With long, wispy eyelashes and a vibrant blue face, Bernie the southern cassowary has a look that rivals even the fanciest of peacocks.
But don’t get lost in his dreamy gaze — he’s also the most dangerous bird in the world.
Bernie, formally known as Bernard, was taken in four years ago by Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand after he escaped from a temple where he’d been kept captive for 10 years.
His beak and eyes were severely injured, and he could barely stand — but after months of intensive care, Bernie recovered fully and now lives happily at the wildlife center with plenty of room to forage and run.
But while he’s unusually friendly for his species and doesn’t show any signs of aggression toward his caretakers, that doesn’t mean they let their guard down. “We are still extremely cautious of his strong legs and dagger-like claws,” WFFT wrote recently.
Armed with thick, helmet-like plates on their foreheads and powerful legs that can run up to 30 miles per hour, cassowaries are often called “living dinosaurs.” Their 4-inch talons bear an uncanny resemblance to those of velociraptors — and conservationists say the birds are one of the most direct relatives to prehistoric creatures who are still here after 80 million years.
Those talons also make them the most dangerous birds in the world. While cassowaries — who are native to the rainforests of Australia and New Zealand — generally avoid people, they’re a force to be reckoned with if threatened. Despite being flightless, they can jump up to 5 feet into the air, and will kick out with their taloned feet to defend themselves or their nests and babies (adult females, who are larger than males, can stand over 6 feet tall).
Most attacks on humans are a result of picture-takers getting too close to the birds, or from people feeding them, which has led the birds to associate humans with food and to get angry if they see a human and aren’t fed.
While there’s only been one confirmed cassowary-related human death — in 1926, when a teenage boy was killed after trying to attack a bird — videos across the web show the birds kicking and seriously injuring human interlopers. In 2012, a tourist in Australia was kicked off a 7-foot-high waterside cliff by a cassowary after the bird got angry at a nearby photographer.
But the birds, who would much rather keep to themselves, face much bigger threats from people than people face from them. Many wild cassowaries in Australia are seriously threatened by development and human encroachment within their habitats. According to Rainforest Rescue, which funds the Save the Cassowary campaign, the leading cause of death among the birds is being hit by cars.
“An increasing human population in the southern cassowary’s home has had a serious impact on these magnificent birds,” the group says on its website. “Crossing roads puts cassowaries at risk of vehicle strikes, [and] roads can also increase the distance cassowaries must travel for fresh water and fruits.”
The birds play a major ecological role in their tropical homes by dispersing seeds from the fruit they eat around the forest floor, which in turn creates more growing plants for others to feed on.
To ensure companies don’t purchase land within habitats for development, Rainforest Rescue actively purchases rainforest plots for sale, and also works to buy back and restore former forests that have been cut down by developers.
Because one thing’s for certain: The rainforest would be a much less vibrant place without these stunning birds.