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Nature Notes - Emu

Image of an EmuFeatures

Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) are large, flightless birds. They do not have the minute hooked branches (barbules) that hold the web of modern bird feathers together ie their feathers are no longer zipped up.

Adaptations

Emus have three toes. A 15cm long centre toe and sharp nail combined with a powerful forward kick makes for a powerful assault weapon.

Their strong legs make them very fast runners. A sprinting emu can run at 48km/h (the Ostrich can run at 60km/h). The word 'Dromaius' - Greek for 'swift-footed'.

Long, thick, double quilled feathers help the Emu maintain constant body temperature (approx 40 degrees). In cold weather it fluffs its feathers, trapping air and reducing heat loss (as with an insulating blanket). They have no sweat glands and may lose heat by panting.

Emus have no teeth to grind up food so they swallow pebbles into the gizzard and the pebbles grind up the food like a mill.

Emu eyes are covered with clear membranes like security blinds to protect them against dust and moisture loss.

Deep gutteral grunts are made by both sexes; female makes deep drumming noises, most notably during the breeding season.

Habitat

Emus live in semi arid grasslands and desert woodlands.

Range

Emus are wide spread.

Wild Status

Emus are common in their preferred habitats.

Diet

Emus eat a large variety of native leaves, grasses, fruits and flowers, as well as insects.

Predators

Dingoes and Wedge-tailed Eagles prey on Emus. The fathers carry the chicks dung away in their beaks and put it a long way away to divert predators.

Emu eggs are eaten by reptiles such as goannas and snakes, other birds such as the Black-breasted Buzzards and mammals such as Dingoes.

Emu has been an important source of protein for desert Aboriginal people. Arrernte men used a plant called Imunenge (im-orn-ung-a) (Duboisia hopwoodii) to poison waterholes where Emus were known to drink. Hunters would put the crushed up leaves in small waterholes. Emus drinking this water quickly became stupified, and were easily killed or died close by.

Emu eggs are considered to be a delicacy by the Arrernte people of this area and can be eaten raw or cooked. In old times eggs were emptied and used to carry water (kwatye).

Home

Emus shelter under large trees in the woodland like Desert Bloodwoods and Beefwoods.

Life Span

Emus have been recorded to live for up to 19 years in the wild 40 years in captivity.

Size

Emus can stand up to 1.9m and weigh 30 - 45kg, females are slightly larger. They are Australia's largest bird and the second largest in the world. The Ostrich is the largest at 2.7m and 156 kg.

Reproduction and Development

Emus usually breed once a year however in years of drought they may refrain from breeding for one or more consecutive years.

The larger female courts the male with a crazy dancing courtship and mates with him. She lays 5 - 15 large, glossy, dark green eggs at intervals of 2 – 4 days on a thin mattress of grass in low bushy vegetation (two females may lay eggs in same nest). The number of eggs laid is dependant upon food resources and body condition. Immediately after laying her clutch the female leaves her nest (never to return) to feed and recover her strength. She often mates with another male.

Meanwhile, the male incubates the eggs. He sits continuously during the 8 weeks leaving the eggs only rarely and eating little. He may lose up to a third of his body weight during this time, living off extensive fat reserves (built up to twice normal levels before breeding season) and dew on the grass around him. He may not even defecate over the 8 weeks.

The eggs hatch over a period of about 4 days and the male leads the chicks around and broods them beneath his feathers at night for about 1 month. The young feed themselves, and stay with the dad 7 - 8 months. Young have camouflage stripes for 3 months but don’t reach full height for another 9 months.

Extra Fun Facts

Ratites (emu, cassowary, ostrich, rhea and kiwi) are likely to have evolved in Gondwanaland, probably from a flying ancestor. Australia separated 55 million years from rest of Gondwana. The word ratite (from the Latin ratis) means “rafts” and refers to the fact that their breastbone has no keel and it is the keel that is needed to anchor the powerful flight muscles.