Parrots are well-known for causing mischief by both word and action (please see article below), but they are certainly not the only birds capable of “misdeeds”. Today I’d like to introduce you to one member of the cast of avian troublemakers who have amused me with their antics over the years. From Birds of Paradise to King Vultures, my zoo years were filled with unique characters that gave new meaning to the phrase “Never a dull moment”!
Armed with powerful legs and a long, sharp spike on each foot, the huge Cassowary is one of the world’s most formidable birds. Margie, long under my care at the Bronx Zoo, was peaceful enough, but always refused to come indoors for the evening. She was given snacks during the day, and caught grasshoppers, mice and other treats on her own, and so was rarely hungry enough to be lured with food.
Margie particularly disliked a co-worker of mine, and so at closing time he would enter her cage, whereupon she would charge him with murder in her eyes. As he bolted out of the holding cage, I would slam the door, locking her indoors for the night (we had to re-enact this little game with a herd of peccaries and a pygmy hippo as well, and so kept in relatively good shape!).
Punching Bag for a Cassowary
My co-worker, a good-hearted fellow who genuinely loved his job, felt bad for the frustrated Margie…he believed she really deserved to catch him just once, or at least to vent her anger. He assuaged his guilt by occasionally locking me into Margie’s cage for a few seconds as she chased me out (I doubt this did much for the bird, but it certainly kept me on my toes!). But his favorite ploy was to lounge with his back resting against her holding cage (a chain-link fence through which her sharp spur could not fit). Upon seeing this, Margie would very slowly and carefully sneak up behind him and then shoot out a mighty kick. My co-worker would careen across a narrow alleyway, bounce off another cage, and then hit Margie’s cage again…whereupon he would be rewarded with yet another blow.
I watched this odd game many times, and was always left with the impression that Margie looked forward to it as much as we did. This was decades before “behavioral enrichment” became a zoo catch-phrase, but it certainly was just that. Margie lived a very long life in the peak of good health, and really did seem to “look forward” to chasing us.
Cassowary vs. Frogmouth
Margie may have saved my job by hesitating to slaughter one of her neighbors. While still a novice bird keeper, I once allowed a Tawny Frogmouth (a wonderfully-odd Australian bird, please see photo) to fly past me as I entered its cage. This was in a holding building, where birds were held for breeding.
The Frogmouth flew into Margie’s open-topped enclosure. The very territorial Cassowary spun to confront intruder – intending, I’m sure, to kick him into oblivion. But rather than trying to escape her, as did every other sane creature, the Frogmouth employed its classic “dead stump” defense (please see photo) by freezing in place with head pointed skyward. This seemed to puzzle Margie, and had the added benefit of allowing me enough time to rush in and snatch him up (somehow avoiding a kick to the chest or points south in the process).
I’ll cover some other unique avian characters in future articles…please write in with your own bird stories and experiences.
Cassowary image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
Tawny Frogmouth image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Michael Howard