There are about 18,000 species of birds in the world. Of those, emus – the long-limbed, long-necked Australian natives – are the world's second largest by height. To get the skinny on these gangly avians, we talked to Eric Slovak, assistant curator of birds for Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Emus are ratites, large, flightless birds with a solid, flat sternum. They're related to other ratites found in southern hemispheric locations – the ostrich (Africa), which takes the title of largest bird in the world; the rhea (South America); the cassowary (Australia) and the kiwi (New Zealand).
Emus and ostriches have the most obvious similarities with their long legs and necks. They're also both very fast runners. Emus can run up to 31 mph (50 kph). But there are some differences – their toes, for example. Emus have three toes. The ostrich is the only bird with just two toes. Another major difference is their wings. Ostriches have beautiful, long wings that aren't always visible because they're covering their bodies. "They use them when they're doing a courtship dance or when they're running really fast," says Slovak. "They can use their wings like a boat's rudder to change direction quickly."
Those wings are a necessity living around African predators. "An ostrich needs to stop on a dime and change direction with a lion chasing it," says Slovak. Conversely, emu wings are very small, probably 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) long. Predators are less of an issue for emus. Their main predators, dingoes, are easily outrun by most emus, except juveniles.
Size Matters When You're an Emu
Emu height usually averages 5.7 feet (1.8 meters). Males can weigh anywhere from 110 to 121 pounds (50 to 55 kilograms), females typically weigh 10 pounds (4 kilograms) more. The feathers are grayish brown but lighten during the season. Chicks have natural camouflage – their feathers look like stripes of black, brown and cream to blend into tall grass and foliage.
Father Knows Best
During breeding season – the Australian winter months (June, July, August) – both male and female emus make loud, low grunting sounds. Once the male and female mate and the female lays her eggs in the nest, a low indentation on the ground lined with leaves, grass and bark, the male takes over completely. "Males sit on the eggs and do all the incubation," says Slovak "When the eggs hatch, they are the sole parent. As a dad myself, I love that about emus."
The incubation period is 56 days, and papa emu doesn't eat, drink or even poop while he sits on the nest. His entire focus is on protecting the eggs. When the chicks hatch, he's ready to chow down, and then he shows his chicks where to get their food and water. Chicks are ready to start eating, drinking and adventuring about 24 to 48 hours after they're born, but they usually hang out with their dad for about four months before striking out on their own.
Oh! Give Me a Home ...
Emus are only found in the wild in Australia, though at some point they may have lived in Tasmania or King Island. They are wanderers. Flocks are called mobs, and they roam everywhere from eucalyptus forests to desert shrubland to sandy plains.
Thanks to their ranging tendencies, relations between emus and farmers haven't always been cordial. In fact, in 1932 the Australian government launched the "Emu War" against the entire species – an attempt to control the population by killing them with grenades and machine guns. The failed war ended with only 12 emus killed. The government installed a 1,609-mile (1,000-kilometer) fence to separate the emus from the grain-producing areas in southwest Australia.
Can Emus Be Eaten?
The short answer is yes, emu meat has been a popular food source in India and Australia for thousands of years. In many places, emus are farmed not only for meat, but for oil, leather and feathers. And talk about good eating – the massive egg of the emu is a dark emerald green color, weighs about 1 to 1.5 pounds (0.4 to 0.6 kilograms), and is the equivalent of about 10 chicken eggs.
Mom, Can I Get an Emu?
If you've ever wondered whether emus make good pets the answer is it depends on the person and the emu. While attacks on humans are rare and fatalities even less common, these are quite sizable birds, fully capable of eviscerating even large animals with their big, three-toed, clawed feet. So, while they are friendly and inquisitive, emus should definitely be treated with respect and caution. They need plenty of room to roam and graze, sturdy fencing at least 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) high, commercial ratite pellets, proper housing in the winter (warm, covered) and proper veterinary care (at least an annual checkup and vaccinations for things like West Nile Virus). Beyond that, "All birds have their unique personalities just like humans do," says Slovak. "I can put emu in a box and say 'This is all the things about emus,' but there are definitely personality traits that come into play."
There's no better example of this than Darwin, an emu that lived at Smithsonian's National Zoo. Sadly, Darwin fell ill and had to be humanely euthanized in 2018, but he lived a long and very happy life while at the National Zoo, according to Slovak.
"Darwin was not food-motivated," Slovak says. "He didn't care if you had a treat or not; he just wanted to be your buddy. Darwin loved people. When you came to the exhibit, he was curious and wanted to know what you were doing. If you were mowing the lawn, cleaning the pool or changing the straw, he wanted to be with you."