Emu Fact File
Their body is covered by feathers but in these birds they are more hairlike. This means they lack the waterproofing ability of other feathers. Each foot ends with three sharp claws that can be used for defense.
Unusually among animals the males complete almost all of the parental care alone. They will care for their brown and white striped chicks for up to 18 months.
These birds are relatively common and face few threats. They are farmed to produce emu oil which is used in many products.
Read on to learn more about these big birds.
The emu is the second largest bird in the world. Females are typically larger than males.
Emus have a long neck, a short sharp beak and very small ears. They have long feet with three toes. One of the toes on each foot is a talon which can be used for fighting. Having only three toes is a common adaptation among birds which walk and run more than flying.
Emus have two sets of eyelids one which they use for blinking and one to keep out the dust.
On either side of the body is a small wing but these are not able to be used for flight.
Emus have a hair-like appearance to their feathers. Just like hair their feathers grow from a follicle. Most birds usually have one feather per follicle, but emus grow a double shafted feather from each follicle.
These hair-like feathers are an adaptation for the heat in Australia. They allows the heat to escape. By lifting the wings an emu can allow air to flow over veins close to the skin helping to cool them. Their feathers are less waterproof than those of other birds.
When new feathers grow they are almost black, but the sun fades them to a grayish brown with only the tips and shafts staying black.
The height of an emu ranges from 1.5 to 1.9m (4.9 to 6.2ft) and weigh around 30 to 55kg (66 to 121lbs).
Emus are omnivores which means that they eat all kinds of foods, both plants and animals. They will eat a wide variety of plants depending on the season along with fruit, flowers, berries, invertebrates and lizards.
Emus have to eat stones and pebbles to help with the digestion of the plant material that they eat.
Emus can survive without drinking water for a day or two because of the arid environment that they live in but when they do find water they drink large amounts.
They usually look for their food during the day, and while there is plenty of food about they will store large amounts of fat in their bodies that they can use to survive on while they are looking for more food.
Emus are only found in Australia. Their range covers most of the country.
A subspecies was previously found on the island of Tasmania at the south of the mainland where they went extinct around 1865. Another now extinct subspecies existed on Kangaroo Island until 1827.
They live in most habitats across Australia but are most commonly found in areas of savanna woodland and sclerophyll forest (a type of vegetation that has hard leaves and short distances between leaves along the stems) . They are very rarely found in rainforests or very arid areas.
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The male and female emus will start to form breeding pairs in summer and will stay together for about 5 months when they will begin to mate.
Males take on responsibility for almost all aspects of hatching and raising the young.
A male emu will build a nest which is made out of leaves, twigs and grass on the ground for the female, who will then lay the eggs over several days. She can lay between 5 and 20 eggs.
Once the female has laid all the eggs she will wander off and may even find another emu to mate with, she can have up to three different clutches per season all with different mates.
The male emu will then be left to carry out the eight week incubation period. Prior to this he has built up a fat store off of which to live as he will not eat during this time. Over the incubation period he can lose up to one-third of his body weight.
Emu eggs are very large weighing about 450 to 650 grams. They are thick shelled and dark green or bluish in color. One egg has the same mass as 10-12 chicken eggs.
Once the chicks hatch they can almost immediately care for themselves. They remain with the father for up to 18 months learning how to stay safe. He also provides protection till they are large enough to do this themselves.
At birth they stand an average 12cm (5 in) tall and weigh about 0.5kg (18 oz).
They are born with brown and cream stripes which help to camouflage them till their feathers come in, these stripes fade at about 3 months.
Sexual maturity is reached between 2 and 3 years old.
Emus typically stay together in pairs or family groups consisting of the male and his offspring, but may form into large flocks when they are travelling to a food source.
Emus can travel large distances to reach good feeding areas. In Western Australia emus move following a seasonal pattern, going north in the summer and south in the winter.
Emus sleep during the night but do not sleep continuously for the whole night, they can wake up several times during the night to either feed or go to the toilet. Emus sit down to sleep and it seems that this is also helpful to camouflage them as they look like a small hill when sleeping. They sleep for about 7 hours each day.
Emus have a pouch in their throat that is used for communication. They inflate the pouch and this allows them to make drumming, grunting and booming sounds. These sounds are usually used during courtship and the breeding season and can be heard up to 2kms (1.2miles) away. They can also make a very loud hissing sound which is very effective at scaring off dingoes.
Emus and are not afraid of water and can swim well.
When running their stride can be about 2.7m (9 feet) long. An emu may reach speeds of up to 48 km/h (30 mph). They are the only bird with calf muscles which helps with this.
Predators and Threats
Introduced species including feral dogs, pigs and foxes will hunt young.
When threatened they will hiss, ruffle their feathers or kick an opponent. They have sharp claws which are used to inflict wounds on their predators. These animals can also run in a zig-zag pattern to help escape predators.
The population is considered stable and currently 630,000-725,000 mature individuals are currently estimated to make up the population.
Their migrations are often interrupted by the presence of fences including the dog fence. These may cause a number of these birds to be crushed.
In some areas this species is considered a pest of cereal crops.
Emu farms exist in Australia primarily collect oil which is used for lotions, soaps and shampoo.
The emus legs are very strong and powerful and can even tear down metal wire fences.
Emus are featured on the coat of arms of Australia and as such are also present on the 50c coin.
An instance of identical twins was found in emus. This is the first time this was recorded in birds.
Copyright. The Animal Facts.
Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK
Christiansen, P., 2019. Birds. London: Amber Books Ltd.
Alderton, D. and Barrett, P., 2019. The complete illustrated encyclopedia of birds of the world. Lorenz Books.
BirdLife International. 2018. Dromaius novaehollandiae. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T22678117A131902466. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22678117A131902466.en. Downloaded on 20 July 2020.
Bush Heritage Australia. 2021. Emus – Bush Heritage Australia. [online] Available at: <https://www.bushheritage.org.au/species/emu> [Accessed 5 September 2021].