Emus can run at up to 50 kms an hour ©Getty Images

Emus can run at up to 50 kms an hour ©Getty Images

The emu (say ee-mew) is Australia's largest bird.  It is the second largest bird in the world by height - the ostrich is bigger.

 Emus are found only in Australia, and have been in existence since the time of the dinosaurs.  There were once three species (kinds) of emu, but two are extinct.

Why don't emus fly?

The emu is part of a group of birds called ratites. Ratites are birds that do not fly.

The other ratites are the ostrich in Africa, the Australian cassowary, the rhea in South America and the small kiwi in New Zealand.

Ratites do have wings but the bones across their chest do not have a part for flight muscles to attach to. The sternum, or breastbone, of flying birds is shaped like a ship's keel,  while ratites have a a raft-shaped breastbone. Emus can run at speeds of up to 50 km per hour.

Where is the emu found?

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

The emu is quite common and is found over much of mainland Australia, though fewer live in desert areas.  They were once found in Tasmania before the arrival of Europeans, but were wiped out soon after.

Appearance and behaviours

Emus are about 2 metres tall.  They have small wings that help the bird cool itself in hot weather - they hold the wings out so that the air can circulate around their body.   The wings help them steer when they are running fast.

Emu females are generally larger than the males. The females weigh about 40 kilograms, the males about 36 kg.

An emu feather is a double feather.

An emu feather is a double feather.

Emu feathers are long and brown, and grow in pairs with two shafts joined at the base. Emus are the only birds that have double feathers. The barbs coming out of the shafts are separate, not joined together as they are in the feathers of birds that fly.  This means that the bird looks more like it is covered in hair than in feathers. These soft feathers are not waterproof like other feathers, and an emu in the rain looks a bit bedraggled.

Emu feet have three toes, each with a claw. ©Getty Images

Emu feet have three toes, each with a claw. ©Getty Images

 

 Emu necks are often without feathers,  and  the skin is bluish. Emu beaks are wide and soft, for grazing grass and browsing in bushes.   

Emus have long legs, with three large toes, each with a claw.

The knees can't be seen, the joint that is bending forward is the ankle. ©Getty Images

The knees can't be seen, the joint that is bending forward is the ankle. ©Getty Images

When emus sit, their feet go out in front of them. People think their knees bend forward, but actually the knee is higher up, under the feathers so we can't see them. The part we see that bends forward is actually the bird's ankle.

 Emus make grunting noises and also a deep drumming sound.

 

Emus roam the countryside, usually alone. However, they sometimes live in pairs or small groups.

They sometimes have a dust bath to clean their feathers, but they rarely swim.

They are not aggressive animals, but rather curious. They are easily tamed.

Diet

Emus are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and meat. They eat fruits, flowers, insects, seeds and green plants. As they peck at the grass, they pick up snails, slugs and other grubs as well.

Birds have a part of their body called a gizzard. The food they swallow goes into the gizzard to be ground up so that it can be digested. Emus swallow quite large stones to help grind up the food in their gizzard.

Male sitting on eggs ©kidcyber

Male sitting on eggs ©kidcyber

Life Cycle

Emus generally find partners in summer, December-January, and breed in the winter months, May-August.  

If conditions are bad, such as a severe drought, emus may not breed at all, or the female may only lay a few eggs. 

An emu egg with some chicken eggs as a size comparison. ©Getty Images

An emu egg with some chicken eggs as a size comparison. ©Getty Images

 In excellent conditions she may lay a larger than usual clutch of eggs.  

The large, dark green eggs are laid gradually over several days, usually 5-9 days.  However, the will all hatch at the same time.

The female then leaves and the male sits on the eggs for 8 weeks until they hatch.  He hardly leaves the nest, and does not eat much during this time.  He moves only to stand and turn each egg, up to ten times a day.

Newly hatched emu chick. ©Getty Images

Newly hatched emu chick. ©Getty Images

The female does not stay with the eggs or chicks. Because the climate may be harsh, it takes a while for her to regain her energy so that she is ready to breed in the next season with a different male.

The chicks are cream coloured, with dark stripes running from head to tail. The chicks stay with their father for about 18 months. He misses the next breeding season in order to look after these chicks.  

Emu eggs are a beautiful dark green colour. They are big eggs. Inside, the shell is white. 

Conservation Status and Threats

 ©Getty Images

 ©Getty Images

Emus were once hunted for their skin, which is a fine leather, and for feathers,  meat and oil.

Emu oil, extracted from fatty tissues under its skin, has been used for thousands of years by Aboriginal peoples of Australia, for aches and pains, arthritis, headaches and other ailments. The oil contains many beneficial vitamins and acids.  These products are now obtained from farmed emus.  

Emu eggs were also taken so that decorative pictures could be carved in the shells. The shell has several different coloured layers, so a range of colours were achieved by carving to different depths.

Emus are generally not considered to be threatened, but in Australia's  Northern Territory they are classified as Vulnerable.

Australia's Coat of Arms

Australia's Coat of Arms

Did you know?

The emu and red kangaroo stand on either side of Australia's coat of arms, or official badge. This is not only because both are the tallest animals found only found in Australia, but because it was believed that neither animal can move backwards so they represent a country that moves forward. In reality, they are able to move backwards, but do so very rarely and not with ease.

Emus have a curious nature. ©Getty Images

Emus have a curious nature. ©Getty Images

Read more about emus here:

http://www.10-facts-about.com/Emus/id/1024

Watch videos of emus, including hatching chicks:

http://www.arkive.org/emu/dromaius-novaehollandiae/

A song about emus by Don Spencer:

http://splash.abc.net.au/media/-/m/104430

Read the kidcyber page:

birds