What Is The National Bird of Australia? (And Why?)

Australia is a continent of extremes. Bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the east and the Indian Ocean on the west, this vast land has a high diversity of habitats from snow-covered peaks to tropical forests. One large flightless bird can be found roaming widely across the grasslands, scrub, and woodlands of the land down under.

Australia does not have an official national bird, but unofficially, it is widely accepted to be the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae). This impressive bird is pictured on the national coat of arms alongside another of Australia's most peculiar animals, the red kangaroo. Emus are the second largest bird in the world, and they have been an important part of Australia, both in the past and the present.

The emu has lived alongside the Australian people for thousands of years. They have been a food source, a mythological totem, and they remain important in food and manufacturing today. Read along to learn more about the emu, a uniquely Australian bird.

The unofficial national bird of Australia, the Emu

The unofficial national bird of Australia, the Emu

Why is the emu the national bird of Australia?

Australia is home to an incredible diversity of birds, including charismatic species like the laughing kookaburra and the sulphur-crested cockatoo. Nevertheless, it is the impressive emu that takes the honor as a true Australian symbol.

It is said that the emu was chosen for the Australian national coat of arms because they represent forward progress.

This can be taken quite literally because emus are said to be slow in reverse!

Emus may be a national symbol today, but their relationship with man has a rocky backstory. In fact, the Australian government declared war on these giant birds in the 1930s because they were very destructive to wheat crops in the west of the country. The military was called up in a (failed) attempt to cull the nuisance birds.

Going back further still, these birds have been important to the aboriginal Australian peoples for thousands of years. They are an important traditional food source, but they mean more than that.

These birds represented the milky way to native Australians and were also important in male initiation ceremonies. Ancient references to these beliefs still exist today in the form of amazing rock art and engravings in the Australian wilderness.

Emus are a very important part of the modern economy too. These large birds are important for tourism, but also several other sectors. Today, emus support the Australian economy by providing the following products:

  • Food - Both emu meat and eggs are popular foods in Australia and elsewhere.
  • Oil - Emu fat contains oil that is popular in the cosmetics and skincare industry.
  • Leather - Emu leather is soft and light, making it a popular choice for wallets, belts, bags, and clothing.
  • Feathers - Emu feathers are popular in the arts and crafts, clothing, and even painting industries.
Emu captured in Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia

Emu captured in Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia

When did the emu become the national bird of Australia?

Australia does not have an official national bird, but if they did, the emu would surely hold that title. These large flightless birds were first displayed on the Australian national coat of arms in 1908, and then again in the current coat of arms that was adopted in 1912.

The history of the symbolic emu and kangaroo coat of arms appears to be much older, however. A very similar coat of arms known as the Bowman flag dates back to the start of the 19th century.

A little bit about the (unofficial) national bird of Australia

Emus are the second largest birds in the world, they lay immense deep green eggs and they can run at incredible speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour.

They might have the undignified reputation of being one of the planet’s least intelligent birds, but that does not seem to have affected their ability to persist and thrive in the modern world. Read on to learn more about the fascinating emu, Australia's (unofficial) national bird.

What do emus look like?

Emus are massive flightless birds. They are tall birds with strong legs, large bodies, long necks, and very small heads. Emus are the second largest birds in the world and the largest species in Australia. These birds can weigh up to 120 pounds and stand nearly 6 feet tall and females are significantly larger than males.

They have a grizzled brown body color but the head and neck appear black and blue due to black feathers and bare blue skin. Emus do have wings, even though they cannot fly. The wings are very small, however, measuring just 8 inches or so in length.

Close up of an Emu

Close up of an Emu

Where do emus live?

Emus are endemic to Australia, which means they do not occur anywhere else, although they are popular domestic birds in many other parts of the world today, including the United States. Emus are very widely distributed across the Australian continent where they can be highly nomadic, traveling great distances in response to rainfall.

Emus can be found in a variety of habitats from woodlands to scrub and grassland. They avoid the driest areas and those densely inhabited by humans.

What do emus eat?

Emus are omnivorous and have a varied diet. They forage for insects, seeds, fruits, and other plant material on the ground. Their diet varies throughout the year and the seasons, and these nomadic birds may have to travel long distances to find water and good feeding grounds.

A male emu foraging for food along the roadside

A male emu foraging for food along the roadside

How do emus breed?

Emus pair up in the summer and lay their eggs in the fall or early winter. They are usually polyandrous, which means the females have multiple partners and do not care for the young.

The male alone digs a shallow nest and covers it with leaves and other plant material. The female will lay as many as 24 (usually 5-15) huge green eggs. He incubates the eggs alone and looks after the chicks until they are about 5 months old. Baby emus are highly developed when they hatch and are able to leave the nest and run within a week.

What sounds do emus make?

Emus make deep, booming sounds as well as grunting calls. The female usually makes the booming call, which can be heard over a mile away, although both sexes can make either call.

Are emus endangered?

Emus are classified as ‘Least Concern’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their population is considered stable and was estimated at between 630,000 and 725,000 in 2009. Emus have benefited from colonization and modern farming due to increased available surface water and protection from predators like dingos.

Male emu looking after chicks whilst they're eating

Male emu looking after chicks whilst they're eating

Australian National Bird FAQs

Is Ostrich national bird of Australia?

Emus are the national bird of Australia. Ostriches are from the same family as emus but grow much larger and can be found in Africa, not Australia.

What is the national animal of Australia?

The red kangaroo (Osphranter rufus) is the national animal of Australia. These animals are depicted alongside the emu on the Australian national coat of arms.

Australias national animal, the Red Kangaroo (Osphranter rufus)

Australias national animal, the Red Kangaroo (Osphranter rufus)

What is the average lifespan of an emu?

Emus live to about ten years of age out in the wild. They can live much longer in a captive setting, however, with individuals reaching 35 years or more.

Can an emu hurt a human?

Emus can hurt humans with their large claws and powerful legs. They are not usually aggressive towards people but should always be awarded the respect they deserve.

Can emus fly?

Emus cannot fly, although they are thought to have evolved from flying birds. They are able to travel long distances on foot, however, and can reach surprising speeds of over 30 miles per hour.

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