Emus are soft-feathered, brown, flightless birds with long necks and legs, and can reach up to 1.9 metres (6.2 ft) in height. Emus can travel great distances, and when necessary can sprint at 50 km/h (31 mph); they forage for a variety of plants and insects, but have been known to go for weeks without eating. They drink infrequently, but take in copious amounts of water when the opportunity arises.
Breeding takes place in May and June, and fighting among females for a mate is common. Females can mate several times and lay several clutches of eggs in one season. The male does the incubation; during this process he hardly eats or drinks and loses a significant amount of weight. The eggs hatch after around eight weeks, and the young are nurtured by their fathers. They reach full size after around six months, but can remain as a family unit until the next breeding season. The emu is an important cultural icon of Australia, appearing on the coat of arms and various coins. The bird features prominently in Indigenous Australian mythology.
The emu is the second largest bird in the world, only being exceeded in size by the ostrich; the largest individuals can reach up to 150 to 190 cm (59 to 75 in) in height. Measured from the bill to the tail, emus range in length from 139 to 164 cm (55 to 65 in), with males averaging 148.5 cm (58.5 in) and females averaging 156.8 cm (61.7 in). Emus weigh between 18 and 60 kg (40 and 132 lb), with an average of 31.5 and 37 kg (69 and 82 lb) in males and females, respectively. Females are usually slightly larger than males and are substantially wider across the rump.
Although flightless, emus have vestigial wings, the wing chord measuring around 20 cm (8 in), and each wing having a small claw at the tip. Emus flap their wings when running, perhaps as a means of stabilising themselves when moving fast. They have long necks and legs, and can run at speeds of 48 km/h (30 mph) due to their highly specialised pelvic limb musculature. Their feet have only three toes and a similarly reduced number of bones and associated foot muscles; emus are the only birds with gastrocnemius muscles in the back of the lower legs. The pelvic limb muscles of emus contribute a similar proportion of the total body mass as do the flight muscles of flying birds. When walking, the emu takes strides of about 100 cm (3.3 ft), but at full gallop, a stride can be as long as 275 cm (9 ft). Its legs are devoid of feathers and underneath its feet are thick, cushioned pads. Like the cassowary, the emu has sharp claws on its toes which are its major defensive attribute, and are used in combat to inflict wounds on opponents by kicking. The toe and claw total 15 cm (6 in) in length. The bill is quite small, measuring 5.6 to 6.7 cm (2.2 to 2.6 in), and is soft, being adapted for grazing. Emus have good eyesight and hearing, which allows them to detect threats at some distance.
The neck of the emu is pale blue and shows through its sparse feathers. They have grey-brown plumage of shaggy appearance; the shafts and the tips of the feathers are black. Solar radiation is absorbed by the tips, and the inner plumage insulates the skin. This prevents the birds from overheating, allowing them to be active during the heat of the day. A unique feature of the emu feather is the double rachis emerging from a single shaft. Both of the rachis have the same length, and the texture is variable; the area near the skin is rather furry, but the more distant ends resemble grass. The sexes are similar in appearance, although the male's penis can become visible when he urinates and defecates. The plumage varies in colour due to environmental factors, giving the bird a natural camouflage. Feathers of emus in more arid areas with red soils have a rufous tint while birds residing in damp conditions are generally darker in hue. The juvenile plumage develops at about three months and is blackish finely barred with brown, with the head and neck being especially dark. The facial feathers gradually thin to expose the bluish skin. The adult plumage has developed by about fifteen months.
The eyes of an emu are protected by nictitating membranes. These are translucent, secondary eyelids that move horizontally from the inside edge of the eye to the outside edge. They function as visors to protect the eyes from the dust that is prevalent in windy arid regions. Emus have a tracheal pouch, which becomes more prominent during the mating season. At more than 30 cm (12 in) in length, it is quite spacious; it has a thin wall, and an opening just 8 centimetres (3 in) long.
