Hailing as the second tallest living bird species, it's hard to overlook the significance of the Emu in Australia's vast wildlife landscape. Within this article, we address the distinguishing aspects, unique habitats, and critical conservation status of the different types of emu. We also touched on the historical Great Emu War.
Understanding this topic delivers a greater appreciation of Australia's rich biodiversity. Arm yourself with this knowledge; continue reading for an in-depth exploration of these flightless birds.
General Information about Emus
Emus are flightless birds found in various parts of Australia's diverse terrain. They are nomadic creatures and often migrate over long distances for food.
Unknown to many, they are the second tallest birds alive today, outranked only by the more well-known ostriches. They can grow up to 6.2 feet, with unique plumage insulating them against extreme temperatures.
Moreover, emu feathers look like hair and are less water-resistant than other birds. Unlike flying birds, emus have fewer bones and muscles in their three-toed feet.
Like ostrich eggs, emu eggs are big, though they look like avocados. One emu egg can weigh as much as 10 to 12 chicken eggs.
The Emu can also rattle its tail feathers to scare off predators like dingoes. Besides dingoes, adult emus are prey for wedge-tailed eagles.
Despite habitat loss and hunting, the emu population is not currently on any endangered species list. People have also farmed emus for their oil, leather, and meat. Farming them began in Western Australia in the 1970s.
Related Read: Emu Facts.
Wild emus live only in Australia. They belong to the taxonomic class Aves, within the order of Casuariiformes and genus Dromaius. The ornithologist John Latham described and named Emu and many Australian bird species in 1790.
The Australian Emu is the most widespread species, inhabiting almost every corner of mainland Australia, from coastal regions to the heart of the desert.
For instance, the subspecies Queensland Emu has carved out a niche in northeastern Australia. At the same time, the South Australian Emu makes its home on the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia.
Unfortunately, some emu have gone extinct, including the Tasmanian Emu and New South Wales Emu subspecies and the Kangaroo Island Emu, Dwarf Emu, and King Island Emu.
These birds were victims of hunting and habitat destruction. Today, all Australian states–except Tasmania–implement licensing requirements to protect wild emus.
Types of Emu Species And Subspecies
1. Australian Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)
The Australian Emu has an average height of 6.2 feet and is second only to the ostrich in height. They also have long necks and strong legs, with brown feathers that help them blend perfectly with the Australian bushland.
Regarding diet, these nomadic birds cover vast distances daily for food. They can consume various types of food, including plants, fruits, insects, and small animals.
During the mating season, emus form breeding pairs from summer to fall, when the female lays eggs. The male Emu becomes a dedicated father, guarding the nest for about eight weeks without eating, drinking, or straying away. Even after the emu chicks hatch, the male Emu protects them for about seven months.
Despite their large size and inability to fly, the Australian Emus can swim when the area is flooded or they need to cross rivers.
This large bird also has impressive vocalizations, mostly booming and grunting, originating from an inflatable throat pouch. Predominantly, the female Emu creates a sound reaching 1.2 miles used for courtship, territory announcement, and threatening rivals—meanwhile, the male primarily grunts during threats, courtship, and egg-laying periods.
Aside from the nominate subspecies for the common Australian Emu, here are five more.
2. Queensland Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae woodwardi)
The Queensland Emu is a subspecies of the Australian Emu found in northeastern Australia. It has brownish-grey plumage with a subtle blue sheen on its head and neck.
3. Rothschild's Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae rothschildi)
Rothschild’s Emu inhabits Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales. To distinguish it from its cousins, they have darker plumage.
In 1912, ornithologist Gregory M. Mathews identified three emu subspecies: the nominate subspecies, Queensland Emu, and Rothschild's Emu. However, arguments state that variations in plumage color and the species' nomadic nature suggest a single race within mainland Australia.
The only other accepted subspecies by the IOC bird list are the next three types of emu.
4. Kangaroo Island Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae baudinianus)
The Kangaroo Island emu, also known as the dwarf emu, is an extinct subspecies endemic to Kangaroo Island4, South Australia. Its prominent distinguishing feature was its smaller size.
