Cassowary, a Flightless Bird

The cassowary is a flightless bird of New Guinea and neighboring islands, as well as northern Australia. It runs swiftly and has a colorful head and neck.

Southern Cassowary

Image via Wikipedia

Bennett’s Cassowary

Image via Wikipedia

Taxonomy

     All authorities agree that cassowaries are birds, but they do not agree on the order to which they belong. Some place them in the order Casuariiformes, while others assign them to the order Struthioniformes. I decidedly prefer the latter, and I agree with those who place all ratite birds in this order. A ratite bird is one that does not have a keel on its breastbone. This is a significant characteristic and should outweigh other considerations.

     This order Struthioniformes, as outlined above, includes the ostrich, emu, kiwi, and rhea. It also includes extinct ratites, such as the moa.

     The order Struthioniformes is divided into several families. The cassowary belongs to the family Casuariidae. Some authorities place the emu in this family. Others restrict it to the cassowaries.

     All cassowaries belong to the genus Casuarius. The extant cassowaries have been assigned to three different species:  Casuarius casuarius or the southern cassowary, Casuarius unappendiculatus or the northern cassowary, and Casuarinus bennettii or Bennett’s cassowary.

Range

     All three species of cassowaries are found in New Guinea. As you would expect from the names, the northern cassowary occurs in northern New Guinea, and the southern cassowary occurs in the southern part of this island. Some islands close to New Guinea also enjoy the presence of cassowaries, and the range of the southern cassowary extends to Australia.

Flightless Birds

     Cassowaries cannot fly. Since their breastbones do not have keels, there is no convenient place to anchor the powerful muscles that birds need in order to propel their bodies into the air. In addition, their flight feathers are hardly worthy of the name. According to Wikipedia, they are “keratinous quills, like porcupine quills, with no barbs.” Even if they had a keel and effective flight feathers, they could not navigate very well, since they have no tail feathers.. Anyway, they would need extra powerful wings, since they are heavy birds. Bennett’s cassowary is smaller than the other two, but it still cannot fly.

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