Distribution and Habitat Edit
Once common on the east coast of Australia, emus are now uncommon there; by contrast, the development of agriculture and the provision of water for stock in the interior of the continent have increased the range of the emu in arid regions. Emus live in various habitats across Australia both inland and near the coast. They are most common in areas of sclerophyll forest and savannah woodland, and least common in heavily populated districts and arid areas with annual precipitation of less than 600 millimetres (24 in). Emus predominately travel in pairs, and while they can form large flocks, this is an atypical social behaviour that arises from the common need to move towards a new food source. Emus have been shown to travel long distances to reach abundant feeding areas. In Western Australia, emu movements follow a distinct seasonal pattern – north in summer and south in winter. On the east coast their wanderings seem to be more random and do not appear to follow a set pattern.
Behaviour and Ecology Edit
Emus are diurnal birds and spend their day foraging, preening their plumage with their beak, dust bathing and resting. They are generally gregarious birds apart from the breeding season, and while some forage, others remain vigilant to their mutual benefit. They are able to swim when necessary, although they rarely do so unless the area is flooded or they need to cross a river.
Emus begin to settle down at sunset and sleep during the night. They do not sleep continuously but rouse themselves several times during the night. When falling asleep, emus first squat on their tarsi and enter a drowsy state during which they are alert enough to react to stimuli and quickly return to a fully awakened state if disturbed. As they fall into deeper sleep, their neck droops closer to the body and the eyelids begin to close. If there are no disturbances, they fall into a deeper sleep after about twenty minutes. During this phase, the body is gradually lowered until it is touching the ground with the legs folded underneath. The beak is turned down so that the whole neck becomes S-shaped and folded onto itself. The feathers direct any rain downwards onto the ground. It has been suggested that the sleeping position is a type of camouflage, mimicking a small mound. Emus typically awake from deep sleep once every ninety minutes or so and stand upright to feed briefly or defecate. This period of wakefulness lasts for ten to twenty minutes, after which they return to slumber. Overall, an emu sleeps for around seven hours in each twenty-four-hour period. Young emus usually sleep with their neck flat and stretched forward along the ground surface.
The vocalisations of emus mostly consist of various booming and grunting sounds. The booming is created by the inflatable throat pouch; the pitch can be regulated by the bird and depends on the size of the aperture. Most of the booming is done by females; it is part of the courtship ritual, is used to announce the holding of territory and is issued as a threat to rivals. A high-intensity boom is audible 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) away, while a low, more resonant call, produced during the breeding season, may at first attract mates and peaks while the male is incubating the eggs. Most of the grunting is done by males. It is used principally during the breeding season in territorial defence, as a threat to other males, during courtship and while the female is laying. Both sexes sometimes boom or grunt during threat displays or on encountering strange objects.
On very hot days, emus pant to maintain their body temperature, their lungs work as evaporative coolers and, unlike some other species, the resulting low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood do not appear to cause alkalosis. For normal breathing in cooler weather, they have large, multifolded nasal passages. Cool air warms as it passes through into the lungs, extracting heat from the nasal region. On exhalation, the emu's cold nasal turbinatescondense moisture back out of the air and absorb it for reuse. As with other ratites, the emu has great homeothermic ability, and can maintain this status from −5 to 45 °C (23 to 113 °F). The thermoneutral zone of emus lies between 10 and 30 °C (50 and 86 °F). As with other ratites, emus have a relatively low basal metabolic rate compared to other types of birds. At −5 °C (23 °F), the metabolic rate of an emu sitting down is about 60% of that when standing, partly because the lack of feathers under the stomach leads to a higher rate of heat loss when standing from the exposed underbelly.