These Kangaroo Island birds were quite common around Nepean Bay, having been first recorded in 1802, but sadly became extinct a few years later. The initial discovery of its bones sparked confusion about its taxonomic status, geographic origin, and connection to the King Island emu. Recent studies confirmed the separate origins and distinct morphologies of the Kangaroo Island and King Island emus.
Despite multiple scientific names given, the Kangaroo Island emu was largely nameless due to a lack of valid specimens from the island itself. Current understanding of this bird is based on historical observer accounts, bones, and the few remaining specimens displayed in museums.
Once thriving, the Kangaroo Island emu's extinction is attributed to hunting, with a possible contribution from habitat alteration by fire.
5. King Island Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae minor)
The King Island emu, an extinct subspecies, was endemic to King Island, located in the Bass Strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania.
Closely related to the extinct Tasmanian Emu, both species were once part of the same population until about 14,000 years ago when Tasmania and King Island separated3.
Identified as the smallest Emu, the King Island emu exhibited insular dwarfism, also donning darker plumage than the mainland emu. Its physical characteristics included black and brown feathers, blue skin on the neck, and striped chicks, resembling those from the mainland.
Having been discovered by Europeans in 1802 during early expeditions, French naturalist François Péron provided an extensive account of the bird's ecology based on an interview.
According to Péron, the usually solitary King Island emu gathered in groups during the breeding season and relied on a diet of berries, grass, and seaweed. These emus were slower runners and only swam when necessary. Preferring shaded environments, such as lagoons and shorelines, they used their claws for scratching. They also protected themselves through powerful kicks when threatened.
The origins of the extinction of the King Island emu are unknown. Péron’s interview suggests it likely stemmed from excessive hunting and fires.
6. Tasmanian Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae diemenensis)
The Tasmanian emu was an extinct subspecies endemic to Tasmania, where it became an isolated emu population in the Late Pleistocene.
Unlike the smaller populations of King Island and Kangaroo Island emus, the Tasmanian population was robust, exhibiting less impact from its isolation.
Though it shares characteristics with mainland birds, there is ongoing debate about its distinct subspecies status. Features like a whitish foreneck and throat and an unfeathered neck were occasionally also observed in some mainland birds.
Tragically, the Tasmanian emu went extinct in the wild around 1865, and the last captive lived until 1873, according to the Australian Species Profile and Threats database1.
A Summary Of The Great Emu War
The Great Emu War of 1932 stands as one of the most unusual conflicts in history. It is a testament to the resilience of the emus and the desperate measures taken in times of agricultural distress.
In the first engagement, soldiers found themselves outsmarted by these intelligent birds, breaking into small, fast-moving groups tough to target.
In the second onslaught, a few days later, the soldiers claimed 986 emu casualties from 9,860 rounds, an average of 10 rounds per Emu. An additional 2,500 supposedly perished from injuries2.
The strategic operation seemed successful but sparked global critique. Reports reached the UK, where conservationists rallied against the "extermination of the rare emu." Australian ornithologists Dominic Serventy and Hubert Whittell condemned it as an act of mass bird destruction.
These events highlight the necessity for symbiotic coexistence with animals. Subsequent solutions, such as exclusion barrier fencing, adopted from the 1930s onwards, demonstrate an effort towards a more harmonious balance between human needs and wildlife preservation.
Department of the Environment. (2024). Dromaius novaehollandiae diemenensis in Species Profile and Threats Database.
Johnson, M. (2006). ‘Feathered foes’: Soldier settlers and Western Australia’s ‘Emu War’ of 1932. Journal of Australian Studies, 30(88), 147–157.
Thomson, V. A., Mitchell, K. J., Eberhard, R., Dortch, J., Austin, J. J., & Cooper, A. (2018). Genetic diversity and drivers of dwarfism in extinct island emu populations. Biology Letters, 14(4), 20170617.
BirdLife International. (2023). Dromaius baudinianus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2023: e.T22724449A226884412.