Sydney OutBack’s Top 12: about Emus

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Emu_3 2016

The emu Dromaius novaehollandiae is the world’s second tallest flightless bird standing at nearly 2m; the tallest is the Ostrich. Emus no longer roam Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, but their legacy endures in the Park’s ancient AboriginalEmu 2016SQ rock engravings and rock art aged between 5 – 7,000 years old. Indelibly etched into the region’s Aboriginal heritage, the oddities of this most ancient of living birds rank it among Australia’s most fascinatingly strange creatures!


Discover a few of its unique qualities with Sydney OutBack’s Top 12 quirky facts:

  1. FligEmu 2010htless birds, from the emu to the penguin, are not all related. The emu is a ratite: a flightless bird that lacks any physical ability to fly. Unlike a penguin, which is not a ratite as it still has its “flying” muscles but has “reallocated” them to efficient swimming. The ratite has no muscles to make its short wings fly – or swim – even if it wanted to. Ratites include the South American Rhea, the African Ostrich, the New Zealand Kiwi, and another Aussie, the Southern Cassowary (the emu’s closest relative)
  2. The emu can’t fly simply because its ancestors got too fat and lazy to be bothered once dinosaurs became extinct. It now lacks any capacity to do so and everything works against the possibility: its solid, heavy bones (rather than lightweight and hollow); its kneel-less breastbone void of muscular structure that is better suited to fight than flight; and itEmu Feathers 2010s feather structure that allows airflow through its double-strand quills, instead of lying flat to capitalise on Bernoulli’s Theorem for flight!
  3. While this diurnal omnivore doesn’t eat much, it does eat a bit of everything… plants, animals, rodents, caterpillars, hats, rocks… yes! It swallows small stones to grind up food in its stomach and aid digestion – an ingenious (although heavy) way to compensate for a lack of teeth. If you want to fly, you need to be as light as possible, right? An average adult emu weights around 65kg, so it’s chances of independent flight are probably as good as ours; in essence, drop it from an airplane and it’d need a parachute
  4. The emu is the only bird with calf muscles on its lower legs. This enables excellent kicking defenses (powerful strikes from legs with three 15cm long dagger-like toes/claws), exceptional sprinting (up to 50km/h), and an ability to suddenly turn tightly at full sprint (180º change) to evade predators
  5. The emu’s call resonates up to 2km away! Females call with loud booming or drumming sounds (especially during breeding season), while males grunt. Aboriginal people learn and use these calls, discerning the emu’s gender and the call’s purpose (ie. breeding or danger), to make decisions about hunting or self-protection
  6. C0cks (males) construct a nest to which the hen adds up to a dozen thick-shelled, pale green eggs over a few weeks (; but the male incubates them (simultaneously fasting for 48-52 Emu Egg_3 2016days). Breeding females may call other males to mate, too, so her eggs may not all be sired by the incubating male. The high hatch rate of eggs and high survival of the black-and-white-stripy emu chicks means dad is busy raising, feeding and protecting his brood until independent around 4-6 months
  7. Neither the emu nor kangaroo can walk backwards; but both can be good swimmers and are tasty bush tucker! So, what would you put on your national Coat of Arms if you were a water-loving Aussie who enjoys a good BBQ and has a national anthem called “Advance Australia fair”? (Australia is among 21 nations that eats its Coat of Arms!)
  8. Emus are easily distracted. They have good eyesight and hearing, and appear childlike and delightfully curious to the point of being stupid and gullible. This video shows a larrikin Aussie demonstrating an emu luring technique attributed to Aboriginal hunters This may, in some way, explain how vulnerable emus are to poaching and hunting without the protection of sustainable indigenous law. Emu populations were strong and sustainable under the traditional laws and management of Aboriginal custodians for thousands of years. Since colonisation in 1788, two of three Australian emu species have become extinct and the remaining species, which still numerable overall, has vanished from or is endangered in many regions
  9. Aboriginal custodians held great respect and care for emus, a traditional bush tucker, with cultural laws that ensured sustainable, seasonal “farming” of eggs and conditional hunting for its gamey red meat (that tastes like beef). For example, the female egg-layer is revered, so male emus were hunted; but hunting was not lawful during breeding season while males were incubating a nest
  10. At designated times in the year, Aboriginal people used the emu’s natural curiosity to briefly lure males from their nests using tricks like an emu caller* (pictured, right), which imitates the emu’s resonating call, to safely harvest a fresh, pale green eggEmuCaller 2016 or two for bush tucker. (There were laws about when an egg could be harvested. Aboriginal people recognised that a new egg’s granulated surface was pale green. During incubation, the egg turns dark green – these were not taken as
    bush tucker. If the egg never hatches or is abandoned, it will bleach white in the sun and is not safe to consume). An average emu egg is equivalent to 8-12 hens’ eggs and is regarded as softer and creamier. The hard egg shell had the capacity to be used like bowl
  11. Aboriginal people did not kill an animal for sport or food only. They used every part of the animal for bush survival. An emu’s feathers were used in textiles, body decoration and adornment, and in ceremonial tools. Its hide/leather was used as a covering, belt or binding. Its bones were shaped into tools. Even its tendons improvised for string, binding tools when it dried as a tough, rigid cord.
  12. Emus feature prominently in Aboriginal Dreaming, observed during Sydney OutBack tours at an ancient engraving site and in rock art accessible only by water in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.Engraving Emu Web Dreaming stories explain characteristics of species; such as why the gullible emu can’t fly (it was tricked by a brolga who clipped its wings) and resultant relationships between them, as well as why the Guringai people revered the bird (its connection to their creation-hero, Daramulan). Dreaming reveals how Aboriginal people explained creation, as well as their remarkable knowledge of astronomy (the motions of the sun, moon, constellations of stars and planets). Popular stories include how the sun was created when an emu egg was thrown into the sky, how the constellation of Pilades tells the story of the Seven Emu Sisters, and what to do when the Emu in the Sky** appears in the Milky Way. Aboriginal people from the Sydney region called the emu marayong, murawungor birabayin.

These facts about the emu, and more, are among the knowledge of Sydney OutBack’s local guides, who are committed to helping visitors get the most of this coastal Australian bush adventure just 45 minutes from Sydney. To learn more about Sydney OutBack’s Wilderness and Aboriginal Explorer Tour and Cruise, just click here.

Our tours are also part of Tourism Australia’s Indigenous Tourism Champions Program (ITCP), recognising that we offer a quality experience that that meets the needs and expectations of international visitors.

For more curious facts about the Emu, check out and

*watch for upcoming emu caller post.

**watch for upcoming post about “Emu in the Sky” and Aboriginal astronomy.

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