The Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the largest native bird in Australia. This flightless bird is an important icon of our country, appearing on our coat of arms and various coins and prominent in aboriginal mythology. It is the subject of our 54th Bird Photography Challenge.
What does it look like?
When standing erect, the emu is between 1.6 m to 2 m tall and can weigh up to 45 kg, making it the tallest bird inhabiting Australia. The emu is covered with grey-brown feathers except for its neck and head which are bluish in colour and sparsely covered.
The feathers on the body are double shafted which gives the plumage its shaggy look. The wings are “vestigial”, meaning they have lost their original function over the ages. They are so short they are totally useless for flying. The legs are long and powerful and the feet have three forward-facing toes and no hind toe. Although the emu can’t fly it certainly can sprint at up to 50 km/h when necessary.
The eyes of the emu are protected by 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 dust.
How does it behave?
The Emu feeds on fruits, seeds, the growing shoots of plants and insects. It also consumes stones which aid in the digestion process.
Nesting takes place in winter. The nest consists of a platform of grass on the ground. A clutch of 6 to 11 large eggs are laid by the female over several days. They are dark bluish-green and measure about 13 cm in length and 9 cm in width. The surprising thing about the emu is that the male performs all incubation duties for 60 days, during which time it hardly eats or drinks and loses a significant amount of weight. It survives on stored body fat and the morning dew surrounding the nest. He also becomes the sole parent looking after the young for up to a year. The female on the other hand has a rather promiscuous life: she wonders off as soon as she has laid the eggs, finds another mate to breed again, and repeats this process several times in one season!
Newly hatched chicks are very cute. They have a downy and stripy cream and brown plumage. This colouring provides camouflage while they are very young. They leave the nest when they are able to feed themselves, but stay with their dad for several months.
Emus vocalise, particularly in breeding season. They boom, drum and grunt. The booming is created in an inflatable neck sack and can be heard up to 2km away.
Did you know?
A constellation used in Aboriginal culture in Australia is the “Emu in the sky”. Indigenous Australians may well have been the first astronomers.
The Emu in the Sky is defined by dark nebulae (opaque clouds of dust and gas in outer space) that are visible against the Milky Way background, rather than by stars. The Emu’s head is the very dark Coalsack nebula, next to the Southern Cross; the body and legs are other dark clouds trailing out along the Milky Way to Scorpius.
In Kuringai National Park, in New South Wales, are extensive rock engravings of the Guringai people who lived there, including representations of the creator-hero Daramulan and his emu-wife. An engraving near the Elvina Track shows an emu in the same pose and orientation as the Emu in the Sky constellation.
The image here is an award winning composite of hundreds of photographs taken by Barnaby Norris. It combines the view of the constellation and the engraving, and has become the definitive symbol for aboriginal astronomy today.
Where is it found?
The Emu is found only in Australia and lives throughout most of the continent, mainly in sclerophyll forests of eucalypts, wattles and banksias, and savanna woodlands. The emu population is stable. Provision of water for domestic stock in farming areas and the ability of the Emu to reproduce rapidly has favoured its survival. It is secure in most states, except the Northern Territory where it is vulnerable, and Tasmania where it is absent.
The photos in the gallery were taken at the Serendip Sanctuary using a Canon 7dii and a EF100-400 mm lens. Click on any image to display in a full screen slide show.