Anyone who’s been stalked by an emu at their favourite Australian campground, trying to avoid having their eyes plucked out like Gloucester in King Lear, will be shocked by the antics of Emmanuel Todd Lopez.
Social media followers of ‘eco sister’ Taylor Blake on Knuckle Bump Farms in Florida have this week seen her cuddle up to her full-grown male emu Emmanuel, and then get disappointed as the bird – which can’t overcome its natural curiosity – repeatedly knocks over her camera equipment.
Emmanuel and Taylor’s farm now have more than a million social media followers and regularly garner half a million views.
“Emmanuel, No. No Emmanuel…no, don’t resort to violence – Emmanuel Todd Lopez!” Blake says, in phrases likely to enter social media vernacular (think BBC’s ‘”Walk on the wild side” on YouTube – “Alan! Alan!”).
But watching Blake cuddle and kiss her bird will challenge those who see emus as wild animals, large and ungainly, given to destroying fences and not to be trusted. The emu might be on Australia’s coat of arms, but that doesn’t bring it any respect… although Blake’s social media just might.
Would knowing more about emus help us overcome our natural wariness?
The conservation organisation Bush Heritage Australia has a helpful primer on this flightless bird, Dromaius novaehollandia, from the classification ratites, which is the oldest form of bird and includes cassowaries, ostriches and rheas.
The word ‘emu’ is not an Aboriginal name – it derives from the Arabic or Portuguese word for ‘large bird’.
They may be flightless, but can reach speeds of 50km/h with a running stride of three metres.
Little wonder their Latin genus name Dromaius is taken from the Greek word for ‘racer’.
Emus are the second largest birds in the world, after ostriches, standing up to 190 centimetres tall and weighing 55 kilograms. Their vestigial ‘winglets’, hidden under shaggy plumage, are only 20cm long.
Wild emus are only found in Australia. They’re highly nomadic and their range covers most of the mainland (a Tasmanian sub-species was exterminated by early European settlers). The two dwarf species that inhabited Kangaroo Island and King Island are also extinct.
An emu’s preferred habitat includes open plains but they’re also found in snowfields, forests and savannah woodlands. They seldom inhabit highly populated areas, rainforests or arid regions, but permanent water sources for stock have increased their numbers in more arid areas.
According to the IUCN their conservation status is of ‘least concern’. In Australia there are between 625,000 to 725,000 wild emus. Globally they have been farmed for their meat, leather and oil.
Emus are champions of paternal care. After helping to prepare a nest, the female lays five to 15 large dark-green eggs, then promptly wanders off to breed again. The nest is a platform on the ground of trampled grass 1m to 2m in diameter. The male incubates the eggs for 55 days, during which he doesn’t eat, drink or defecate, and rarely leaves the nest. He’ll lose up to 8kg in the process. After the chicks hatch he’ll stay with the young for two years, defending them and teaching them how to find food. The chicks can reproduce at 18 months; their life expectancy in the wild is five to 10 years.
Given Blake’s care you’d have to figure that Emmanuel is destined for a longer life than a wild emu bestriding the Australian bush. Not to mention the possibility of emu food manufacturers lining up to have him endorse their brand. Of course, there’s always the possibility of him being rewilded, or that he’ll choose to run away and shine with the wild cassowaries. Given that he’s currently livin’ the social media dream in South Florida, it’s hard to imagine him into either possibility