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Flightless Birds


The single living species of emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) looks very much like an ostrich but without the long neck. This Australian bird stands between the ostrich A male Masai ostrich in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photograph by Michelle Burgess. Stock Market. Reproduced with permissions.
and rhea in height, about 5-6 ft (1.5-1.8 m) tall. It has a black head, long, brown body feathers, and white upper legs. Its feathers are unusual in that two soft feathers grow out of only one quill. Only the emu and the related cassowary have feathers like this. The emu's plumage droops downward, as if from a central part along its back.

Emus live on the open dry plains of central Australia. They do not stay in one place, but migrate several hundred miles as the seasons change. Emus spend the cold, dry season in the south, and then return north when the rains start. As they travel, they communicate with each other by powerful voices that boom across the plain.

An emu male chooses only one mate. She lays a dozen or more dark green eggs, but then the male sits on them for the eight-week incubation period. The chick has lengthwise white stripes on its brown body and a speckled brown and white head. The male protects the chicks until they are about six months old and can defend themselves against predators.

Until about a hundred years ago, there were several other species of emus living on the islands near Australia. However, they were killed for their meat and are now extinct. On the mainland, emus were plentiful, so plentiful that in the 1930s, Australian farmers started a campaign to exterminate emus because they competed for grass and water needed for cattle and sheep. But the birds' ability to run or blend with the surroundings, plus some ineptness on the part of the farmers, allowed the emus to survive. Even in the early 1960s, emu hunters could still collect a payment from the government for each bird they killed. However, that changed as Australians began to value the uniqueness of this bird. Now the emu and the kangaroo are featured on Australia's coat of arms.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ferroelectric materials to Form and matterFlightless Birds - Ostriches, Rheas, Emus, Cassowaries, Kiwis