Birdy Spotlight: Emu

Written By Animal Care Professional Amanda Wright

What do you see in your mind’s eye when you think of a bird? Maybe you picture a majestic eagle swooping through the sky, or a delicate wren flitting soundlessly through the trees? Perhaps you see a colorful parrot, or maybe even a vulture making lazy circles high up in the air. You probably didn’t picture an animal bigger than you, with powerful legs, big stomping feet, and the inability to fly… but this is exactly the kind of bird that we are going to celebrate this month.

As the Year of the Bird begins to wind down, let’s take a few minutes to appreciate the awesome adaptations of ratites! No, we’re not talking about rodents – ratites are a group of flightless birds that include ostriches, cassowaries, rheas, kiwis, and the star of this blog: emus! The word ratite stems from a Latin word meaning “raft”, and has to do with their flat, raft-like breastbone, which is different from the breastbone of flighted birds in that it lacks a “keel”.  A keel is an extension of the breastbone to which birds’ wing muscles can attach, allowing them to fly. Ratites don’t have this important skeletal component, which makes them unable to fly, but they have adapted to life on the ground quite well!

Here’s what makes emus are so special:

  1. Emus love water and believe it or not, they can swim! Emus are also the only birds in the world to have calf muscles. They are powerful runners and in a sprint, they can reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour! These legs aren’t just for running, emus can deliver a powerful kick to defend themselves when necessary.
  2. Their feathers are just as unique as their legs! Emus have amazing feathers that look nothing like a typical bird feather. Emu feathers grow in pairs – each feather is actually split into two equally sized parts. Their feathers aren’t rigid either, they are actually quite soft and “droopy”. These feathers are black at the tips, which helps absorb sunlight and keep heat away from their bodies.
  3. Emus also make great dads! Once a female lays her large, dark green eggs, the male takes full responsibility for taking care of them. He will incubate them for as long as it takes for them to hatch (usually around 8 weeks) and during this time he will not leave them – not even to eat or drink! While incubating eggs, male emus can lose up to one third of their body weight. The only time he will stand up is to turn the eggs to make sure that they are evenly incubated.

Our very own emu, Elaine, can be seen in Wallaroo here at ZooTampa. If you’re lucky, you might even catch her taking a shower under her favorite sprinkler! Next time you visit, say hello to Elaine and see if you can recognize some of her adaptations in person!