Emu Tallest Bird in Australia
The emu stands as tall as a man, on two skinny scaly legs, with a shaggy sheepdog-like plumage, long neck, sharp beak and large orange eyes. It may look down at you intimidatingly - but it is quite harmless unless provoked.
The emu is the tallest bird in Australia and the second tallest bird in the world (the ostrich is the tallest). It can grow to a height of up to 2 meters and run at speeds of up to 50 km/h. This makes it the second fastest running bird in the world, again, second only to the ostrich. These birds spend most of theirs day foraging, preening, resting and dust bathing. They are good swimmers and love to frolic in ponds and lakes.
The emu belongs to a group of birds with flat breastbones, known as ratites. This bird family also included cassowaries, kiwis and ostriches. Its closest living relative is the cassowary. Like all ratites the emu cannot fly. Emus are nomadic, walking from place to place in search of food. While solitary animals, they usually travel in pairs. They are naturally curious and are not afraid of humans.
Emus are found throughout most of Australia and are not considered endangered. They live for ten to twenty years. There were once three types of emus in Australia but the Tasmanian emu and King Island emu became extinct after the arrival of European settlers starting in 1788.
Size and Weight
The emu is indeed a massive bird. Growing up to 2 meters tall and weighing as much as 60 kgs. An average adult male emu is about 1.4 meters in length and weighs about 50 kgs. The female adult is slightly larger than the male and has a larger rump. It averages about 1.5 meters in length and weighs about 55 kgs.
Head, Eyes, Beak
The adult emu has a small head and a tapering bluish-black featherless upper neck. It usually wears a rather quizzical hair style which is quite unique to each bird. The emu has large red to orange coloured eyes with very good eyesight. It has two sets of eyelids, one for blinking and the other to keep out dust and dirt. During the mating season, the skin on the female emu's neck turns blue in colour. These birds have rather small soft slender, pointed beaks measuring about 6cm specially adapted for picking up insects and small seeds.
Wings and Feathers
The structure of the emu's feathers is quite different from those of most birds. Most birds that have a feather with a single shaft with smooth bristles and interconnected barbs (top photo). The emu's feathers on the other hand are bifurcated; with two feathers growing from the same shaft with no interconnecting barbs. As a result the emu's feather is soft and shaggy and also not as waterproof as other birds' feathers. Compared to its other feathers, the emu's tail feathers are rather stiff. The Emu rattles these to scare off predators.
Being a ratite the emu lacks a keel on the sternum (breast-bone) on which to anchor any flight muscles. As a consequence it is not capable of flight. Although entirely flightless, it still has tiny, vestigial wings, each about the size of a human hand (20cm). The emu manipulates these tiny wings while running to control its balance and direction. When changing direction rapidly, the emu points one wing up and the other down, almost like a child “playing airplane”.
The emu has two long scaly legs. Each foot has three forward-facing toes with large pointed toenails. On the underside of the emu’s toes are small flattened pads to provide traction on rough terrain. The emu is the only bird with calf muscles (the muscle on the back of the lower leg). Since it has no need to perch and grasp like other birds, the emu has less bones and muscles in its legs than flying birds.
With this configuration the emu is capable of running through the countryside at speeds up to 50 km/h. At full pace, an emu's stride can be as long as 3 meters. It can travel long distances at this speed without tiring. The bird can also jump straight up to an astounding height of nearly 2 meters - it can jump as high as it is tall.
How Did the Emu Get its Name?
What Did Aboriginals Call the Emu?
The original inhabitants of Australia, the Aboriginals, called this bird by many different names such as koolpurrie, burrimul, dinewan koondoola, kalaya and baramul. It is almost certain that the word "emu" did not originate from any native Aboriginal languages.
The most likely entomology for the word "emu" is that it was an Arabic word that early Portuguese explorers adapted as "ema" to describe large birds such as the ostrich. The word was subsequently used by them to describe cassowaries they discovered in Indonesia and New Guinea. It was then used by other European exploders, such as the Dutch, to describe the bird we know today as the Emu.
A male emu is called a cock
A female emu is called a hen
A baby emu is called a chick
Scientific Name:Dromaius novaehollandiae (which roughly translates to "fast runner from New Guinea")
Emus are only found in Australia. They are well adapted to the Australian environment and can be found throughout mainland Australia. They are most common in Sclerophyll forests which have eucalypt, wattle and banksia plants with hard, short and often spiky leaves. The only area they don’t occupy are the harshest parts of the Australian desert, rainforests and the island of Tasmania. Emus have benefited by human animal husbandry in the interior of the continent they are now frequently found around man-made watering ponds. Emus once also occupied the eastern seaboard of Australia but they were displaced by recent human settlement.
While there is an adequate food supply emus will generally remain in a fixed location but they are highly nomadic and will migrate hundreds of kilometres at a rate of 15‐25 kilometres per day in search of food and water.
