Then another one came along, and two more. They had their heads down, nibbling, walking around in search of food.

 

They stayed so long that eventually we moved on.

 

Cassowary.ย  Another Australian ratite, they can also be found in New Guinea, Indonesia, and a few nearby islands…but there are very few left in the world. This is the third tallest bird in the world, after ostrich and emu.

 

Southern Cassowary, male, Australia

While many of the cassowary features are similar to the aforementioned ratites, its unique head casque, made of keratin, is exclusive. They are also the most brightly colored of the four tall ratites, and most dangerous, known to kill humans with their blade-like foot claw.

 

Every Australian we talked to said they had never seen a cassowary and we wouldn’t either.

 

Not only did we see one, we saw several, and one experience was more than memorable, it was terrifying.

Daintree Cassowary Crossing

We were in the rainforest with our guide when a male cassowary approached us. For about one minute he was unperturbed. Then he started walking slowly around in a circle with stiff legs, sort of stomping. Our guide, in a calculated calm voice quietly said, “It’s time to leave.”

 

Although we backed up and gave the cassowary his space, the bird advanced. The guide whispered his instructions: do not turn your backs, do not run. So we continued backing up–Athena, the guide, and I. But the cassowary continued advancing.

 

Our guide quickly tried something else. He stood beside a large tree, forming a sort of shield; told us to continue backing up behind his shield. We backed ourselves out of the forest and waited for the guide. Ten long minutes later, the guide joined us.

 

We didn’t know it, but apparently we were near the cassowary’s hidden ground nest.

 

The rhea is the only tall ratite I have not seen. Grassland birds that look much like the ostrich and emu, rheas live in different parts of South America.

Greater rhea pair arp.jpg

Greater Rhea. Photo Adrian Pingstone. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

There might be a day when I see a rhea in the wild, and then I will have the privilege of saying I’ve seen all four human-sized ratites.

 

But I’m in no hurry for this, because I’ve had so many exhilarating ratite experiences…enough to last me a lifetime.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, except rhea

Australian Emu

 

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96 thoughts on “Human-sized Birds

  1. Jet as I was reading your description of the male cassowary, complete with slicing and dicing blade-like foot claw, I found myself holding my breath. Always a wise technique to be sure when trying to save one’s life and then falling over from hypoxia. All right I wasn’t in the situation however your writing certainly made me feel as if I was.
    I have seen emus and ostriches bu not the other two. On our South Africa cycling trip we came across a pair of large ostriches and their young brood (not sure if that is the term) near the Cape of Good Hope. Dave and I were off our bikes as if the seats had suddenly lit themselves on fire. So amazing to see them in the wild like that.

    • Loved hearing that you saw emus and ostriches in the wild, Sue — it is SUCH a thrill to come upon these giant birds, I’m so glad you have, Sue. Your comment gave me a big smile and a chuckle too, so fun to have you along for the ratites today, thank you.

  2. Wow, I would be fearful too with a bird that size stalking me! Glad you got awY from it. I had no idea there are four big bird species. ๐Ÿ˜Œ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿป

    • It was great fun digging up research on the four big birds for this post, and wonderful to take you along, John. I am always happy to connect with you, thank you.

  3. Oh my word, Jet! I was once scared by a Canada Goose that chased me while on the golf course, can’t imagine having a run in with a cassowary. Thanks for sharing your fantastic photos!

    • That run-in with the cassowary really was a scary one. Hard to believe one of my scariest encounters in the field was with a bird. Glad you enjoyed the ratites, Jill, thank you so much.

  4. I have missed your posts. This one is excellent and I love the story of the Cassowary….and the close call you and Athena experienced!! I also enjoyed reading about this amazing bird in your book (when is the next book coming out?) Amazing to think that that this species of birds goes back 56 million years….if that doesn’t put things into perspective nothing will.
    I hope that you enjoy a lovely weekend and that things are beginning to come together for you. You have been very patient and I know will be so glad to return home. Janet ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Oh so lovely to have you back online, Janet; I always respect your travel breaks, and I always enjoy it when you return. I was happy to be able to put the real-live cassowary experience into Wicked Walkabout, and appreciate your salute to it here. Things at the burn site are still troubling, as we still have no electricity, many setbacks, and at least two or three months away from home yet. But we are going up on the weekends now and cutting the waist-high grass and trying to instill some order with gas-powered tools and periodic crews. No new book for some time to come, but ideas are flowing. My warmest thanks for your concern and kindness….

