This last Christmas I was invited to a neighborhood open house. As I mingled and met new people I overheard someone mention emus. Boy, did my eyes and ears perk up! I was extremely pleased to find someone so close to home and into emus. I introduced myself and proceeded to tell about Emu's Zine. Sheen Brenkuss is also a writer, and I was delighted when she agreed to write an article for us. She also carves eggs and the work to the right is hers.
Emu Parenting 101
We knew very little about emus when they first came into our lives. Now, almost three years later, I am still caught off guard occasionally. Emus have their little ways.
It was at a flea market in Arizona that we first encountered an enthusiast. Strolling through the booths, we stumbled upon an old couple selling Emu oil and brimming with Emu love. My husband and I, who share a love for the feathered beasties of the world, were instantly drawn to them. We chattered on at them about our desire to have an ostrich. They shook their heads and smiled.
“No, no,” they said softly. “Not an ostrich. What you want is an Emu. You want something to love and enjoy as a pet. You’ll only get that from an Emu.”
We looked at them puzzled. With broad smiles, they began to explain about emus.
The ostrich is a cantankerous, ornery critter, who would
sooner stomp you into the ground than cuddle with you.
Emus are half their size. They
are only a quarter as ornery and they will allow physical contact.
The old couple was adamant. The only flightless bird to own as a pet was an Emu. They attach to their owners and they aren’t nearly as dangerous as an ostrich. These two Emu farmers just bubbled over with praise for the big, seemingly awkward, flightless birds.
It piqued our curiosity. We began to look closer at this animal. Could it be the perfect pet?
Almost three years have passed. I can answer that question now. As the proud owner of four emus, I can give you a definite, “Yes and No.”
Young emus are adorable. They are also delicate. During the first six months after hatching, their lives hang in the balance. Though ostensibly hardy and robust, they can die very quickly. Many growers lose birds because they will eat just about anything when they are small. From our experience, they grow out of this and eventually are prissy and finicky eaters, wanting only the best. But in the beginning in the phenomenal span of one year, when they are growing from this tiny critter about the size of a man’s hand to a one hundred plus pound behemoth, they will consume everything in sight, even bits of wire. Indigestion can be a real threat.
They are also vulnerable to their own emotions.
Emus are high-strung and easily spooked.
One woman I knew took her baby emus to her son’s school for a ‘show
me’ day, and the next thing she knew they were dead.
Young emus should stay in a safe, stable environment close to the loving
wings of their father, if you truly want to ensure their survival to six months.
After six months, it takes a great deal of trauma to do them in.
If you want your flock to grow, keep the young ones safe.
The easiest way to do that is to leave them in the care of their father.
Male emus have to be the most devoted parent I have ever known. At this point, I have little doubt that they will defend their young to the death and shouldn’t be trifled with when they have young.
The ultimate patriarch, the male Emu sits on the eggs to incubate them. The female will lay anywhere from thirty to fifty eggs in a good season. As soon as the clutch is well established the male settles down to nest. Once he has perched himself atop the nest, he will not move, going into a semi-trance for the entire incubation period. A span of fifty-two days.
Actually, he does move occasionally. At least once a day, he raises from the nest and together the male and female turn the eggs. He will also rise from the nest to allow the female to lay another egg. Other than that, forget about it. He is uninterested in either food or water. Our male got off the nest once during the incubation to eat. Being a worrier, I brought him food and water, which the female promptly ate. I saw him take an occasional nibble here and there, but basically he happily starved the entire hatching process. You could visibly see him grow thinner. But, believe me, zoned out and starving, he was just as happy as a clam. Our male was a proud papa from egg number one.
Of all I have learned about these amazing birds, I think that their parenting habits are the most profound. Our male, Fibber, was rather tame. He would lay his head on my chest and allow me to stroke his neck. It made him drowsy and I loved the contact. During nesting, when he lost so much weight and became so withdrawn, I was worried sick. My baby was acting so strange. Little did I know that the young, sweet Fibber was gone, maturity had replaced him with a fierce defender of the young, a mighty warrior in the evolutionary chain, a champion of survival of the fittest. I certainly know that now and I would never think to place his head on my chest, though he will still let me touch him. Fatherhood produces profound changes on the male Emu… he becomes Mother, extraordinaire.
After the grueling incubation, where the male Emu sits like a zombie and the female eats everything in sight and patrols the perimeter of the Emu enclosure carefully watching for predators, the tiny chicks are born. They are helpless at first. Both mother and father become intensely vigilant, though the father makes sure the mother keeps a respectful distance. They are after all his kids. It’s obvious that he discounts her participation in the process. Still they continue to work together to protect their brood.
I was amazed to see them, sitting tail to tail, heads high on alert. This positioning was perfect. It gave the two a 360-degree perspective. The young nestled between them, warm and safe. They continued to do this for the entire first month, working together in harmony.
The young emus grew like weeds. Like all young, they quickly became precocious and would often venture out of their safe haven, for a second or two. Anything would startle them and they would leap into the air and rush back to the safety of the nest. Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours. The little emus grew and grew. Worried for their survival, I left them in the care of their father. Fibber was the greatest. He never took his eyes off them for even a second. Those first months, it was impossible to enter the pen. His eyes would narrow and his neck would elongate. With mighty strides he dashed toward any intruder. No one was disturbing his flock!
The female, Molly, became less and less interested in the young. After about the first six weeks, she didn’t seem to care much at all. Now, after a year, it is obvious the young mean nothing to her. That’s not the case with Fibber.
He has mellowed. He allows me in the pen, watching my every step carefully with an ever-wary eye. He even lets me pet him. I don’t approach his young. I can tell that is still taboo. They are now, one year later, gangly teenagers. He has raised confident, hardy children. One year olds, but children none-the-less. All they ever think about it food. It takes the young two years to reach first maturity. I am learning that parenting doesn’t stop at year one. Fibber is still their guardian angel and protector of the flock.
We knew so little about their habits. We know so much more, now. Still, there is a lot to learn. When Molly came into heat this season, Fibber viciously drove her away. We were totally caught unaware. Our ignorance cost us dearly. Fibber will not mate again until the young are grown and on their own. Molly was a nuisance and a distraction and he didn’t want her around. Perhaps as her season progressed she would have become a threat to her teenage children. I still don’t know and I never will. At least not with Molly. Fibber’s change of attitude toward her was so sudden and so ferocious, she didn’t survive the onslaught. Our mild mannered, sweet boy wanted her gone and made sure of it. We buried our Molly only three days after the first attack. I could only look at Fibber in horror.
As soon as she was gone, all viciousness vanished. Fibber was himself again. He happily herds his little flock of yearlings around. He keeps his ever-watchful eye alert for danger, and he lets me pet his head. It all seems surreal. It was as if she had never been.
If we ever have young Emu again, I will be sure to separate the male and female before the next mating season. It was a hard lesson to learn. Male emus are the most devoted parents I have ever experienced. When they take on the mantle of parenthood, they mean it. If you allow your male to raise his children, they will grow hardy and hale, and believe me, no one mucks with them.