Emus are omnivores - they eat both animals and plants. Most of their diet, however, is vegetation. Emus forage for food during the day. Their diet is varied and is dependent on the seasonal availability of food. They eat fruits, seeds and shoots of plants such as the Acacia, Casuarina and grasses and sometimes eat wheat crops which makes them unpopular with farmers. They supplement their mainly vegetarian diets with practically any animal they can catch and swallow whole. These include insects, spiders, snails, millipedes and small mammals. Emus don’t bite, chew or tear their food. Instead they prefer to swallow it whole. They also swallow large pebbles to help their gizzard grind up their food. Emus drink infrequently, but consume copious amounts of water when the opportunity arises, drinking between 9 to 18 litres daily. This high water requirement is because they use their lungs as evaporative coolers in hot weather and as a consequence exhale a lot of water vapour.
When food is plentiful, emus store large amounts of fat in their bodies. They use this fat reserve to survive in hard times and while the male emu is incubating eggs during which time it does not eat or drink but lives on its fat reserve instead.
Emu droppings are large and soft. They are important seed dispersal agents. Many seeds they eat are excreted in their droppings (poop) with their own little fertilizer supply heling to propogate plants.
Emus make different sounds depending on their gender. Adult males usually make a pig-like grunting sound, while adult females make a loud booming sound. Young birds make whistling sounds. Both sexes sometimes boom or grunt during threat displays or on encountering strange objects. The emu makes its deep guttural sounds by vibrating a 30cm long thin-walled tracheal pouch which is part of its windpipe. The female’s booming sounds, most prevalent during the mating season, consists of two forms. A high intensity booming which is audible up to 2 kilometres away to attract mates and a low reverberating call to its partner which can be heard from more than 100 meters away. Both males and females also give out a bloodcurdling hiss when feeling threatened.
Emus usually pair up during summer and breed in winter. The male builds a rather basic nest which is a slight hollow in the ground lined with trampled bark, grass, sticks and leaves.
The female then usually lays 8 to 10 large shiny green eggs that look like avocados and weighing nearly 680 grams. (That’s the equivalent of nearly 12 chicken eggs). After she has laid her eggs, the female shows no further interest and wanders off leaving the male to look after the brood. The male sits on the eggs for about 60 days and incubates them. During this time he rarely eats, drinks or leaves his nest. While he is incubating his metabolism rate drops and he may lose as much as 8 kgs in weight.
A newly hatched Emu is weighs about 500 grams and is small enough to fit in your cupped hand. Its body is covered with downy black and white striped feathers arranged in a squiggly pattern. This colouration helps break up the outline of the body when seen from above, so the chick is not easily spotted by predators.
Emu chicks follow their father everywhere whistling softly to each other eating tender plant shoots. The whistling becomes louder and high-pitched of they feel threatened or lose sight of their father.
The male cares for his chicks for up to 18 months and most survive to adulthood. They reach breeding age at 2 years of age.
The emu is a non-aggressive bird that would rather run away than confront an adversary. If threatened it has a number of defensive tactics.
Puffing and Hissing
The emu’s first line of defence/attack when threatened at close quarters is to stand on tippy-toes and pull itself up to its full height, puff up its neck feathers, open its mouth wide and dance about, giving out bloodcurdling hisses and then charge at you pretending to attack. It will usually stop before actually coming in any physical contact. If this ruse doesn’t work then it will resort to its “plan b”.
The emu’s “plan b” at close quarters is a swift kick or two with its powerful legs armed with sharp claws. It the attacker is large the emu will kick forward with its feet. If the animal is smaller the emu will jump up in the air and attempt to land its feet on top of the animal, preferably on its neck and head.
If attacked from above by a predator such as a wedge-tail eagle, the emu will run in a zigzag pattern. This tight evasive manoeuvre makes it very hard for its pursuer to follow.
The emu did not have native ground-level predators until the introduction of animals by humans. Since then it has dealt with ground level predators such as dingoes, dogs and feral cats by running away at top speed. While doing so they raise one wing and lower the other and quickly swivel 180 degrees like a child "playing airplane" and scoots off, still at top speed in a different direction. Its four-legged pursuers cannot turn so rapidly and overshoot the emu going right past, as it heads off in a different direction. The emu can usually exhaust its predator before the predator can catch up with it.
There were once three species of emu in Australia. Two, the Tasmanian emu and King Island emu were hunted to extinction by European settlers. Wild emus today are protected by law. Harming them in any way is illegal.
With an estimated population of between 650,000 to 750,000 wild emus in mainland Australia, their population is considered to be stable and are not under any threat. Furthermore, human agriculture in the Australian outback may actually have contributed to an increase in the emu population because humans have dotted the landscape with numerous watering holes for sheep and cattle that emus use too.
There are also many emu farms where the birds are raised for their meat leather and oil.