The word Ratite is derived from a Latin word meaning flat or raft-like. It refers to the unique flat shape of their breastbone which has no keel bone to support the breast muscles of a winged bird. Other Ratites are the Ostrich from South Africa, the Rhea and Tinamou from South America, the Kiwi from New Zealand and the Cassowary from Australia.
Emu have basically docile and inquisitive natures. Their main defense is their speed – adults have been clocked at up to 40 miles an hour in bursts and able to maintain an average of 30 miles an hour over long distances. When cornered an emu can use its powerful legs and dinosaur-like feet to kick.
Emu have three main calls, a throbbing drum (by the female), a grunt (by the male) and a whistle (by the chick).
Aboriginal people of Australia used the emu meat and eggs as a source of food; leather for clothing; feathers for ornamentation; bones for weapons and tools; and oil for healing and skin protection against the harsh elements of the Australian bush. The emu was tightly woven into their physical sustenance, spirituality and mythology.
Emu are omnivorous. In the wild they eat fruits, flowers, insects, seeds and green vegetation; they also love caterpillars, mice and lizards. To aid in their digestive process, they will swallow stones. On our farm we feed them a specially formulated grain pellet containing numerous natural supplements to optimize health.
The emu breeding season is dictated by the shorter days of the cooler Australian outback winter. First the male scoops out a shallow next. The female lays an egg in the nest which the male will cover with leaves and grass. 3-4 days later she will lay another egg and repeat this until there are 6-8 eggs in the nest. At that time the male will sit. The female may then find a second mate to start a second clutch. A hen can be productive for 20 years, laying between 20 and 50 eggs a year.
The male will incubate the eggs for 52 to 54 days. During that time he will rotate the eggs frequently, not leaving the nest to eat or drink. When the eggs hatch, the first thing he does is eat the eggshell to jumpstart his digestive system. Then he needs to find food and water for himself. The chicks have been known to walk 20 miles during their first few days following the male. The rooster will watch over the chicks until they are grown.
On our farm the emu have stayed with their genetic breeding patterns even in our harsh New England winters. The hens begin to lay just before Christmas and continue through Easter; laying an egg regularly every 3 -4 days. We collect the eggs and store them at 45 degrees to inhibit incubation. When we have 12 -15 eggs we place them, as a batch, in a computerized incubator closely regulating temperature and humidity for 50 days. By doing this we hatch groups of chicks together.
When it's time to hatch the chicks take about 24 hours to break out of their shells. This struggle closes down the web like blood supply extending throughout the eggshell inner lining. This blood supply exchanged oxygen and carbon dioxide through the shell while the embryo grew. The struggle also assists in absorption of the yolk sack internally through the chick's belly button. During their first 4 days of life outside the shell chicks do not need to eat or drink until they have fully metabolize the yolk-sak.
Chicks are cream colored with brown and tan stripes. By the time they are six months old, they willhave lost the stripes in favor of a solid chocolate brown color. By 1 year of age they will carry the lighter vary-colored feathers of the adults.