As one of the world’s largest and tallest birds, would it be safe to assume that an emu also has one of the longest life expectancies? Or does its large size make it more vulnerable to threats and predators, and thus more likely to die prematurely? Read our in-depth investigation into the lifespan of emus to find out more.
Emus are native only to Australia and emu populations are widespread in the wild throughout the country, where they can live for between 10 and 20 years. In captivity, an emu’s typical lifespan can reach up to 35 years, with examples of even older individuals recorded.
Emus reared in captivity are safe from opportunistic predators and have the guaranteed sources of food and large quantities of freshwater they need to survive.
In the wild, these may not always be so easy to source, and the birds are known to wander across vast distances in search of food and water, potentially becoming stressed, exhausted, and dangerously weak if they fail to find the nourishment they need.
Due to their size, speed, and often-aggressive nature, emus do not have many natural predators, and have been even known to outwit human hunters in rather dramatic fashion. Read on to learn more about the emu’s unique survival adaptations, as well as the fascinating outcome of man vs bird in the 1932 Emu War.
In the wild, emus usually live for between ten and twenty years
Emus are commonly kept and bred by farmers for their eggs, oil, meat, skin, and feathers. Others are kept in captivity in zoos and conservation parks around the world, while on some occasions, emus may even be kept as family pets.
Emus living in captivity do have a significantly longer life expectancy than those living in the wild, due to a safer, protected environment and the provision of food and water. The presence of fences to keep out wild dingoes, dogs and foxes reduces the chance of birds being attacked.
In the wild, emus live for around 10 years, although may reach up to 20 years of age. Native populations are only found in Australia, where birds roam freely, either as solitary birds or as part of larger flocks in search of food and water.
Close up of an Emu, Shark Bay, Western Australia
In captivity, the average lifespan of an emu can extend to up to 35 years. Domesticated female emus have been observed to be able to lay eggs for up to 16 years.
There are a number of factors that can affect how long an emu’s life will be. For emus living in the wild, fatalities caused by vehicle strikes when crossing roads are relatively common. Weather conditions can also play a major factor in the longevity of emus, with drought and short supply of water being a major cause for poor survival rates among young birds in particular.
Emus have adaptations that help them cope with extreme heat and extreme cold, but may struggle in prolonged periods of wet or stormy weather, due to being unable to effectively dry off their feathers, which may affect their ability to regulate their body temperatures.
An Emu family searching for water in the Australian desert during the hot season - Pinnacles Desert, Western Australia
Emu females pair up with males in December to January and remain together for three to four months. Before mating, males prepare a suitable nesting site, which is then visited by the female. Once the female has laid her eggs (usually in April to May, at the coolest point of the year), she generally plays no further part in raising her young, and leaves the male’s territory, often in search of another mate.
Male emus take sole responsibility for incubation and raising chicks. The incubation period lasts for 56 days, with between 5 and 20 eggs being brooded. During this time, the male emu does not eat or leave the nest.
On rare occasions, a female may stay to defend the male on the nest site, but this is uncommon. Emu chicks can walk within the first 24 hours of hatching, and will leave the nest at between 2 and 7 days old. Within their first week of life, they master the art of running and even swimming.
Male emus care for their chicks for the first five months, and may often take on hatchlings from other birds’ broods. By five months, chicks are fully grown, but may remain with the father for up to the first two years. then wander widely in search of food or a mate.
Emus reach breeding age between 18 months and 3 years old. After their breeding season, emus commonly migrate to different areas, regularly heading to the coast from inland regions.
Close up of an Australian Emu Chick
Adult emus do not have any natural predators. However, an opportunistic pack of dingoes or wild dogs may try their luck and pursue an individual bird, especially if they happen to cross paths with an injured, isolated bird.
In the wild, young emus may fall prey to foxes, goannas, feral cats, and even eagles. Snakes and lizards may take emu eggs from nests.
Humans can also be counted among the leading predators of emus in some parts of Australia, where wild emus may be hunted for food or killed by landowners as an agricultural pest.
One famously aged emu is Pepe, who was claimed to be 58 years of age in 2020, kept on a family farm in Valencia Creek, in the Australian state of Victoria.
Wild Emu family in the bush at Shark Bay, Francois Peron National Park
Research shows that emus can live for up to two months without solid food, although they do need a continuous supply of fresh water. The exception to this is when a male is incubating eggs. For the 56 days that the male is sitting on the nest, he does not leave the eggs unattended to eat, drink, or even defecate and survives on his stores of body fat.
Typically, an emu needs to drink between 9 and 18 liters (2.4 to 4.8 gallons) of water each day to stay hydrated, and when water is in short supply, an active emu’s health and strength can go downhill fast.
Emus are hardy birds and can withstand low temperatures using a number of adaptations. One of which is where they trap air to insulate themselves in their long feathers. They can tolerate temperatures as low as -5 degrees C (23 degrees F), and have larger adapted nasal passages that help them to breathe in colder temperatures.
Emus are able to regulate their body temperatures, both to raise and preserve their body heat. However, in wintery conditions that are wet and windy as well as extremely cold, they may suffer from frostbite. Extended periods of heavy rain can present the challenge of saturated feathers and reduce the birds’ ability to maintain a stable body temperature.
Close up portrait of an Emu
The wild emu population of Australia is an estimated 630,00 to 725,000, and is considered stable, and rated as of ‘least concern’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
However, in certain locations, for example in the New South Wales North Coast bioregion, emus are listed as critically endangered. Less than 100 emus remain in the wild in this coastal region, with the dramatic decline in numbers caused largely by habitat destruction.
Government controls were launched in Western Australia in 1932, with military troops enlisted to attempt to control the population numbers of wild emus.
The cull – dubbed the Emu War – aimed to target up to 20,000 wild emus that were decimating farmers’ wheat crops. However, the initiative ultimately failed, with the birds relying on their pace to outrun the military and evade the bullets – and only around 1000 emus in total were killed before the controls were scrapped.
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