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Title: Settlers and the Emu
Author: Edward S Sorenson
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 2000841h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  September 2020
Most recent update: September 2020

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Settlers and the Emu


Edward S Sorenson

Published in The Land, Friday 31 January 1936, page 16


The emu, that characteristically Australian bird, forms the subject of this absorbing article, written by one who has studied the habits and eccentricities of the bird in many parts of Australia.

* * *

Though every Australian should take pride in the emu as one of the unique birds of the world, a giant that adds a picture note to the landscape, the big bird has always had a harrowing time among settlers. In some parts it has been treated as an outlaw, as in Queensland, where it was blamed for spreading the prickly pear, and in West Australia, where Lewis guns were used against the mobs that were forced by dry conditions in their usual haunts to invade the farm areas.

Despite some depredations, the emu has been a much maligned bird. In the bush it is one of the most harmless of birds and where it is not wanted, being wingless, it is easily driven away by horsemen with whips. Early coastal settlers averred that emus destroyed fences, kept down grass, and chased and picked young lambs to death, which alleged malicious habits caused them to be regarded as noxious birds.

The natural curiosity of the emu impels it to inspect every new thing it sees, and that characteristic made it a nuisance to the first lambs it saw, and added to the worries of the shepherds for a while.

* * *

Other crimes have been laid against it, perhaps with no more justice, than the charge of fence wrecking. Spreading prickly pear, for instance. If emus were in any way responsible for that it would have been more logical to have shot the persons who introduced the cactus curse than to shoot the emus for eating it when it was put in their way.

Many Northern graziers, however, hold that the emu is misjudged in this matter. Instead of spreading the pear, the bird destroys tons of seed by eating the fruit. The seeds are ground up in the powerful gizzards, and only one per cent passes through in a condition to germinate.

It has been noticed through a period of 40 years that where emus paraded up and down fences in pear country they have left no traces of pear. A squatter on the Balonne, who studied this matter, drove a stick in the ground wherever he noticed emu droppings that showed traces of pear. These places he inspected periodically, but never saw any plants grow there.

* * *

The food of the emu does not consist extensively of native fruits, nor is fruit necessarily essential to its existence. On the stony hills and open plains west of the Darling River, where fruits of any description are scarce, and at times there is little more than saltbush, I have seen emus feeding regularly in large numbers. On Myall Mundy station, between Nevertire and Nyngan, a flock of 500 was seen in 1912.

Emus have a decided penchant for quandongs, geebungs, native figs, mooli apples, prickly pear and other fruits, but they also feed on grasses, herbage, seeds and ground berries. Their staple food varies considerably in different localities.

Though strictly vegetarian in the wild state, the tame emu, when allowed to roam about station homesteads, enjoys boiled potatoes, turnips and various green vegetables, also damper, pastry, fresh meat and fish.

It will swallow pieces of soap, candles, and cigar butts. Its propensity for picking up bones, wire nails, tacks, rivets, chips of iron and lead, pieces of glass, stones and kindred indigestible morsels, has gained for the emu a world-wide notoriety. The tales that are told of it would shame a De Rougement.

It might be remarked that the hard substances mentioned are merely swallowed as an aid to digestion as ducks and other fowl swallow pebbles and shells.

Prospectors, boundary riders, and others in the back country always examine the remains of a dead emu, for bright objects attract the birds more than any other grinding material, and coins, trinkets and nuggets of gold have been found among the bones.

* * *

In some parts of the country the eggs of the emu were wantonly smashed in the nest to get rid of, or restrict, the numbers of the birds. Thousands a year were also taken for food. The big green eggs, weighing up to three pounds in weight, make delicious omelettes, and are also good for pastry. The clutch is usually 8 to 10, though 15 and 18 have been found in a nest.

At one time there was a big trade in emu eggs, the shells being suit able for carving, were in demand for ornaments. In Queensland nearly every boundary rider was a collector. One man, in 1894 sent over 1100 eggs to Sydney for the season, and got l/- for each of them.

When on their rounds, each man took an old pair of trousers with him. The eggs were packed in the legs, a piece of string being tied above each one, so that no two could knock together, till the swag looked like a string of huge sausages. The load was then easily carried around the man's shoulders or the horse's neck. At the same time camps of professional emu-eggers were common during the winter in the Riverina and other parts of New South Wales. These collectors were largely responsible for reducing the flocks in the eastern States.

The nest is merely a scanty bed of grass or herbage under a bush or tussock, or at the edge of a scrub, where the bulky form might easily be discovered if the sitting bird were caught unawares. But on the approach of a human the emu stretches its neck flat on the ground. Then the dusky grey body at a short distance resembles a knob of earth or an antbed. Under a lignum bush or among tussocks the green eggs harmonise with the general hue of the vegetatiom.

Its long neck enables the sitting bird to see for a considerable distance even in tall grass; and perhaps it will slip off and be a hundred yards from the nest when discovered.

But I have flushed it on Mitchell-grass plains when droving, the feeding cattle having apparently misled it. Drovers get many a clutch of eggs in that way, the bird rising from the nest close in front of the horsemen.

* * *

The young ones, like the chicks of the cassowary, the Cape Barren goose and the bush curlew, are marked with longitudinal stripes that make them difficult to see on a grassy plain. When danger approaches they run off with the parent, but if pursued the old bird stretches her legs for the horizon and the chicks squat down with their necks on the ground, like the dottrels and young curlews. After a while the heads are cautiously raised, and if there is nothing about to alarm them the chicks get up, but remain about there till the parent returns. The old bird sticks to them until the protective stripes disappear, when they are left to their own resources.

* * *

Though the birds have some admirable tricks to assist in their preservation, their inquisitive habit is often fatal.

I have seen a little flock drawn to within a few yards of a camp by a man tapping monotonously on a bucket with a stick. Men splitting timber in new country are never long at work before there are some emus in the vicinity, watching curiously and walking slowly about, a short distance away. The sound of the maul and axe attracts them, and they seem to say, "Let's go and see what that is."

The blacks lure them within spear throw by tying a red handkerchief to a stick and standing the stick in long grass. They also catch them by driving them into a net stretched across a narrow valley.

In a dry time in the north-west corner of N.S.W. I noticed an emu with 12 young ones come daily to the sheep troughs at Whittabranah to drink. The troughs were only 200 yards from the house.

At the excavated tanks, when they get low and silted, it was common to find emus and kangaroos bogged as well as sheep. The marsupial was much easier to pull out than the bird. In many cases you had to get the poor emu by the neck, and with the mud adhering to its feathers it was half strangled in the rescuing process.

A new book-keeper from Melbourne pulled an emu out one morning, then stooped behind it to wash his hands. The emu stood up, dealt the bookkeeper a mighty kick on the broad part of his trousers, which shot him into the mud, and dashed off for the scrub.

During a subsequent drought, among bogged cattle at Bancannia Lake, west of Broken Hill, a number of emus were found that had died standing up in the mud.

* * *

One has to go a long way back these days to see big flocks of emus. And what a beautiful picture is a flock striding gracefully through a forest or feeding on a plain. They constitute a distinctly Australian note and, in conjunction with the kangaroos, are an interesting feature of the bush.


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