Emus are unusual birds. They don’t tweet: they grunt. They don’t fly: they walk and run as fast as 50kph! They belong to a group of flightless birds called ratites. The oldest form of birds, this group includes Cassowaries, Ostriches and Rheas.
Emus are the second largest bird in the world, after Ostriches, standing up to 190cm tall and weighing 55kg.
They have shaggy grey-brown to black plumage. The bare skin around their face and neck is a striking blue-black colour. Emu chicks are grey with black or brown stripes, helping them camouflage from predators. Their vestigial ‘winglets’, hidden under shaggy plumage, are only 20cm long.
Emus feature prominently in Aboriginal stories and culture. They're the inspiration behind dances, the subject of astrological mythology (the emu constellation) and other creation stories.
As well as being an important food source their fat is used for oil, their bones for knives, tendons for string, and feathers for ceremonial adornments. However, the word ‘Emu’ is not an Indigenous name – it derives from the Arabic or Portuguese word for ‘large bird’.
They may be flightless, but by golly they can run! With their powerful legs, emus can reach speeds of 50kph with a running stride of 3m.
Little wonder their Latin genus name 'Dromaius' is taken from the Greek word for ‘racer’.
Where do Emus live?
Emus are only found in Australia. They’re highly nomadic and their range covers most of the mainland. Emus were once found in Tasmania, but were exterminated by early Europeans. The two dwarf species that inhabited Kangaroo Island and King Island are now also extinct.
An Emu's preferred habitat includes open plains but they're also found in snowfields, forests and savannah woodlands. They seldom inhabit highly populated areas, rainforests or arid regions, but permanent water sources for stock has increased numbers in more arid areas.
According to the IUCN their conservation status is of ‘least concern’. In Australia there are between 625,000 to 725,000 wild emus. Globally they’re farmed for their meat, leather and oil; there are about 1 million domestic emus in the United States alone! (US Dept of Agriculture)
Emus are champions of paternal care. After helping to prepare a nest, the female lays 5 to 15 large dark-green eggs, then promptly wanders off to breed again. The nest is a platform on the ground of trampled grass 1m to 2m in diameter.
The male then incubates eggs for 55 days. He doesn’t eat, drink or defecate, and rarely leaves the nest during this time, losing up to 8kg in the process.
He stays with the young for two years, defending them and teaching them how to find food. While they walk and forage they softly whistle to each other. The chicks can reproduce at 18 months. Emus live for 5 to 10 years in the wild.
Emus also love to swim, flopping into the water and soaking their feathers. Our remote monitoring cameras on Monjebup Creek in Western Australia captured this great photo of a father Emu taking his chicks for a dip.
Emus are diurnal. They sleep at night, and rest, preen and eat during the day. They’re omnivores, eating fruits, seeds, flowers, shoots, insects, snails, small animals and animal droppings.
They're important seed dispersers. Like Cassowaries, they swallow stones to help them grind food in their gizzard. They can go for weeks without eating, and walk for up to 25km a day in search of food!
Normally silent, they make deep booming, guttural noises during the breeding season. The boom can be heard up to 2km away!
Emus have keen eyesight and hearing. When threatened they hiss, puff up feathers and, if necessary, kick the opponent or predator. The sharp claws on the end of their three toes can inflict deep wounds. If attacked from above they run in a zigzag pattern.
Threats to Emus
Aside from Dingoes and Wedge-tailed Eagles, adult Emus have few natural predators. Eggs and chicks are eaten by feral dogs, pigs, eagles, foxes, snakes and goannas.
The main threats to Emus are habitat loss and fragmentation, vehicle collision and deliberate slaughter. Fences (such as dog fences) interfere with Emu movement and migration, with many birds crushed in the process.
As they can damage wheat crops, Emus were once killed in large numbers. They’re now protected under federal legislation and have been reintroduced to Tasmania.