Meet the emu

An emu
Photo by Pierre Pouliquin. Retrieved from Flickr on 10-26-2023. Shared under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Think of a bird. Most aren’t too scary, right? Now imagine a bird that’s 6 feet tall and has claws 6 inches long. That’s the size of the weapons wielded by the world’s second-largest bird, the emu.

Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) are large birds living in Australia. They belong to the most primitive family of modern birds, called ratites, and you can see hints of their dinosaur ancestors in their large claws. Second in size only to ostriches, emus grow to be between 4.9 and 6.2 feet tall (1.5 to 1.9 meters) and weigh 66 to 121 pounds (30 to 55 kilograms).

There is currently only one species of emu living in Australia, but there used to be more. For example, there was a subspecies of emu living in Tasmania, but it became extinct around 1865 after the Europeans arrived. Europeans also hunted the King Island emu and Kangaroo Island emu to extinction in the early 1800s. Even today, emu distribution is impacted by humans. While in some areas human growth has kicked emus out, agriculture has provided food and water for emus in regions that were historically too dry for them to survive.

Legs for days

Emu legs are made for running. Their legs are powerful and can eat up large distances quickly. When running, an emu’s stride can be almost 9 feet (2.7 meters) long, and they can reach speeds of 30 miles (48 kilometers) an hour. They can achieve these speeds partly because they are the only birds with calf muscles.

It’s good that emus can run because they can’t fly! While they do have wings, they are vestigial and don’t work for flying. These wings are less than 8 inches (20 centimeters) long. However, even tiny wings serve a purpose: emus will hold them out to the side while running to stabilize themselves.

Emu feet are also adapted for walking and running. Like other flightless birds, emus have three forward-facing toes and no rear-facing toes. Since they don’t perch in trees, they don’t need a rear-facing toe or the muscles necessary for grasping. These feet can also deliver strong kicks that can maim predators unfortunate enough to get in the way.

Emu feet
Looks like dinosaur feet. Photo by Nimitnigam. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 10-26-2023. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Funny feathers

Besides their long legs, emus look different from most other birds because of their feathers. Bird feathers grow from follicles in the skin, just like our hair. Most birds have just one feather per follicle, but emu follicles grow double-shafted feathers.

Emu feathers also lack the hooks of other bird feathers. For most birds, the barbs found on their feathers are closely knit and have hooks that help connect barbs to each other. In contrast, emu feathers have loosely hanging barbs and end up with a hair-like appearance.

Closeup of an emu staring at the camera.
Hair-like feathers. Photo by I Am Retrieved from Flickr on 10-26-2023. Shared under CC BY 2.0.

Emu feathers are black when they first grow in but quickly fade to a grayish brown in the sun. This coloration helps serve as camouflage, letting emus blend in with their typically arid surroundings. An emu chick hatches with striped feathers, which also help them hide from danger. In addition, their feathers serve as a natural form of sunscreen.

Daddy daycare

In an emu relationship, males do all the work. After successfully courting a female with a mating dance, a male gets to mate with a female. The pair will stay together until the eggs are laid, with the male doing most of the work in building a nest on the ground.

After laying 5 to 15 eggs, the female leaves her mate to deal with the nest. The male spends all his time incubating the eggs for the next eight weeks. He won’t leave the nest at all. This means he doesn’t eat, drink, or even poop. The male survives using his fat stores, but he still loses up to a third of his body weight before the chicks hatch.

What’s the female doing during this time? Not much! She may wander around and find another male to mate with or even find the nest of another emu pair to lay some eggs in. In a good year, a female emu can lay three separate clutches of eggs.

Even when the eggs hatch, the female stays completely hands-off. In fact, the male will kick any other emus away from his hatchlings, even the mother. For the next 18 months, the father is entirely in charge of raising the young. He will teach his chicks how to find food and stay safe from predators like dingoes.

Emu chick eating a flower
An emu chick. Photo by Florian Rohart. Retrieved from Flickr on 10-26-2023. Shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Emu eggs are enormous, reaching about 5 x 3.5 inches (13 x 9 centimeters). This is the same weight and volume as 10 to 12 chicken eggs.

Which begs the question: how long does it take to cook an emu egg?

That depends on how you want to cook it! Because emu eggs are so large, cooking them without getting shells in your food can be difficult. But if you can manage it, one emu egg can make an omelet large enough for 4 to 6 adults.

Hard boiling emu eggs takes a lot of time: at least an hour. Unfortunately, because there is so much egg white in an emu egg, the finished product isn’t all that tasty: you end up with a pretty rubbery egg.

So, it’s up to you. While there are emu farms where you can buy emu eggs, I’m not sure if they’re the best choice if you’re craving a hard-boiled egg!


San Diego Zoo


Animal Diversity Web

National Geographic

Smithsonian’s National Zoo

One response to “Meet the emu”

  1. […] you read my post last week, you know a bit about emus. They’re large, flightless birds that live in Australia. And around 91 years ago, the […]

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