Emus, ostriches, and other flightless birds challenge our concept of what these animals are. We think of them as being able to fly. It’s a vital factor in the diet of many species. Think of hummingbirds seemingly suspended in mid-air, getting nectar from flowers, or the appropriately named gnatcatcher taking insects on the fly. How an animal gets around makes a big difference in what it eats.
It’s the same case with emus. There’s also a good evolutionary reason for it that may go back to the time of dinosaurs. After all, for all practical purposes, birds are living dinosaurs themselves. To learn what emus eat, we have to begin with where they live and how they navigate their world.
All flightless birds live in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps due more to chance than anything else. Scientists theorize that their early ancestors lived on the Gondwana supercontinent 100 million years ago. That included today’s continents of Antarctica, India, Australia, Africa, and South America. When the supercontinent broke up, the birds landed where they live today.
Emus live on only one continent, Australia, so that will play a significant role in what they eat. You’d think that being in one place would make them vulnerable. However, that’s not the case. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), they are a species of least concern, with an estimated population of up to 725,000 birds.
Emus inhabit various environments in their native land. You’ll find them in grasslands, shrublands, and savannas. Their primary territories are the western and eastern coasts. Non-breeding populations exist in central Australia. There are also pockets of extinct birds where they used to live. Now that we know where they live, the next question is, how do they get their food?
Flightless But Not Immobile
You’d think being flightless might put Emus at a disadvantage. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re talking about Australia’s largest bird that can stand up to 6 feet tall and run over 30 mph. Not much is getting in the way of this bad boy. You may wonder why Emus don’t fly. It may surprise you to learn that at one time, an early ancestor may have flown.
Scientists theorize that birds and mammals scrambled to fill the flood of newly vacant ecological niches when the dinosaurs died off. Some animals, like Emus, may have done well finding enough to eat on the ground and gradually lost their ability to fly. Even the physical structure of flightless birds differs from those that can take to the air. They lack the keel on their chest that would anchor flight muscles.
Bear in mind that we’re also talking about a bird that can weigh over 100 pounds. It would need some darn large wings to take to the air, even if it were possible physically. That brings us to the all-important question of diet.
It turns out that emus are opportunistic generalists. In short, they’ll eat anything they can get down their gullet. That includes insects, seeds, fruits, and even small critters. There’s also a seasonality to their diet, which isn’t unexpected with any animals. Remember that the seasons in Australia are the opposite of ours.
The central portion of the country is hot and dry. The north part is a Mediterranean climate and savanna. The east coast is oceanic and subtropical. Australia also has a wet season. All these factors come into play with the emu diet. These birds love acacia seeds and will enjoy them until the monsoons arrive. Then, it’s time for the succulent new plant shoots popping up after the rains.
During the warmer months, there are grasshoppers, caterpillars, and lizards to eat. Later, their sights will turn to fruits and more seeds. Emus may also eat pebbles and gravel to help them break down their food and digest it better in their modified esophagus. The things they’re eating are what you’d find in their native habitat. They don’t live in dense forests, so you won’t find those foodstuffs in their diet.
Emus are fascinating on several scores. Their feeding habits are often a feast-or-famine type of situation. They can go for long stretches without eating. Instead, they rely on stored fat to get them through the lean times. They also don’t drink a lot of water, which seems counterintuitive since they often live in dry places. However, when they do find it, they drink a lot in one sitting.
Social Behavior and Diet
You may think that emus might be territorial because of the scarcity of things to eat and drink. While they are usually solitary animals, they are also social. They will form groups and look for food together. It probably has some value protecting them against predation from dingos, hawks, and eagles. It also helps that they are both diurnal and light sleepers.
Emus are fascinating creatures that make the most out of living in a punishing environment. They eat what they can find and take advantage of the waterhole when they spot it. They are the epitome of omnivores, taking anything from ants to bark to even dung. We could say they are survivors. After all, they have the size and speed to handle the challenges that nature sends their way.
Featured Image Credit: christels, Pixabay