The Emu, another ratite, is the second-largest living bird after the Ostrich and the largest bird species in Australia where it is found almost all over. Officially, the Spotted or Larger Emu, it is generally just called the Emu because there is only the one species. An adult Emu stands 60-76 inches tall and weighs about 100 pounds, females being the larger sex. Unlike the ostrich, the plumage of the sexes is similar. With its rudimentary wings, heavy and compact body and large, powerful three-toed feet, they are quite fast runners at about 30 mph and if cornered, kick with their feet.
Emus spend much of their time foraging or feeding; their omnivorous diet consists mainly of insects but they will eat some small vertebrates as well. To help digest this food, they will swallow stones at large as two ounces to help grind the food in the gizzard. They also practice coprophagy, ingesting fresh droppings to extract even more nutrients and avoid dehydration. During the day, even in the heat of summer, Emus forage in the open, requiring the frequent intake of water, although they can go for days without drinking if succulent plants are available for ingestion. They may be sedentary if sufficient food and water is available but they may be quite nomadic, covering large distances in search of resources.
The Emu can be polyandrous, promiscuous, or monogamous. Ratite males, unlike most birds other than waterfowl, possess a penis. Males sometimes make calls, which sound like “e-moo” and carry over long distances. Females make resonant, booming sounds. If a pair courts, mates and stays together, the male will build and attend the nest, a depression in the ground covered by twigs, and incubate 5 to 15 olive-green eggs. During this period of about eight weeks, the male does not eat, drink, or defecate. He watches the eggs, turns them, and aggressively defends them against predators and even chases the female away. After almost two months of incubation the young are hatched and walking 24 hours later.
Being very curious birds, the Australian Aborigines waved a red cloth or hat to attract the Emus; shiny objects are particularly attractive to them. Visitors in zoos who come close to an Emu will find their buttons, glasses, and key chains pecked at and even removed and swallowed by a particularly bold bird.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, growing cereal grains became popular in some parts of Australia, attracting Emus which became serious crop pests. An army artillery unit was sent to kill the then estimated 20,000 Emus. This became known as the Emu War. Not particularly successful, after 1930 fences became a better means of control.
Once shot by settlers for their meat and eggs, the Emu today is fairly abundant, its numbers kept in check by human activity and dingoes. Many are bred in captivity for the use of their skin for leather which is lightweight and luxurious, yet strong and durable. The leather is characterized by its unique appearance that is derived from the feather patterns spread evenly over the hide.
The etymology of the common name “emu” is uncertain, but is thought to have come from an Arabic word for large bird that was later used by Portuguese explorers to describe the related cassowary in Australia and New Guinea.