Lee Richardson Zoo


Order:  Casuariiformes -Cassowaries and Emus

Family:  Dromaiidae - Emus
Scientific Name:  Dromaius novaehollandiae


Description:   The emu is the second largest flightless bird, after ostriches.  Its long, powerful legs are dark gray and have three toes.  An adult emu weighs up to 120 pounds and stands about six feet tall, the female being slightly larger than the male.  Plumage is coarse, loose and drooping, ranges from very pale gray-brown to almost black and forms a part along the spine.  Each feather has two shafts, with barbs so widely spaced that they do not interlock to form a firm vane as in most birds; thus forming a loose, hair-like body covering.  Feathers growing near the base of the spine differ from those covering the rest of the bird; they have longer barbs and are set wide apart, giving the appearance of a mop-like tail.  The skin of the head and neck is blue.  The female’s skin is a brighter blue than the male.  The eye color varies from yellow, to gray-brown to reddish.


Range:  Australia mainland.


Habitat:  Plains, scrublands, open woodlands, coastal heaths, alpine pastures, semi-deserts, margins of lakes, pastoral and cereal country
with suitable cover. Absent from driest deserts, heavily forested areas, and closely settled parts.


Reproduction:  Laying usually occurs between May and August (northern hemisphere), December and April (southern hemisphere) although ours still lay in December. The nest is a shallow depression in the ground covered with a scanty collection of leaves, grass, bark, or sticks.  Several hens will each lay 5 to 11 large, dark green, granulated eggs in the same nest.  Each egg weighs between 1 and 1½ pounds.  Clutch may exceed 20 eggs in a good season, 4 to 5 in a poor season.  The cock incubates the eggs, which hatch in 25 to 60 days; variability is caused by short pauses when the cock leaves to eat and drink.  The chicks are cream colored with brown longitudinal stripes and dark dots on the head.  They leave the nest when 2 to 3 days old.  The cock alone guards and raises the family for up to 18 months.  Chicks hatched away from father do not know how or what to eat and must be taught.  The hens will either remain in vicinity during brooding to accompany the family or leave to mate with another cock.  The young mature in 18 to 24 months.


Diet in WildThe emu is nearly omnivorous eating insects (especially grasshoppers), caterpillars, native fruits, berries, seeds, cultivated grain, grasses, herbage and blossoms.


Diet in ZooRatite/rabbit chow, greens/pastries/bread.


General Info:  The shy but curious emu lives singly or in flocks of dozens, occasionally hundreds when food sources are centralized.  The adults are capable of traveling up to 13.5 kilometers a day and as much as 540 kilometers in nine months.  It is an excellent swimmer and fast runner (reaching 40 mph), with a bouncy, swaying gait of strides up to nine feet.  The bill is broad and soft, adapted for browsing and grazing.  The femur is the only hollow bone in an emu.  Males make deep growling grunts and females make a thudding, drumming sound.  Young birds make whistling peeps.  Because of flightlessness, their legs have become much stronger than other birds.  They must run or stay and defend themselves.  An emu can easily break a man’s leg with one kick.  The mainland emu population survived and won the war waged upon them in 1932 by the Australian army.  Farming was becoming more widespread and the farmers were complaining about the emus raiding their fields of seed and produce.  The “Emu War” was short-lived when the birds were able to avoid the gunfire by splitting into small groups and running away, and by use of their camouflage to simply hide from their human predators.  After a month of futile “combat”, the army admitted defeat having killed only 12 emus.  Farmers began building tall fences to protect their fields.


Predators:  Chicks, in particular, are susceptible to dingos and foxes.  Adults can usually avoid predation by outrunning and outmaneuvering their foes.



The Cleveland Museum of Natural History website


Handbook of the Birds of the World,  Vol I. J. del Hoyo; A. Elliot; J. Sargatal.  Lynx Edicions. Barcelona. 1992. pp. 98-103.