Naming Emus

A.V. Walters

Understand, these are not our baby emus. We are merely foster parents, keeping bodies and souls together until they’re big enough to handle things autonomously. (Read—until they are bigger than the things that want to eat them.) They are grazing animals; over their lifetimes, most of their dietary needs will be met by mowing the lawns or fields where they’ll live. In light of that, my relentless chopping of greens and worrying over nutritional requirements is downright silly. But, I’ve failed as an emu foster parent before, and this is looking like my last chance at it, so worry I will. These five babies are in our charge, and I will do the best that I can.

More upright, more stable on their feet!

More upright, more stable on their feet!

For now, I chop up kale and apples into miniscule pieces, toss in enough emu chow (can you believe they make such a thing?) to make sure that they get their vitamins, and feed them as often as they’re interested. Then, I clean up after them. They’re a lot of work.

It’s a good thing that they’re cute—which is my version of Darwin’s Law—survival of the cutest. It applies to all baby creatures (on a relative scale—have you ever seen a baby hyena?) It probably applies to all relationships—they work as long as cute lasts. By that I don’t mean the obvious attraction to physical attributes, I mean that inner essence of the self that shines through in those moments of unguardedness—that’s cute enough for me. I see it in these little emu babes already—the first signs of personality (emuality?) peeking through.

Close up cute.

Close up cute.

They are each very different, at about two weeks old. It may be birth order—just the developmental advantage that comes with hatching five or six days before the youngest of them, but I think it’s much more than that. Some are bold and curious, others find more comfort sticking with the pack. I understand that. I was the fourth out of five (in quick succession.) It’s not that I don’t credit my parents with raising us, but I think by the time you get to four, the younger ones just follow along, doing what the others do.

We are trying not to name these emus (at least, formal names.) They are not ours, and naming is the privilege of the ultimate, emu adopter. Some will be farm emus and never will have names. (You may have noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Emu don’t have specific monikers, just enough to identify gender.) Some will be pets. I can’t say whether emus will ever answer to names—other than perhaps a call to dinner. It’s not clear to me whether emus engage in that kind of pet/keeper intimacy. Though I’m fond of them, I don’t find any demonstrable intelligence in the emu behavior I’ve observed. Much of their actions appear to be hardwired—though I’ve not given them much opportunity to show higher learning.

You see their markings are distinctive.

You see their markings are distinctive.

Still, it’s helpful to be able to identify individual emu babes and so we’ve got nicknames for them based mostly on their individual markings. As they mature, the stripes and distinctive markings will fade, as will the titles they now carry: Two Dot, the oldest and boldest; Dot Dash, just as big but less likely to investigate or venture solo; Blondie, lighter colored than the others, independent and extremely gentle; Sleepy, well, that tells you; and C3, named for the markings on the back of his head—it looks like he was labeled. C3 is the baby. He struggles to keep up with the bigger guys and then immediately afterwards, crashes into a deep sleep. He’s the one I worry about.

Of course I use ‘he’ and ‘she’ loosely here. There is no clear way to identify emu gender at this age—except by inverting them and groping around in there—and even then, only if you know what you’re doing. I’ve looked it up on the net and haven’t decided whether I’m up for that, with this passel of squealing, kicking baby chicks. There are theories about identifying emu chick’s marking patterns and likely gender. They certainly do have distinctive patterns—however, ours don’t seem to match the patterns shown in the photos on the internet. Perhaps we have a tribe of chicks with some new gender form, but I doubt it. Your mileage may vary.

Also, they say that emu personalities are largely gender based. The females are more aggressive, though I don’t think I could separate that out from the effects of birth-order development, at this stage of the game. Gender does make itself clear down the road when they reach sexual maturity. The females’ throats develop in width and they vocalize in a deep thrumming, almost drum-like sound. It’s impressive. The males, I’m afraid, just grunt, snort and occasionally whistle. (Insert your own joke here.) That’s about two years down the road—we won’t be around when these emus can tell us more about who they are. Since we’re not promoting these emus for breeding purposes, I don’t know that gender matters. It certainly doesn’t if your job is to guard sheep. Still, it’s a very basic question, and most folks want to know—is it a boy or a girl? I think that that says something more about how we relate to the animal kingdom, than anything to do with the emus. We pick names to express gender, to tell more about the critter, or the person, even before we meet.

I’m no good with names, anyway. It runs in the family. We joke that names just don’t stick in a big family. When she calls your name, by the time your mother gets to using your name, she’s usually run through most of your siblings’ names anyway. (Jim, John, no… Bob, no, Bill….) So, names don’t stick easily in my head. To make a name stick, I need a voice or a story. I rarely remember faces—at least not without a voice.  But if I get to know your voice, the name will stick. Or, if you tell me your story, I’ll usually capture the name along with it. If I’m lucky, the face will come with the voice. Once my mother came to visit as a surprise for my birthday. I came home to find her and my sister in my kitchen. I didn’t recognize either of them! Granted, I had a bad head-cold, and it’d been several years since I’d seen them, but I didn’t recognize them until they spoke. Unfortunately, before that had happened, I’d turned to my husband and said, “There are strangers in our kitchen.”

There are strangers in our kitchen.

There are strangers in our kitchen.

So giving these little birds names isn’t high on my list of priorities. It’s more important that I keep them fed and safe. It’s fun to watch their antics and to see traits revealed that will tell you about the ‘who’ of who they’ll be in their future. Maybe that’s how it was for my mother, with five little kids within six years.  It must have been a blur, like five little emus slip sliding across the tile of my kitchen floor. It makes me wonder, is there a name for that?

What's the name for that?

What’s the name for that?

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