Another Emu Adventure!
It was clear, as soon as we arrived, that something had changed with Mr. Emu. When he’s sitting on eggs, he is generally in a trance-like state. He is wary but once he recognizes me (aided by the apple treats he gets) he is friendly. Yesterday he started hissing as soon as we rounded the top of the hill. It took only a moment to discern the reason for his agitation—as a little emu babe popped out from underneath him. Then another. Mr. Emu is in protection mode.
We changed the water and gave Mr. Emu an extra-generous helping of diced apples—emu candy. As soon as he’d relaxed, he stood up. He frequently does that—I think he’s showing off his eggs/babies. (Rick’s rolling his eyes as he reads this.) I’m anthropomorphizing again! Rick doesn’t put much stock in the depth or profundity of emu thinking. So, when Mr. Emu stood, he revealed four baby emus—stunned and blinking in the light. There are still three un-hatched eggs yet to go, though there are no guarantees. It was time to get busy on our plan to secure Mr. Emu’s household.
Emu adults have little to worry about in the predator department. At over five feet tall, and with a nasty kick, in this area the emus are sometimes used to protect sheep. They can (and do) easily prevail over coyotes. Some think that the emus bond to the sheep but I think it’s just more likely that they have an instinctive hatred for dingos/dogs/coyotes (well-intended adults)—anything in the predator category. Other than the occasional (but very rare) mountain lion, the area hasn’t any prey animals big enough to threaten an emu. Not so, though, for the chicks…
They are just little bitty guys, a tempting morsel for any number of our local small carnivores—hawks, coyotes… but mostly foxes. A fox is small enough to hide in our spring grasses, undetected by even a diligent emu dad. And besides, with so many chicks, dad’s attention is split and a fox could make off with a chick in a heartbeat. We have lost chicks to foxes before.
So, the plan was to install a fox-proof fence, with extra screening at the bottom (like crib-bumpers, since once an emu baby broke his neck in the fence.) This time we were going to cover our bases against all known emu baby hazards. We still had some time—Mr. Emu and his miniature charges are pretty safe in the immediate post-hatch period. A fox won’t stare down an adult emu, and at first the chicks need to stay warm underneath their daddy’s skirts.
Today was supposed to be the big fence building day. Except… I received an unrelated call from John, a former emu breeder. We addressed his concerns and then I announced that Mr. Emu had hatched four emu babies. John congratulated me/him/us and then launched into a barrage of questions—where was I keeping them, what was I feeding them, what did I plan for exercise… I stopped him. I explained that these were Mr. Emu’s babies, how he raised them was his business, and that they were where they belonged, under their dad. John was horrified. “But the foxes will get them!”
I explained that we were headed out to put up a new emu-perimeter. John was not convinced. “You don’t know—the foxes will get them. It was a real struggle for us with the baby emus. The foxes would climb fences. It’s a bad, fox year, I’ve lost several newborn lambs this spring.” John set me straight. Did I think a mere fence was going to outwit a fox? Our emus wouldn’t stand a chance—they were dinner. It was a short call after that. John would hear of no other solution but to kidnap and hand-raise. We had to “bring them in.” Anything else was just a feeding program for the foxes.
Hand raising these emus wasn’t quite what we had in mind. We have a very busy spring planned. But was hard to argue with John’s emphatic insistence. He was, after all, the local emu expert.
Baby emus require elevated temperatures for weeks after they hatch. Usually they’re warm and cozy under their dad. My house is hardly what you’d call warm (though I’m proud to say it’s cozy.) So I scrounged around for a heat lamp and scurried into town for a thermometer and a sack of ratite feed.
The feed store only had the adult emu food. The clerk said I could use it for the chicks if I supplemented with finely chopped kale and apples. I’ve done this before, you need to cut it all into teeny tiny pieces. Armed with supplies I headed home to outfit the nursery. It’s a good thing we don’t use that second bathroom. The shower stall is a perfect place to raise birds. Once we’d stabilized the temperatures (to emu temp—about 90 degrees F), we set out to steal the babies.
Mr. Emu was no more friendly, today—until—again— he got his apples. Emus are not smart (Rick’s rolling his eyes, again, at the obvious.) They can be dissuaded from the obligations of parenthood with just a handful of treats. As usual, he stood up, revealing that there are now five baby emus! One was so recently hatched, that he was wobbly and couldn’t stand very well. We quickly started with the apple barrage—distracting Mr. Emu’s attention with goodies as we deftly scooped up four of the chicks, placing them in a deep, cardboard box. Each chick squealed when grabbed and relocated to the carton. With each squeal, Mr. Emu hissed and lowered his head (a sign he may be getting ready to kick.) We decided to leave the new hatchling with his dad for another day. He was too vulnerable and his sibling chicks would literally walk all over him.
Our box now loaded with our squirming, chirping charges, we slunk back down the hill with Mr. Emu’s babies.
Well, it’s for their own good. Right? Even well armed with the specter of voracious foxes, I feel guilty stealing his family. (Even so, we’ll be back tomorrow for the straggler.) This time, we are determined to save those little emu babies.
Now, safe and warm in the shower, the emus quickly pecked down their first meal. This was a huge relief to me, because sometimes you need to teach little emus to peck and eat. It’s one of the first skills that their dad demonstrates. We were lucky that our charges got some of the fundamentals down, before we made off with them.
Stay tuned for the next thrilling episode of, Operation Emu!