Big Bertha has become accustomed to public admiration. She was first described as The Grand Dame of the Daintree, in the Port Douglas Mossman Gazette and her image was distributed to readers across Tropical North Queensland. Standing tall, with her head in line with her massive feet, she is 2-metres in height and a giant of a bird.
Crinkle Cut, who has been her number preferred first mate for many years, is 1.5-metres tall and his casque (the bony helmet on the cassowary’s head) is half the size of BB’s.
Both BB and CC have made it onto the world stage through National Geographic, twice. Australia’s Big Bird in 2013 informed the world that these endangered, primitive ratites still exist in the land down under. A more recent expose, Dino Bird was a documentary that filmed the cassowaries in their natural habitat and introduced a few more cassowaries into the cast.
Big Bertha is polygamous. She has 4 to 6 males that she mates with, but separately and in an order that she determines. Each male has his own geographical area that is located within BB’s much larger territory. Big Bertha’s territory crosses Cooper Creek. Cassowaries do not recognise man-made boundaries. Cassowaries have their own individual personalities and behaviours. We can only comment on what we see, and do not attribute the variations to all birds. We suggest that cassowary behaviour in the wild is very different to cassowaries that have been studied in captivity.
A viewer of the National Geographic documentary asked about Crinkle Cut’s chick, Wundu, who featured in the recent documentary, Dino Bird.
Wundu was an amazing chick. In the year of her birth, about 4 years ago, Crinkle Cut mated with BB and the clutch produced 3 chicks. We met them in their third week, when they were small cream and brown striped fluff balls. They only lived a few weeks, then they disappeared. We can only conjecture about the cause, but suggest that feral pigs, dogs and cars contribute to the losses and separations. The chicks are taught by their parents, with the male assuming the major nurturing role. Big Bertha and Crinkle Cut mated a second time in the same year. This is most unusual. Only one chick hatched out of the second union and we named it Wundu. This is Kuku Yalanji for the Cooper Valley where she was hatched.
Crinkle Cut and Wundu were inseparable and were still together after 15 months. We have studied many chicks over our 25-years in the Daintree Rainforest. We identify them through their casques and wattles, which show differences. Wundu developed into a most beautiful chick – a ballerina among cassowaries. Her plumage around the rear portions resembled a tutu and she moved with grace. We have noted that chicks are usually separated from the father between 9 to 12-months. They have learned the basics for survival, now they have to be independent because their caring parent, the male, must be available to mate with the matriarch, Big Bertha. Sometimes a chick, encouraged by his father, will wander off and disappear, other times the father will drive the chick away or the mother will become assertive and attack the chick to drive it away. Wundu did not leave. She was where she wanted to be and where Crinkle Cut wanted her to be.
What happened to Wundu? She was glimpsed occasionally in the forest by herself and after her successful trial in the wilderness she was sighted a couple of times, the last time she was limping. Like all the chicks in the past, she has disappeared. Mortality rate is high. Habitat restriction does not allow for increased numbers. If we could eradicate pigs, there would be more available food and more cassowaries.
At this stage Taiga is left with one chick, Loki who is 16 months old. We wonder if this is a new trend of keeping the chicks longer to ensure their survival. Perhaps Big Bertha at an estimated age around 45 years, is less demanding.
Big Bertha, Crinkle Cut, Taiga and Loki have been filmed by BBC and we are hopeful that the great Sir David Attenborough will promote them in their next public appearance in 2019.