8 Amazing Facts About Emus

Including their 1932 victory against an Australian military unit.

emu portrait against green background
Emus are large, flightless birds native to Australia.

Jörg Mildner / Getty Images

Emus are big and distinctive birds, instantly recognizable by their long necks, bluish heads, fluffy feathers, and muscular legs. They are sometimes overshadowed by ostriches, their slightly larger cousins from Africa, but they are no less interesting, entertaining, or deserving of admiration. Here are a few things you may not know about emus.

1. Emus Have Big Bodies and Tiny Wings

emu walking
Emus have tiny wings but huge, powerful legs. Albert Wright / Getty Images

Emus are endemic to Australia, where they are the largest native bird. They are the second-tallest birds living today, shorter only than Africa's two ostrich species. They can grow up to 6 feet tall (1.8 meters) measure 5 feet (1.5 meters) from bill to tail, and weigh up to 120 pounds (54 kilograms).

For such a bulky bird, however, their wings are surprisingly puny. Without the need for flight, the emu's wings have been reduced to less than 8 inches (20 centimeters), or about the size of a human hand.

2. They Are the Only Birds with Calf Muscles

What they lack in wing size emus make up for with leg power. On top of the sheer size of their legs, a few special features help boost their strength. Emus are unique among all bird species, for example, in having a gastrocnemius. This powerful muscle, located on the back of the lower leg, forms part of what's known as the calf muscle in humans.

3. They're Fast Runners, High Jumpers, and Strong Swimmers

emu running
Emus can run up to 30 mph (48 kph). John Carnemolla / Getty Images

In addition to their calf muscles, emus' feet only have three toes, which seems to improve their running ability. Their pelvic limb muscles are also particularly massive, accounting for as much of their total body mass as the flight muscles do for most flying birds.

Those unique legs can take enormous strides, enabling emus to run at speeds up to 30 mph (48 kph). Emus also have an impressive vertical leap, which can quickly carry the large birds up to 6.8 feet (2.1 meters) off the ground — all without the help of wings. And while they generally only enter the water when necessary, they are reportedly strong swimmers.

4. Males Incubate the Eggs and Raise the Chicks

male emu sitting with eggs in his nest
A male emu sits with eggs in his nest. John Carnemolla / Getty Images

Female emus compete for access to males, while males build the nest and wait to be courted. Once a pair has mated, the female lays a clutch of eggs in the male's nest over several days. Most females depart the male's territory at this point, sometimes going on to find another mate, but a few stick around to defend the male on his nest, announcing their presence with a loud, booming call.

The male incubates the eggs for 56 days, during which time he does not eat or drink. An emu father may lose a third of his body weight while incubating his eggs. He becomes aggressive once his chicks hatch, chasing away any females in his territory (including the mother) and attacking any perceived threat to his nest. He stays with the chicks for up to two years.

5. Humans Once Lost a 'War' With Emus

In 1932, a group of 20,000 emus were searching for water in Western Australia when they came upon the state's recently expanded wheat farming region. The emus began to damage swaths of wheat plus the surrounding fences, which meant rabbits and other animals could get in.

In response, on November 2, Australia deployed the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery with machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. They expected an easy slaughter. The troops quickly found a flock of about 50 emus, but the birds scattered at the first shots, reportedly "evaporating like mist." Another ambush two days later claimed about a dozen emus from a group of 1,000. Even a truck-mounted gun failed when the emus outran the truck over rough terrain.

"Elusive Emus Too Quick for Machine Guns," read a headline from The Canberra Times on November 5. Even when they were hit, many emus simply kept running. "If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world," the unit's commander said, as later reported by The Sydney Sun-Herald. "They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks."

The troops were recalled within a week, having spent 2,500 rounds to kill 50 to 200 emus. They returned days later for a more effective assault, but the "Emu War" was finally abandoned in December, after using nearly 10,000 rounds to kill fewer than 1,000 emus. There were no human casualties, but the "war" was widely seen as a victory for the outgunned emus.

There have been other attempts to shoot or poison large numbers of emus over the years, but the birds have proven resilient and resourceful. Wild emus now have a stable population of about 700,000 mature adults across Australia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists the species as "least concern."

6. They Can Be Helpful to Farmers

Emus have capitalized on the presence of people in Australia's inland, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) explains. Farmers and ranchers set up water sources the birds can exploit, which has let emus expand into habitats that were once too dry. Fences can help fend off emus, but not all farmers want to keep emus away. Some farmers see the birds as beneficial because they eat the burrs that entangle sheep wool as well as caterpillars and grasshoppers.

7. They Find Water By Following Storm Clouds

closeup of emu's head with dark storm clouds in the sky
The sight of dark clouds may help emus decide where to migrate for water. David Trood/Getty Images

The wheat-eating emus of 1932 were just doing what emus have evolved to do in arid Australia: migrate long distances for food and water. Humans had accidentally grown an oasis for them, but even without wheat, emus have adapted well to their harsh habitat. They store lots of fat when food is plentiful, providing fuel for leaner times, and also seem to have a sixth sense for finding water, sometimes trekking hundreds of miles to get it.

Emu migrations are based on rainfall, according to the SCBI, which notes they mainly rely on the sight of rain-bearing clouds, but may also use other clues like the sound of thunder or the scent of wet ground.

8. They Lie Awake in Bed Before Falling Asleep

emu lying down
Emus can sleep deeply, but also seem to rise frequently during the night. Guillaume Regrain/Getty Images

Emus may need some time to wind down before going to sleep, at least according to the 1960 report "The Sleep of the Emu" by German zoologist Klaus Immelmann, who spent 10 consecutive nights watching emus and ostriches sleep at the Frankfurt Zoological Garden.

According to Immelmann, the emus would retire at sunset, then spent up to 20 minutes squatting in bed before getting into their sleep position. They exhibited "preliminary drowsiness," Immelmann wrote, "remarkably suggestive of a late-at-night reader in a comfortable armchair." The beak began to sink as the eyelids drooped, sometimes interrupted by a convulsive backward jerk and a return to the alert squat. Once in a deep sleep, however, "the Emu seems insensible to the reception of noise or visual stimuli," Immelmann wrote.

The emu's feathers direct rain away from its body as it sleeps. Immelmann noted that a sleeping emu looked like an anthill from a distance, suggesting this trait may be an effective camouflage.

View Article Sources
  1. Patodkar, V. R., et al "Behavior Of Emu Bird (Dromaius Novaehollandiae)." Veterinary World, vol. 2, no. 11, 2009, pp. 439-440.

  2. Burton, Adrian. "Tell Me, Mate, What Were Emus Like?." Frontiers In Ecology And The Environment, vol. 11, no. 6, 2013, pp. 336-336, doi:10.1890/1540-9295-11.6.336

  3. "Emu." Smithsonian's National Zoo.

  4. Immelmann, K. "The Sleep Of The Emu." Emu - Austral Ornithology, vol. 60, no. 3, 1960, pp. 193-195, doi:10.1071/mu960193