20 March 2014
Africa has its ostrich, and America has its, lesser known, rhea. But Australia has its emu. On first sight, this large, grey-brown bird is unmistakably the close relative of both the ostrich and rhea. However, the emu is the “character” of the family — the odd one in this not so typical family of birds.
Like its cousins, the emu is a flightless bird. And, also, like it cousins, it’s fast. So, even if it can’t fly, it can run faster than any other animal in Australia. At 31 miles per hour, the emu ranks as the second fasted bird on earth — second only to its African cousin, the ostrich. At a height reaching up to a bit over six-and-a-half feet and weighing as much as 130 pounds, the emu enjoys the distinction of being the largest bird in Australia. But, again, in terms of size, the emu is only the second largest bird in the world. The largest? You guessed it. Cousin Ostrich.
Although sharing the ostrich’s unmistakable form and profile, in terms of appearance, the emu is not only smaller than its African cousin, but has brown colored plumage – just a touch drabber than the grey-brown feathers of its other cousin, the Rhea. Maybe to make up for its drab feathers, nature has favored the emu with a blue neck. This relatively bright “collar” give the bird a bit of color while allowing it to conceal itself by lowering its head and neck for purposes of camouflage.
Camouflage? This bird is over 6 feet tall. Who’s going to mess with it? Actually, the emu has predators in the wild, unpopulated “Outback” of Australia. Both eagles and hawks attack emus from the air. But there’s a catch. The emus that are grabbed and carried off by eagles and hawks are young birds that have not yet reached their adult height and weight.
Could a flying bird carry off a full grown emu? Well, even in the Out-est of the Outback, there are no birds that big. The young victims have few defenses beyond their speed and a peculiar swerving run they share with Cousin Rhea. At times, Emus extend their relatively small wings to keep their balance as the run in an evasive swerving pattern.
Dingos, a member of the grey wolf family, are the only predator of the full grown bird. Even if emu’s lose some fights for survival with this free ranging dog of the Outback, the emu brings a serious weapon to the fight – its feet.
Like Cousin Rhea, the emu has 3 toes on its clawed feet. This is unusual for birds, which often have a fourth “opposing” toe used to grip branches and other natural perches. Three toe, tridactyl, clawed feet are found in birds that, like the emu, walk and run on flat ground instead of flying. And the emu has really big, mean clawed feet. Mean? Yes, mean. Emus have been known to use their feet to rip through wire fences. You really don’t want to get these birds angry or get in their way when they’re going somewhere.
And emus like to get where they’re going. Not favoring flocks, these birds often travel in pairs. They run at high speed and are unruffled by water. When a body of water comes between an emu and where it wants to go, it just jumps in and swims.
When these birds aren’t running or swimming, they pause to feed on a variety of insects and plants. They have excellent eye-sight. When they’re not eating, they like to groom or “preen” their “plumage” or look around and “investigate.”
Noted for their curiosity, emus will approach humans – especially if they see movement or a colorful piece of clothing. These birds have been known to follow and watch humans in the wild. And, once you attract an emu’s attention, it might not be so easy to give an interested bird “the slip.” Hoping that an emu will go away if you “just ignore it” doesn’t always work. And, be warned: emus seem to have a sense of humor. They have been known to approach humans and other animals and poke them with their beak and, then, run away. Observers have the impression that this is a kind of “game” for the large bird.
The emu’s “call” is not like a bird’s call at all. The emu makes a loud drumming or thumping sound. That’s all. And . . . did I say it was loud? It can be heard a little over a mile away. The emu’s call enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame on the animated television series, King of the Hill . In one episode, (Season 6, Episode 17, “Fun with Jane and Jane”), the emus “sing” the theme song with the closing credits. Of course, there’s no music involved. The animated birds simply intone a series of loud thumps in lieu of the regular theme.
Although there is no recognizable difference in appearance that distinguishes the male from the female. But emus generally roam in pairs. The pair consists of one male and one female. But this pairing ends, more or less, with mating season. Wait . . . the male-female pairing ends with mating season? Yes. It’s strange. But that’s only the beginning of the strangeness.
Emus don’t abandon the male-female stereotypes in mating. They reverse them.
During mating season, the females become aggressive and begin to court the relatively passive males. A female will circle around the potential male mate drawing closer and closer. If another passing female develops an attraction for the same male, it may, and often does, start a fight. During mating season, fights among females are common with a single fight sometimes lasting for hours.
After mating, the male builds its nest. And it is the male’s nest. The female will lay eggs in the nest, but not sit on the eggs. The male cares completely for eggs, and will lose about a third of his body-weight because of its inability to leave the nest and obtain food. After laying her eggs, the mating female will often seek out another male, mating with as many males as possible during the mating season.
The emu’s eggs are . . . interesting . . . because they are large: over 5 inches long and weighing as much as 2 pounds. Also, they are green. When freshly laid, the emu’s eggs are a light green. You might ask, “Then, they turn white, right?” No, they don’t. They get greener and greener until they reach the shade of an avocado.
The eggs hatch about 56 days after they are laid. The newly hatched chicks weigh a little over a pound and are about 5 inches tall. They can leave the nest within days, but will stay with their defending father for about 6 or 7 months learning how to find food and reaching their full adult size. However, the young can spend as long as a year in this family circle before taking off on their own. An emu can live as long as 20 years.
Emus are raised for meat in Australia, the United States, Peru, and China. The USDA classifies emu as red, poultry meat. Emu skin is used to produce a distinctive type of leather. Oil from emu fat is used for cosmetics and dietary supplements. Although emu oil has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory, therapeutic product, the US FDA has classified emu oil as an “unapproved drug.”
The emu is prized as a cultural icon in Australia appearing with the red kangaroo on the Coat of arms of Australia and the Australian 50 cent coin. The bird has been featured on a number of Australian postage stamps and is the namesake of mountains, lakes, towns and even a brand of beer.
M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri
& Belleville, Illinois