Emu Nuz

A.V. Walters

I’ve avoided this blog. It’s always easy to report upon our triumphs, another thing entirely when were called to task to account for our failures. This is a tragedy of errors and assumptions. I’ve been attempting to assist the farm’s emus in their unsuccessful bid at reproduction for five years. It may well be time to accept that emus out of place with their home climate are doomed to dwindle. We’ve tried emu-assist (providing additional shelter/protection) and outright egg-napping and incubation. The long and short of it is—humans aren’t any better at it than exiled emus. In hopes that this can assist other emu-dreamers, I’ll account for our shortcomings.

When last I reported, we had failed in the incubation effort. It was not for want of equipment—we had a professional (though tired and abused) commercial incubator at our disposal. Quite the operation—I was impressed. It took us a bit of tweaking to get the thing set at the right temperature range (94-99 degrees F). The machine has a humidity sensor and sprayer—but it is designed to add moisture to the system. Here, winter is our wet season. The machine doesn’t contemplate humidity that is too high—so we did what we could and ignored that parameter. The book said 32% was optimal. We never got below 44%, so we were relieved of having to experiment with working the spray unit. Emu eggs will tolerate some temperature changes—after all Mr. Emu has to stand up, stretch his legs and turn the eggs regularly—but if they go beyond a minor period of chill, the incubating chicks will die.

Enter power failures and electricians. Winter is our stormy season. In rural areas, storms are synonymous with power interruptions. We had several—mostly short outages that made us worry. We peered in at those eggs, our eyes squinting through the glass. The eggs just look like eggs—they don’t give up their secrets. We tried several times to listen for heartbeats—but without a proper stethoscope (and with my hearing loss) the effort never revealed anything. You could almost convince yourself you’d heard something, but…. well, maybe not. Then came the human induced power interruptions. Elmer had an electrician doing work on the farm and he repeatedly shut down the power in the barns. We about had fits over it. Still, it’s not our farm and we’re not in control. Electricians don’t give up their secrets either.

Just before we went off for the holiday we performed the eggtopsy on the nine eggs we’d been tending. As much as I just wanted to bury those failed emu babes, we had to know.

Four of the nine eggs showed no development at all. Either they were not fertilized or some other problem—they’d failed right out the gate. Two were just lumpy bits, not even recognizable as birds. These are the easy failures. One was clearly a little naked emu, but not fully ready for prime time. The last two were tough. They were perfect little emu miniatures, fully feathered with beaks and feet and claws. The last three had clearly survived our egg-napping and incubation—except for the chilling and killing power interruptions. It begs the awful question of whether they’d have done better left with Mr. Emu. To add insult to injury, Elmer was peeved about the power we’d consumed in the adventure (and then, at the eleventh hour, sends the electrician to work on the system!) We were anguished about all the effort (ours and emus)—wasted by stupid human errors (and also, folks meddling with the incubator, itself!)

Soon after, on a feeding excursion, we came upon Mrs. Emu, and Mr. E was nowhere in sight. And that usually means one thing—unburdened by childcare responsibilities, they’d laid another clutch of eggs. Five of them, this time. We decided to let the emus do their own thing. But given winter’s edge (nights below freezing and bitter rains) we moved the open-sided emu shelter, we’d built last year, over the new nesting site. It was quite a production, hauling that thing from one field, over the fence, to the new location. We hoped it wouldn’t prove so traumatic to Mr. Emu that he’d up-and-abandon the eggs. When last we saw him that evening, he’d settled back down on the eggs and all seemed right.

Causation is a tough concept. Really, most situations are just TDMV. (That’s Too-Damn-Many-Variables—a phrase I’ve coined that is far more useful and descriptive than I’d like to admit. It acknowledges that frustrating reality that sometimes, we never really get to know, for sure.) Just before our departure on a last minute, out of town trip, we visited Mr. Emu one last time. Well, there he was, prancing around the pasture with the Mrs. Our hearts sank. There it was. We were left to wonder—had our hopeful (and well-intended) intervention spooked him and spoiled the mood? We walked over to the nest at the far end of the pasture to find five cold eggs, covered delicately with grass. I was ready to pin the responsibility squarely on our heads, except something else was amiss there. Not forty feet from the nest we found the fresh remains of a wild turkey, spread about the field. Turkeys are pretty big. This one had been ripped to shreds, and picked near-bone clean—coyotes probably, or maybe a fox. So, did we interrupt the emu family or did Mr. Emu, witness to the carnage, decide this was not so good an idea after all? The grass covering struck me as poignant (if an emu can be so.) Mr. E had made the effort, either to keep them warm when he fled, or to “bury” his babies when he returned to them, and found them dead-cold. We shook our heads, and decided this would probably be our last involvement in emu family life. We don’t know if we’re helping or hurting, and it breaks our hearts.

On our return from the trip, we decided to go visit Mr. and Mrs. Emu. It’d been really cold and we thought surely they’d like some apples. Coming up the hill we saw the Mrs.—alone! We exchanged glances. Here we go again. Sure enough, Mr. Emu was, yet again, bedded down with another clutch of brand new eggs—seven of them this time. We did the calculations. They’ll hatch (with any luck) at the end of February. By then, there’s a good chance the cold will have broken. That’s spring in Two Rock, and perhaps a survivable time frame for a baby emu or two. We’re almost afraid to be hopeful. But this time, it’s Mr. Emu’s turn. Our only involvement is to bring him the occasional apple and some emu-kibble, to get him through some of these cold nights. Otherwise, we’re backing away to let nature have her shot at it. We’re humble enough, now, to know that it’s not our show.