Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

GenusDromaius (1)
SizeHeight: 1.5 - 1.9 m (2)
Weight30 - 60 kg (2)
Top facts

The emu is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of Australia’s most famous animals, the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is a large flightless bird, second only to the ostrich in height (3) (4) (5). The emu’s large, bulky body is covered in shaggy grey-brown feathers that conceal tiny wings. Each foot is equipped with three, forward-facing toes on the end of long, powerful legs, capable of propelling this large bird at speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour (2) (6). The sparsely feathered face and throat are pale greyish-blue, while the bill is black and the eyes are reddish-brown (5) (6). Although the female emu tends to be slightly larger than the male, the plumages are identical, making it difficult to distinguish the sexes (3) (4). Juvenile emus have distinctive brown and cream striped feathers that eventually darken into the adult plumage after about six months (4) (6). The emu makes a range of vocalisations, including a booming call generated by an inflatable neck sac (6).

The emu is distributed across most of mainland Australia (2) (5). Historically it also occurred on Kangaroo and King Islands, as well as on Tasmania, but is now extinct on all three islands (4) (5).

The emu inhabits a variety of habitats including grassland, wooded savannah, dry forest and semi-desert, but is notably absent from the tropical forests of northeastern Australia (3) (4) (5).

The emu has an omnivorous diet that typically includes a wide variety of fruits, shoots, seeds, insects and other small animals, and droppings (3) (4) (6). When sufficient food and water are present, it will remain in one area, but when conditions are variable, the emu will cover hundreds of kilometres in search of sustenance (4) (5) (6). Most of the year is spent in small, loose groups that occasionally join together to form large, travelling herds comprising thousands of individuals. However, during the breeding season these groups divide into mating pairs (2) (3) (4). Each mating pair commands a territory of up to 30 square kilometres, which they defend fiercely (4) (6). The nest of the emu is a platform of grass on the ground, into which the female emu lays between five and fifteen eggs, at two to four day intervals (6). Once the eggs have been laid, the female usually wanders off to potentially find another mate, while the male is left to incubate the eggs alone, foregoing food and drink for the duration of the incubation period (3) (4) (6). The chicks hatch after about two months, and within two to seven days are able to leave the nest with the male and feed independently (4). For the next five to seven months, the male emu guards the chicks from potential predators, such as dingoes, foxes, buzzards and other birds of prey (4) (6).

Following the arrival of European settlers, the emu was widely hunted for meat and oil, while the eggs were also collected for food. This led to the species’ extinction from several islands, including Tasmania. On the mainland, however, the expansion of cereal farming and the provision of water for domestic livestock actually benefited the emu, such that it became a significant agricultural pest (2) (3) (4) (6). Although efforts were made periodically during the 20th century to reduce numbers, the emu remains widespread and abundant. Today, an extensive network of emu-proof fences protects farmland (3) (4).

The emu has a widespread, stable population, estimated at 630,000 to 725,000 mature individuals in 2009. As a result, it is currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1) (7).

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  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2009)
  2. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  3. Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  4. Armstrong, M. (2007) Wildlife and Plants. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  5. Roots, C. (2006) Flightless Birds. Greenwood Publishing Group, Connecticut.
  6. Australian Museum: Birds in Backyards - Emu (September, 2009)
  7. BirdLife International (September, 2009)