Birds – The Emeus

With the exception of the Ostriches, the Emeus are the largest of existing birds, a fully matured individual of the largest species attaining a maximum length of about eighty inches, and standing considerably over five feet high. They are exclusively confined to the deserts and plains of Australia, where they fill the place occupied in similar districts by the Ostriches of Africa and the Rheas of South America. They constitute as conspicuous and characteristic a feature of the Australian landscape as do certain of the larger kangaroos, and like them were being pushed back by the encroachment of civilization until actually threatened with extermination, though recent legislative enactment has done much to protect them. “The King of the Australian fauna” the bird has been called, and, adds Mr. Campbell, “whether seen in private reserves, parks, or in the open, the Emeu always attracts attention. Even the Bushman, who has seen hundreds of Emeus in the wilds, will always glance at the bird or remain to admire its handsome eggs.”

Before recounting the life history of these remarkable birds, a word of description may be given of the several forms. As at present accepted. the genus Dromaeus comprises six nominal species, three of which are known from the Pleistocene deposits of Queensland and East Australia, and one (D. ater), which was exterminated some seventy-five years ago, while the remaining two are living. Of these, the largest species and the first to be made known, the Emeu par excellence (D. novae-hollandiae), is found throughout Australia in general, though most abundantly in the eastern districts. At a little distance its coat has more the appearance of hair than feathers, due to the loose texture, while down the back there is a parting, where the plumage falls gracefully over on either side. The general color is obscure grayish brown, the feathers with black tips. The feathers of the head and hind neck are black, short, hairy, and recurved, and so thinly placed that the purplish blue color of the skin shows through. The female is similar in coloration to the male, being only somewhat lighter; in size she is slightly smaller than the male. The chicks are grayish white with two stripes of black down the back and two others on each side, each subdivided by a narrow middle line of white. The other living species is the Spotted Emeu (D. irroratus) of western Australia, which is easily distinguished from the other by its spotted plumage, the feathers being barred alternately with silky white and dark gray throughout their length, terminating in a black tip margined posteriorly with rufous. It is also much more slender in habit, the tarsi being longer and thinner, and the toes longer and more slender. The remaining species (D. Ater), now extinct, was very much smaller, attaining a length of only about fifty-five inches, and was darker in coloration. It was apparently confined to Kangaroo Island, South Australia, where it was discovered in 18o3 by the French expedition under Baudin. The naturalist of the expedition, Péron, captured three of these Emeus alive and took them to Paris. “A pair was sent to the residence of the Empress Josephine, and the remaining one to the Jardin des Plantes. In 1822 two of the birds died. One was stuffed and the other mounted as a skeleton,” and until a few years ago this was supposed to represent all that was known of the species. In 1901 a skeleton, believed to be that of the other bird brought back by Péron, was found in the Zoological Museum of Florence, thus closing the melancholy history.

Habits. — As the habits of the two living species are similar, the following account is mainly that of the principal species (D. Novae-Hollandiae). Emeus prefer the more open country, or that but sparsely wooded, and go about usually in parties, it being not uncommon to see as many as twenty or thirty in company. They are shy, wary birds, of keen sight, and when disturbed run strongly and rapidly, usually trusting to their fleetness to escape danger, though a brooding bird when he thinks himself unobserved may occasionally stretch out the neck on the ground and trust to the similarity between his plumage and the surrounding herbage to escape detection. Emeus subsist on fruits, seeds, roots, and herbage, generally feeding in the morning or evening. They drink water freely, delight in bathing, and can swim well, being not infrequently observed in crossing rivers of considerable width. Their ordinary note is a hissing or grunting sound, but during the breeding season they utter a loud booming note, the latter produced apparently through the agency of a curious modification of the wind-pipe, this organ being pierced by a slit in front of, and communicating with, the tracheal pouch. The nest is a very simple affair, in the plains country being simply a hollow scratched in the earth, but in the other places, according to Campbell it is “usually a flat bed or platform composed of grass or other herbage plucked by the bird round about the site, and trampled down. Sometimes bark, pieces of sticks, and leaves of trees are used, intermingled with a few of the bird’s own feathers. The shape is generally oval, about four feet by two and a half feet in size, and about two inches in thickness.” The nest is placed in open country, frequently at the base of a tree or stump. The eggs, usually about nine but varying from seven to as many as eighteen, are very beautiful, being rough with “granulations of dark green upon a shell of light metallic or verdigris green,” giving them the appearance of shagreen. In size the eggs average about 5.15 X 3.50 inches, the weight being approximately twenty ounces, or about the equal of a dozen ordinary fowl’s eggs. When fresh the eggs are very palatable, a single one making a substantial meal for a family. The nesting season is very early, terminating in late winter or early spring, so that the young are hatched just as the tender grass and shoots on which they feed are coming forth. The period of incubation is about eight weeks, the male, who is strictly monogamous, apparently taking full charge of this office as well as that of rearing the young, as it is not known that the female takes any part in this duty. Both the eggs and flesh of the Emeu are eaten by the aborigines, but the flesh is too rank and tough to appeal to European palates, though they sometimes use the oil made from the fat beneath the skin. The hunting of Emeus by dogs has been considered good sport, and while doubtless still indulged in to some extent, is now discontinued by law. The Emeu is readily domesticated and when properly handled makes quite an engaging pet. It breeds readily in semi-confinement in England and other parts of the world.