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What to Do When the World's Most Dangerous Bird Walks Into Your House

There’s no running from the murderbird.

by Sarah Emerson
Apr 14 2016, 5:43pm

Image: Wikipedia/Paul IJsendoorn

What do you do when the world's most dangerous bird saunters into your living room?

Well, if you're Australian couple Sue and Peter Leach, you simply hide for your life behind the dining table, and make sure to snap a few photos. For, you know… evidence. Just in case anything were to happen.

Earlier this week, a cassowary, known to nearby residents as "Peanut," found its way into the couple's Wongaling Beach home while they were still inside.

"We leave all the doors open when we're at home and I guess he was curious but I hot footed it out of the house and hid in the garage because although we know him he is still a wild animal," Sue Leach recalled to the Cairns Post.

Proof of Peanut. Image: Facebook

If you're not familiar with the large, flightless bird, you should be, at the very least because they're the closest we'll ever get to beholding a living, breathing dinosaur—although, I definitely don't advise getting close to them.

Cassowaries are ratites, which is an ancient family of birds that includes but is not limited to ostriches, emus, rheas, New Zealand's extinct moa, and my personal favorite, kiwis. Ratites began to evolve and disperse approximately 65 million years ago, around the same time as the Cretaceous extinction event that killed all of the non-avian dinosaurs.

A southern cassowary posing in the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. Image: Wikipedia/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

It's been suggested that ratites' evolutionary ancestors were able to thrive and succeed after the extinction of terrestrial dinosaurs due to the newfound ecological opportunities that arose when no large predators were around to eat them. Cassowaries are so reminiscent of their dinosaurian cousins that biologists have studied their low, booming calls to figure out how dinosaurs might have communicated with one another.

In terms of specs, this tropical forest-dwelling bird can reach heights of 5.5 feet and weigh up to 135 pounds. (While females of all three cassowary species tend to be larger than males, the bird's sexual dimorphism is minimal.) Their name comes from the Papuan word for "horned head," which is a literal reference to the bird's large casque or helmet. A cassowary's plumage is similar to that of an ostrich, and is an iridescent black color, which contrasts beautifully against the bird's bright blue neck and red wattle and nape, and also helps it to blend in with its native surroundings in New Guinea and Australia.

On the cassowary's business end are two powerful legs that end in talons punctuated by three-inch-long razor-sharp claws. There have been 221 recorded attacks by cassowaries. Of those, 150 were against humans, in which the birds generally chased, charged, or kicked their victims. (If you've never seen the internet-famous photo of a cassowary launching itself, talons-first, at a poor man in an attempt to disembowel him, please look at it right now.) And running, while probably still the smartest reaction to an attack in the wild, will only get you so far, as these birds can reach max speeds of 30 miles per hour. Approximately three-fourths of cassowary confrontations stemmed people trying to feed them.

Only one human death from a cassowary attack has been reported, when a 16-year-old boy's throat was punctured at his Queensland ranch in 1926.

The Australian intruder, Peanut, however, was seemingly just out for a leisurely afternoon stroll. According the the Cairns Post, Sue Leach was in her kitchen when she saw the bird enter her living room, mere feet away from where she was standing.

"My husband hid behind the dining room table and took some photos and he was only in there for a few minutes. He must have come in through the garage door and walked back out the front door," she said.

A preserved moa (Megalapteryx) foot in London's Natural History Museum. Image: Wikipedia/Ryan Baumann

Bird lovers will know that there's been a bit of a controversy surrounding the ancient origins of ratites like the cassowary. Modern ratites are all flightless, so biologists have always assumed their ancestors were also devoid of flight. Both living and extinct ratites are found dispersed throughout the land masses that once made up the supercontinent Gondwana, which began to split up during the Cretaceous period.

But scientists have been unable to find any fossil evidence that would point to the notion that ratites diversified before the great continent's split. The group of birds just evolved too recently. So here lies the problem: If ratites' ancestors also couldn't fly, how the hell did they get across wide expanses of water to Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and other land masses?

Biologists are still trying to figure this out, but recently it's been proposed that a small, flying bird species—South America's tinamou—is, in reality, ratites' closest living relative with whom they share a common ancestor. In short, maybe the cassowary's forebearer, instead of migrating over land 65 million years ago, actually flew across the ocean and evolved into the flightless behemoth's we're familiar with today.

So if you're ever unlucky enough to be confronted by the formidable cassowary, I guess I don't really have any advice for you other than to find the nearest piece of furniture or other large blockade and hold on for dear life. But if you do manage to survive, please send pics!

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