Gift of Grub: Eating Like a Bird… Not!

Practically every guest who comes to the Houston Zoo to visit our animals has at least heard the notion of “eating like a bird.” The overwhelming majority of birds are much lighter than they initially appear because of their lightweight skeletons, air sacs throughout the body, and feathers; as such, they tend to not eat as much as a mammal of similar size would be expected to eat.

However, there is an exception to be found with every rule.

This is Darwin, our 5-year old male Double-wattled Cassowary. These birds are actually some of the largest in the world, dwarfed only by the Ostrich. They live in the rainforests of Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea where their diet mainly consists of fruit. In this video, our Cassowary is getting a small assortment of fruit including apple, orange, banana, pear, grape and cantaloupe.

However, the amount of food shown here doesn’t begin to give an idea of how much food these birds will really eat: Darwin is fed several times daily, and can easily eat 8-10lbs of fruit, greens and pellets in the course of a day!

As you can see, Darwin has absolutely no problem eating very large pieces of fruit! This trait is crucial to the survival of their native rainforests — cassowaries eat large amounts of fruit and then disperse the seeds throughout the forest (seeds have a high germination rate in the digestive tracks of these animals). This makes these animals a “Keystone Species, ” meaning that they have a disproportionate impact on their environment — in this case, a positive one.  Several species of fruit trees rely on cassowaries, and their method of seed-dispersal is used by even more. They are completely dependent on cassowaries… and their appetites.

Pretty much destroys the notion of “eating like a bird,” doesn’t it?

Written by Jack Pine, Bird Keeper

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