    • Great to know my cassowary story had you intrigued, Belinda, oh how we writers like hearing that. My warm thanks for your visit here today and other days too, much appreciated.

  5. These are such remarkable birds, so easy to see the dinosaur connection. Love how they look, the Southern Cassowary in particular, quite astonishing, and I can understand the thrill and fear of your encounter with that big bird. The little chicks – relatively little! – are cute enough.
    I hope you get to see the last ratite on your list, in fact, I’m sure you will at some point.
    Another wonderful post – thanks, Jet!

    • Lovely to receive your comment, pc, as always. It wouldn’t be a Friday morning without our exchanges, such a pleasure. Great fun to share the ratites with you, my friend. We were absolutely thrilled when those chicks came along. We were in an odd residential neighborhood in the middle of nowhere, parked on the side of the road wondering what to do (about an accommodation snafu), when this adorable family walked up. Had to photograph them through the car windows, they’re so skittish. Have yourself another incredible weekend, you and Mrs. pc too.

  6. You have to come to Greece to encounter a rhea,the Titaness daughter of the Earth,Goddess Gaia …
    Another compelling bird-post with fantastic photos and compelling details,dear Jet!If I start writing what I enjoyed and learnt,I’ll write a post of my own.Memorable your experiences with those human-sized birds,gripping your narration and the facts about the huge,flighless birds.They cannot fly,but they are endowed with other characteristics such as Ostrich’s excellent eyesight.Stunned by the prehistoric appearance of the Cassowary and its 56 million years existence on Earth,and,by its glossy,pitch black plumage,which is adorned with a fancy bright blue neck and a vibrant red nape.Such a very special character.Loved its photo with the chicks,it is so tender a scene.Thank you,my friend for such a beautiful and engrossing post.Best to you & Athena ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Dear Doda, Thanks so much for these delightful words of praise and your attentive reading–it is truly a pleasure to share the big birds with you, their many gifts and curious ways, and their ancient existence on this earth. How marvelous that they still walk this planet. I appreciate your visit, and send my warmest wishes to you across the pond, hope all is well with you.

      • Thank you for your kind reply.I just loved the appearance of Cassowary,it looks as if it wears a ceremonial robe ๐Ÿ™‚

        PS: Happy Flag Day ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. So interesting! Great post and photos, per usual, Jet. ๐Ÿ™‚ There is an emu farm in our area, raised for their meat, though I’ve never tried it. Your encounter with the cassowary sounds terrifying – yikes, a velociraptor! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Oh how you dazzled this wordsmith with your great and appropriate word, Eliza. Yes, there are emu and ostrich farms around the world now. And when we were in the grocery stores in Australia emu was packaged in the meat dept. I never ate it, didn’t have the heart or desire, but I imagine one big bird yields quite a bit of meat. Always a joy to hear from you, Eliza, thank you.

    • Yes, I agree, Dina, the cassowary is very dinosaur-like, and moreso than the emu or ostrich. That crazy topper of keratin and the long dangling red wattles, and those feet are especially old-world. I’d imagine you’ve seen plenty of ostrich, how wonderful. Thanks so much.

  8. As soon as I saw the photo of the first bird I thought, “Cassowary” – “kicking” – “dangerous.”
    I didn’t realize there were so few left, and even though they may be dangerous to intruders, it would be a shame to lose these exotic birds. What a thrill it must have been for you to see them (now that you can safely look back on that experience).

    • Great to hear your first thoughts upon seeing the cassowary photo, Anneli. Yes, it is fortunate the cassowaries are still plodding along on this planet, I hope they always do. Up near Daintree there were many road signs, like the one photographed, warning drivers to slow down and be cautious. Glad you enjoyed the ratite post, thanks so much.

  9. There’s a safari park in the Everglades that has a couple of emus – Swamp Billies – and they were pretty aggressive. Scary to think of a bird that size flying – I guess nature knows best.

