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Emus in the wild

The Australian native emu's scientific name is Dromaius novaehollandaiae, which means "fast runner of New Holland". The emu is an extremely fast runner who can't fly.

The emu was a valuable source of food for the Aboriginal people and was also used in ceremonies and medicine. It was not known to the white man until 1697 when three toed tracks were first recorded near the coast of Western Australia by Dutch explorers. It was initially thought to be a type of bird that had been already documented and was titled EMEU after the Portuguese word Ema meaning crane or large bird.

Further studies found it to be a flightless bird which was widespread throughout the Australian continent - in all areas and climates, except the rain forests. 

The emu is classified into a group known as "Ratites" which are birds which do not have the keel used to anchor the wing muscles of flighted birds. This group also included the New Zealand Kiwi, the South American Rhea, the Cassowary of Northern Australia and the African Ostrich.

Appearance

Height Up to 2 metres

Weight Up to 50kg

Feathers Dull grey/brown with a whitish puff around the neck.

Face/Neck The face and part of the throat don't have feathers and the skin is grey. It can be darker in the females.

Feet & legs Their feet are quite large with only three toes. Their feet, legs and bill are dark brown to black in colour.

Emu chicks are commonly known as stripeys due to their feather colour. Their feathers are similar to the adult bird but are paler and more streaked until they are around 4 months at which time they will darken.

Feeding
Emus are omnivorous which means that they eat a variety of plants and insects. When they graze on large pastures, they mainly eat seeds, wild fruit, flowers and the young green shoots of herbs and shrubs. They particularly like grasshoppers and beetles. In some farming areas they are a menace as they attack crops of lupins and other grains. They also damage the farmers' crops by trampling them down and also destroy fencing. They mostly feed during the day, but can be seen out on moonlight nights.

As the emu can be destructive for farming, in some areas of Australia there has been a need to control them. This is done under the strict guidance of environmental organisations - taking into consideration the preservation of the bird as well as allowing the farmers to preserve their crops.

Mating and Breeding
Nearing the end of summer, emus begin matching off in pairs and remain together for about 5 months.

The start of the breeding season appears to be triggered by the day length and temperature changes. The ratio of daylight hours to hours of darkness and the cooler temperatures usually have a stimulating effect on the complex natural mechanisms that cause the emu to come into production.

Other climatic factors such as extreme temperature fluctuations and high rainfall appear to have an effect on the number of eggs laid by the birds.

Most emus breed and produce eggs in their second year - some may take until their third year.

When the male and female are preparing to mate, they will often strut around displaying their neck feathers proudly as a sign that they are ready. The female often makes a distsinctive drumming sound, whilst the male grunts loudly and often.

The female begins laying eggs usually around May, laying a clutch or nest of 5 to 12 eggs weighing approximately 700gms. The breeding season can continue until September or October.

Incubation and Rearing
Once the last egg has been laid, the female emu moves away and shows no more interest in the nest or the eggs.

The eggs are then incubated by the male emu usually for about 56 days. During this time the male stays on the nest and very rarely leaves it even for food or water. He may lose up to 8kg or 20% of his body weight. During this time he ensures that the eggs are the correct temperature, that they are turned regularly, there is enough oxygen around the eggs, they have the correct humidity and are in an infection free environment.

Assuming that the eggs were fertilised in the first place and providing the male emu does his work, at the end of the incubation period, most eggs should hatch normal healthy chicks.

Even once the chicks have hatched, he keeps them warm and protected under his feathers at night. During the day he leads them around for up to 18 months at which time they leave and find a mate of their own - and the cycle continues.