Emus forage in a diurnal pattern and eat a variety of native and introduced plant species. The diet depends on seasonal availability with such plants as Acacia, Casuarina and grasses being favored. They also eat insects and other arthropods, including grasshoppers and crickets, beetles, cockroaches, ladybirds, Bogong and cotton-boll moth larvae, ants, spiders and millipedes. This provides a large part of their protein requirements. In Western Australia, food preferences have been observed in travelling emus; they eat seeds from Acacia aneura until the rains arrive, after which they move on to fresh grass shoots and caterpillars; in winter they feed on the leaves and pods of Cassia and in spring, they consume grasshoppers and the fruit of Santalum acuminatum, a sort of quandong. They are also known to feed on wheat, and any fruit or other crops that they can access, easily climbing over high fences if necessary. Emus serve as an important agent for the dispersal of large viable seeds, which contributes to floral biodiversity. One undesirable effect of this occurred in Queensland in the early twentieth century when emus fed on the fruit of prickly pears in the outback. They defecated the seeds in various places as they moved around, and this led to a series of campaigns to hunt emus and prevent the seeds of the invasive cactus being spread. The cacti were eventually controlled by an introduced moth (Cactoblastis cactorum ) whose larvae fed on the plant, one of the earliest examples of biological control.
Small stones are swallowed to assist in the grinding up and digestion of the plant material. Individual stones may weigh 45 g (1.6 oz) and the birds may have as much as 745 g (1.642 lb) in their gizzards at one time. They also eat charcoal, although the reason for this is unclear. Captive emus have been known to eat shards of glass, marbles, car keys, jewellery, and nuts and bolts.
Emus drink infrequently, but ingest large amounts when the opportunity arises. They typically drink once a day, first inspecting the water body and surrounding area in groups before kneeling down at the edge to drink. They prefer being on firm ground while drinking, rather than on rocks or mud, but if they sense danger, they often stand rather than kneel. If not disturbed, they may drink continuously for ten minutes. Due to the scarcity of water sources, emus are sometimes forced to go without water for several days. In the wild, they often share water holes with kangaroos, other birds and animals; they are wary and tend to wait for the other animals to leave before they quench their thirst.
Emus form breeding pairs during the summer months of December and January, and may remain together for about five months. During this time, they stay in an area a few kilometres in diameter and it is believed they find and defend territory within this area. Both males and females put on weight during the breeding season, with the female becoming slightly heavier at between 45 and 58 kg (99 and 128 lb). Mating usually takes place between April and June; the exact timing is determined by the climate as the birds nest during the coolest part of the year. During the breeding season, males experience hormonal changes, including an increase in luteinizing hormone and testosterone levels, and their testicles double in size.
Males construct a rough nest in a semi-sheltered hollow on the ground, using bark, grass, sticks and leaves to line it. The nest is almost always a flat surface rather than a segment of a sphere, although in cold conditions the nest is taller, up to 7 cm (2.8 in) tall, and more spherical to provide some extra heat retention. When other material is lacking, the bird sometimes uses a spinifex tussock a metre or so across, despite the prickly nature of the foliage. The nest can be placed on open ground or near a shrub or rock. The nest is usually placed in an area where the emu has a clear view of its surroundings and can detect approaching predators.
Female emus court the males; the female's plumage darkens slightly and the small patches of bare, hairless skin just below the eyes and near the beak turn turquoise-blue. The colour of the male's plumage remains unchanged, although the bare patches of skin also turn light blue. When courting, females stride around, pulling their neck back while puffing out their feathers and emitting low, monosyllabic calls that have been compared to drum beats. This calling can occur when males are out of sight or more than 50 metres (160 ft) away. Once the male's attention has been gained, the female circles her prospective mate at a distance of 10 to 40 metres (30 to 130 ft). As she does this, she looks at him by turning her neck, while at the same time keeping her rump facing towards him. If the male shows interest in the parading female, he will move closer; the female continues the courtship by shuffling further away but continuing to circle him.
If a male is interested, he will stretch his neck and erect his feathers, then bend over and peck at the ground. He will circle around and sidle up to the female, swaying his body and neck from side to side, and rubbing his breast against his partner's rump. Often the female will reject his advances with aggression, but if amenable, she signals acceptance by squatting down and raising her rump.