    • Enjoyed hearing about the emus in the Everglades, Jan. Funny to think of them there, being such an Australian native. Yes, just as well they can’t fly…yikes. Many thanks–

  10. Wonderful! So interesting to hear about why they’re called “ratites.” But I’m grateful that I can see Athena’s beautiful photos and read your vivid descriptions — without having to back slowly away from my computer screen!

    • Chuckled at the thought of you backing slowly away from you computer, Nan. And what a joy to take you with us around the world to see the ratites, thanks so much for joining us.

  11. Needless to say, none of these birds roam the suburbs of Chicago and I haven’t seen them in the wild elsewhere. But I enjoyed reading about your experiences and seeing the photos, although the cassowary encounter would certainly not have been enjoyable!!

    janet

  12. Those cassowary chicks look far too sweet for such a monster of a bird – albeit a handsome monster. I remember well your experience with it from your book – good reading.

    • Such a pleasure to know you remembered the cassowary scene in Wicked Walkabout, Alastair. And I agree, those chicks were really adorable…so little compared to the giant father. My friend, always a delight to “see” you, thank you.

  13. And to think we run and are scared of the likes of a Canada Goose. Whoa, these birds are quite large, thankfully your guide knew what to do. In all the dangerous places with dangerously wild animals (lions, tigers, bears, oh my!) that you both have gone, who’d think you’d have to worry about sightseeing birds?! Great post, Jet!

  14. There’s something very primitive and fascinating about the ratites which you’ve presented so wonderfully. Being human-sized, the birds have an immediacy as we encounter them, and their flightless condition hearkens back nearly to an ancestry among the dinosaurs. Thanks for sharing your experiences with these creatures, too. Enjoyed it!

    • Always a treat to receive your words, Walt, thank you. They do have an immediacy to them, so big, like another person walking up to you. They have this way of stretching their necks even taller, that I just love to watch. Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks very much. I started reading your book last night, am enjoying it a lot–beautifully written, and very interesting to read about the watersheds and all the life that thrives there.

  15. Big birds indeed, when I see them, in my mind I picture the Velociraptors immediately. Serious stuff. I’ve seen Ostriches, Emus, Rhea…and the only bird that even when it was in controlled captivity tried to attack me! That was the end of my friendship too. What a bastard! I think I told you this before, No? You always post interesting stuff my friend, thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. I truly enjoyed reading about these big birds. Oddly enough I once spied an emu strolling down our driveway back in Myrtle Point (two house back). My late husband had a cousin who lived just over a ridge from us. She had an odd assortment of critters which included emus and I forget what else. Apparently this emu took it into its head to go on a walkabout. Oregon isn’t exactly a place one might expect to find an emu. You never know though!

    • Loved hearing about the Oregonian emu, Gunta. Now that’s something we don’t see too often on the driveway out here in the U.S. west coast. And you’re right, you never know what you’ll find. A joy to have you stop by, thank you.

      • We just took a drive up into “our” burn area from last summer. We found a place where the 2002 (Biscuit) fire met last year’s Chetco Bar. Interesting to see things start to regenerate or compare the different stages. I’ll try to blog it once I’m done with the trip to Silver Falls.

        But it made me wonder how you were doing since “your” fire last year. I read in a comment at Donna’s that things haven’t progressed as much as you might like. It’s not the same, but I think I felt a tiny bit of that angst while waiting to get moved down here. Sending hopes and wishes that you’ll be home again soon! โค

      • Thanks for your kind comments about the fire, Gunta. It has been a lot of angst, as you can imagine. We keep marching on, in the wake of the destruction and loss. Life does not stop so we can’t either. We have gone through all four seasons now, and warm summer days are easier without electricity. My warm thanks.

  17. Your story of the cassowary encounter is scary. I have read a lot about them and know how dangerous they are. I saw one in the wild in 2004 — only briefly. Lovely post Jet.

    • Yes, we were lucky that the guide knew what to do and also that he protected us. We were so relieved when we saw him come out of the forest. We all got into the car, locked the doors, and just sat there in silence. Glad you enjoyed the post, Sherry, thank you.

