Egg-Napping—The Quest for Emu Survival

A.V. Walters

Emus have lived on this farm much longer than I have. I didn’t even know they were here until after I’d been here for about eighteen months. Then, I walked into an unusual scenario—After visiting my family for the holidays, my return was delayed by a Midwestern snowstorm. Because Elmer was watching my house, I gave him a call to let him know about the delay. He told me to drop by his place when I got home—the farm had Christmas surprises! Well, it certainly did—Elmer had a new puppy, he’d learned he was expecting another new grandbaby and, in a corner of his kitchen, was the strangest little bird—a baby emu.

The little guy was clearly sick. I asked Elmer where he’d got this little critter. He responded that he was a chick from the emus. Apparently, years earlier a friend had gone into (and quickly out of) the emu business, and he’d given Elmer some of the leftover emus. It turns out that ranchers here use them as guard animals for their sheep. It’s not so much that the emus like sheep, but that they really hate coyotes. So these emus have been living quietly across the road where most of the sheep are kept.

The emus on the farm have never bred successfully. Emus come from Australia, where the winter climate is more forgiving than in Two Rock. Their breeding cycle is triggered when the days start to shorten, and while that’s fine for Australia, here, our emus end up with vulnerable little (figure of speech) eggs and chicks at our coldest time of year. The chick in Elmer’s kitchen was the only survivor of the clutch–the rest all froze. So here was Elmer, in early January, with a living, but very sick little bird. I asked him what he was going to do with it.

“Hand raise it, I guess.”

“Yeah, what do you feed it?”

“Dunno, I’ve been giving it milk.”

Elmer, it’s a bird! Whatever made you think to give it milk?”

“Well, it’s a baby.”

And this from a chicken farmer! With that, I sat down in front of his computer and Googled “Baby emu feed.”

“Elmer, it says here to feed them kale and finely diced apples. And they need to be kept warm, really warm for a couple of weeks.” I was still busy peering at the screen when he handed me the box, emu baby and all.

“Here, you take him. You’re better at the computer research stuff.” (I should have seen the obvious connection, myself–computer research and raising baby emus.)

And so, I’ve been the Emu Lady ever since.

I set up at home with the first emu baby. He was pretty sick, and only lived a couple of days. But by then, I’d become the patron saint of baby emus. I did the research and we decided on a strategy of “emu assistance.” That is, trying to help the emus to raise their own.

One of our strategies was to delay breeding until later in the season, so that the babes would come at a warmer time. Unfortunately this required separating the randy couple. With sheep to move from pasture to pasture, farmhands (with good intentions) can’t seem to remember about the emus. The fence and gate protocols were a bit much–the process was like trying to chaperone teenagers. Let’s face it–emus may be dumb, but they’re faster than we are. Well, so much for that tactic.

It’s been three years now, with no luck. We’ve gone from no live young at all, to achieving success in viable chicks, only to have them succumb to coyotes, foxes, freezing cold, and just plain stupidity. (Like the emu baby who hatched and promptly hung himself on the fence of his enclosure that we put up to keep it safe! Who knew you had to baby-proof an emu pen?) So this season we had a new strategy. We were going to combine delayed breeding with a time-honored tradition—incubation. A friend of Elmer’s gave him emu incubating equipment. He’s all concerned that it’ll use too much power, but the tide is against him and we’ve fired up and tested the incubators.

So, earlier this month we decided to check on those wily birds, figuring it was about time to get them on opposite sides of the fence. Too late. When we walked up to the pasture we saw only one emu. Mrs. Emu. That’s a sure sign that Mr. Emu is off sitting on a clutch of eggs! (With emus, the male is the caretaker parent. The female is basically a nervy, promiscuous hussy.) Sure enough, we walked up the hill to the pond to find Mr. Emu happily sitting on his new clutch of nine eggs. (The photo was taken just before we grabbed the goods.) They were early this year. By weeks. Well, that’s when we knew it was time to fire up the incubator.

Today was the big day. After a series of delays—real teenagers, neck injuries, late tomato harvests and elections—we were finally ready. It was anticlimactic, really. Mr. Emu was his usual genial self. I plied him with apple treats and, while he was snacking, I reached under him and removed the eggs, one by one. Rick wrapped them in a Mylar space-blanket and towel, and we stole off with his family! When we left, he was oblivious to what had happened, and was still gobbling down the apples. (Did I mention that emus weren’t real bright?)

So, the eggs are now safely stashed in the incubator—calibrated and set. (In the other photo, you can see some of them sitting in the rack.) We numbered and weighed them. (Weight is one method of observing chick progress—during the process they lose weight as they lose water mass.) They weighed in at 20 to 23 ounces, each. Emu eggs are big. We’ll have to do some guessing about the “due date” as those sneaky emus got ahead of us. The normal egg gestation is 53 days, but who knows when they got started. Taking their eggs will likely result in a second effort by the emus and, a second clutch of eggs. We’ll try to keep our eyes open, this time. If it’s late enough, we’ll let them try it on their own. Otherwise, they’ll be more eggs bound for the incubator. Sometime around Christmas we’ll know if we succeeded with any of the emu babies, on this first batch.

But then what will we do?

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