An adult cassowary is considered the world’s most dangerous bird. It can weigh 150 pounds, run 30 miles per hour, and attack with a sharp, 5-inch claw on each foot. To author Sy Montgomery, the flightless cassowary hearkens back to distant dinosaur ancestors, bearing a velociraptor’s claw and a hadrosaur’s bony crest.
Just the kind of creature Montgomery wanted to meet.
Montgomery tracked the cassowary through Australia’s leech-laden forests for days, finally coming face to face with one at the last possible hour, after she put time provided by a bus delay to good use and made one last forest visit.
As she sat at the edge of the woods, contemplating her impending failure to see a cassowary in the wild, one came into view. The bird walked among the nearby trees, ignoring her, though Montgomery was sure it knew she was there. She could see it clearly, its blue head, swaying red wattles, its dark feathers … and those claws.
“It was like it stepped out of a crack in time,” Montgomery said. “You look at a cassowary, and you know you’re in the presence of a living dinosaur.”
Montgomery described the search for the cassowary, along with her other bird-centered adventures, Thursday (June 17) to an audience at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH). Part of the HMNH’s Summer Nights at the Museum series, Montgomery described the experiences and adventures that led to her latest book, “Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur.”
In addition to her cassowary adventure, Montgomery described working at a California-based hummingbird rehabilitation center, raising two almost impossibly tiny hummingbird chicks that had been abandoned in their nest.
Montgomery, who is also author of the bestselling “The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood,” shared her unusual perspective and passion for the natural world with the audience. She described birds, and most particularly hummingbirds, as “made of air,” with hollow bones, internal air sacs, and feathers that outweigh their bones.
She helped to feed the baby birds with tiny syringes and watched them grow. Despite the demands of feedings every 20 minutes, she said she felt privileged to watch them begin to thrive, saying she fell “crazy in love with them.”
“There’s nothing like a baby hummingbird to bring us back to what really matters in the world,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said birds were her first animal love, fostered by a pet parakeet she had as a child, but that the subjects of her earlier books — mammals — kept getting in the way of her writing a book about them.
She pointed out that birds are the most common wild animals that most people see and are on the decline because of pollution, overpopulation, and climate change. Birds, like the endangered Kakapo that walked up to her during one forest visit, can be surprisingly trusting. It’s time for people to earn that trust, she said.