  18. Fascinating Jetโฃ๏ธ I love how you bring new life and adventure into your posts! Its rare to enjoy a ratite expereince such as this ๐Ÿ˜Ž

    • I’m all for the adventures of life, and so glad to have an outlet to share them. Grateful that you enjoy sharing the experiences, Val, and always a pleasure when you visit, thank you.

  19. The Cassowary looks like an amazing bird and interesting creature. Boy, what an adventure you had with one of them. Love the sign ‘Cassowary crossing’, just as well that they warn you!

    • WE found those signs pretty funny too. There were several different graphics, complete with graffiti, and they were all enjoyable to see in the Land of Oz where cassowaries get their own signs. always a delight, Bertie, thank you.

  20. I’ve enjoyed this walk through the giant bird world. Thank you Jet.
    I do always enjoy seeing the road signs designated for animals/birds in the area. Las Vegas had them for tortoises.

  21. Oh, you have seen almost all of them! What an interesting article, Jet. Lots of new information and great pictures. I have only seen Emu and Ostrich. The Cassowary looks quite intimidating ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. They date back 56 million years, how fascinating. Thank you so much, Jet for sharing the photos and info, they are new to me. The male Southern Cassowary is beautiful!

  23. Loved learning about the human-sized birds! Athena’s photos are wonderful and I especially enjoyed the emus enjoying a picnic lunch, the cassowary with chicks and the male Ostrich. How fascinating to have watched these birds in these locations and I’m still trying to decide if I could have kept myself under control and backed away slowly or if I would be one of those fools that took off running from the cassowary. Wonderful post and I hope you had a wonderful weekend!

    • I enjoyed your comment, ACI, thank you. It was tricky to back up out of rainforest, with so many downed trees and thick vines and slippery, mossy debris. But had you been there, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have turned around, sensing the deadly seriousness of your moves. I loved hearing from you, as always, thank you.

  24. Your story of the encounter got me so very wary. Ah that’s why they named the bird cassowary! Lame joke aside, I am glad that the episode turned out well and no one got hurt. Their colors are brilliant. You are very fortunate to witness them despite the scary encounter. Thanks for educating me about the Ratites.

    • Yes, after our hearts stopped beating so hard, we were delighted to have come upon this cassowary in the rainforest, and all the cassowaries we saw up there on the northern tip of west Australia. I’m glad you enjoyed the ratites and the post, and I loved the cassowary joke, Keng. Thank you — sending many smiles to you.

  25. Photos, story, and everything absolutely stunning. Your presentation and personal touches make
    this post one of my favorites (if that is possible) Was glued to the post once I started!

  26. All I can say is OH MY GOD! I’ve been scared away from locations by small birds protecting their territory, I can’t imagine being confronted by an adult cassowary. I’d never even heard of a cassowary before now, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to confront an angry one!! That was one hell of an adventure you had!

    This was a very interesting post, Jet. I had no idea about ratites – or their speed!

    • It was completely rewarding to receive your comment, Joanne, and I’m still smiling. The cassowary was indeed a memorable adventure. It is also a thrill to have introduced you to the ratites and cassowary, so thanks so much for taking the time to read it and absorb it.

  27. I believe I’ve read about the Cassowary before in another post of your’s. Truly a suspenseful story, one that since everybody come out okay is pretty exciting to look back on. I wonder how many stories you have like that given all the places you’ve gone and animals you’ve seen. Anyway another great post Jet.

    • We are so fortunate there are still the big birds on this planet, and I am delighted to have shared these pleasant birds with you, David. Being around birds as big as we are adds a new perspective to birding. Mention the ratites to a birder and their eyes get glazed over with joy. ๐Ÿ™‚

  28. Whew! I’m glad your cassowary encounter ended safely! Thank goodness these human-sized ratites cannot fly ~ imagine how frightening they would be if they had access to the airways, too.

  29. WOW, Jet!!! This was SO cool!!! I would have about died had the Cassowary become perturbed with me. What an experience! That bird doesn’t look real…very interesting…prehistoric. I’m happy Y’all got away alright…smart guide! and that You got to see one. Also…Your photo of ostriches laying down is so sweet! I’ve never seen a picture like that of them. Thank You, Cheers and Rock on!!! ๐Ÿ˜„๐Ÿ’–๐Ÿค—

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