It’s appropriate that we’re discussing this ratite in October, because it’s scary as hell.
The Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is second only to the ostrich as one of the largest living birds and is the only extant member of the genus Dromaius. Its remaining natural range is primarily Australia, as the subspecies that were found on King Island and Tasmania became extinct after European settlement of those islands. The etymology of the word Emu is unclear, possibly being either Arabic or Portuguese in origin. Various Aboriginal peoples have different names for the Emu, including birabayin, murawung, myoure, barrimal, and courn.
The Emu stands up to 75 inches (190 cm) tall and weighs approximately 82 pounds (37 kg), and females are typically larger than males. The plumage of the Emu is a shaggy gray-brown, and feathers grow sparse along the Emu’s neck. They almost look like bird-shaped haystacks. The skin is blue-gray, and they have orange-brown eyes. They have nictitating membranes, a secondary set of eyelids that protect against the wind and dust that is common in its natural habitat. Emus are fast, and can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h). It also really hurts when they bite you, which this author can testify from personal experience.
Emus are diurnal, and forage mostly during the day. Their diet consists mostly of vegetation, with different kinds of plants and grasses being favored. They will also eat insects and and arachnids, which helps their protein intake. Emus have been known to feed on crops, and it is difficult to keep them away from tasty agricultural treats. They can easily jump or climb fences. Emus are crucial for the spread of seeds, and unfortunately this role was used as a reason to attempt to control their population, to prevent the spread of an invasive cactus species. This failed to be an effective means of control, however. Wild Emus eat small stones to aid in digestion, and captive Emus will eat anything they can swallow, including bolts and nuts, glass, keys, etc.
The breeding season of Emus starts in the Australian summer, during the months of December and January. Breeding pairs may remain together for about five months, and actual nesting occurs when the weather starts to cool. Males construct nests by digging a hole and lining it with insulating vegetation. The female will lay a clutch of up to 15 eggs, which are dark green in color. Unhatched eggs that are left in the sun will bleach white. The male broods the eggs, turning them every day, and the female will either stay and help to defend the nest or go off and seek additional partners. After 56 days, the chicks hatch. They stay as a family group until they are fully grown, at 6 months, and sometimes stay up to a year before venturing off on their own.
Emus are currently farmed in different parts of the world, and their population in Australia is healthy. They are considered to be a species of least concern by the IUCN. A notable misadventure in attempted wildlife control is known as the Great Emu War, which occurred in 1932. Western Australia was dealing with an abundance of Emus, which had a negative impact on the wheat crops of many veterans of World War I who had turned to farming after the war. Ex-soldiers armed with Lewis guns attempted to herd and ambush groups of Emus to bring them within range of the guns. The subsequent events were described by ornithologist Dominic Serventy:
The machine-gunners’ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.
Due to the negative press surrounding the attempted cull (calling into question the competence of the ex-military personnel) and the fact that out of 20,000 Emus, a generous estimate of Emu casualties was around 500, the men packed up and abandoned the attempt. A bounty system was eventually put in place as a means of population control and ended up being much more effective.
Source for all images used in this post.