Measuring 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall and weighing more than 45 kg (100 pounds), the emu is comfortably the second largest bird in the world, next to none other than the colossal ostrich.
Living solely in Australia, there are just one extant (living) species of emu - that species is divided into three species that inhabit northern, southeastern, and southwestern Australia. Such a large bird surely needs a substantial diet, so what do emus eat?
Emus are omnivorous foragers that spend a large portion of their lives foraging for food. The mainstay of their diet is Acacia, Casuarina and grasses of various kinds, as well as insects like crickets, cockroaches and ants. Emus consume a whole host of other insects and arthropods, including caterpillars, spiders, beetles, centipedes and millipedes. Forty-three species of plants have been recorded in their diet.
Despite their size and inability to fly, emus are far from static birds. Like the ostrich, they’re excellent long-distance runners that are capable of running at speeds of 50 km/h (30 mph). They can travel hundreds of kilometres in a day and are known to be nomadic within their range, often pursuing rainfall to locate food and water.
Read on to learn more about the feeding and foraging behaviours of these colossal flightless birds!
Emu searching for food
Emus are omnivorous, eating both plants and meat. They have reasonably high protein demands (around 15% to 20% of their diet), and because insects are rich in protein, emus consume virtually any non-poisonous insect they can catch, including cockroaches, ants, beetles, grasshoppers, flies, caterpillars and various larvae. They also consume arthropods such as spiders, centipedes and millipedes.
Emus consume a huge range of plants, but these vary both seasonally and regionally. Acacia, Casuarina and various grasses are thought to make up the majority of their plant diet. They’ve been recorded foraging some 43 species, including a wide range of seeds, fruits and shoots.
During periods of food scarcity, usually resulting from drought, emus wander hundreds of kilometres in search of rain. They may lose up to 50% of their weight whilst searching for food abundant feeding grounds and can experience starvation for weeks.
When emus eventually find food, they will typically gorge themselves for many days until they gain substantial fat reserves. Despite not having a crop where they can store excess food like other birds, emus have a specialised oesophagus to help them accommodate large quantities of food.
Emus consume rocks to help them digest foods in their gizzards, which is particularly important considering their diet often comprises hard-to-digest plant foods. Gizzards are a specialised muscular organ of the digestive system which help emus grind down foods with the assistance of stones, called gastroliths. The gizzard works somewhat like a pestle and mortar.
Emus swallow stones as large as 45 g (1.6 oz) and may have as much as 745 g (1.642 lb) in their gizzards at any one time!
Close up portrait of an Emu
Australian winters can still reach lows of 5 degrees celsius, and ground frosts are not uncommon, which makes insect life scarcer than in the summer. An emu winter diet is more plant-heavy. Emus will continually seek out warmer food abundant regions during winter, usually heading south, and their diet will shift more towards plant foods than insects or meat.
Emus do not feed consistently all throughout the year and may experience days or even weeks of starvation.
In captivity, they reportedly consume around 680 to 1kg (1.5 to 2lb) of food each day, but in the wild, this could vary hugely because emus gorge themselves as and when they can.
A pair of Emus foraging for food
In the wild, emus will probably only encounter the lowest-lying fruits like berries. Cherries, strawberries, apricots and citrus fruits of various kinds do grow in the same regions that emus inhabit, and they’ll likely forage them from the floor if otherwise inaccessible.
In captivity, emus are fed all manner of fruits, including berries, apples, citrus fruits, melons, grapes and kiwis.
Emus are omnivores that regularly consume meat as part of their diets as well as plant foods.
Emus are faster and more nimble than they look and are able to catch rodents and other small mammals as well small lizards, snakes and other reptiles. They also consume a vast range of insects and arthropods. In fact, they’ll eat any non-poisonous meat. This doesn’t mean that meat is their preference, though - emus are relatively picky and likely favour insects for their protein requirements.
Emu walking in a field in South Africa on sunny day
Emus are wary of animals that can hurt them, including snakes. They may still eat small snakes; however, this isn’t a likely occurrence.
It's common for emus to consume plenty of grass and shrubs, especially if they're the only nutritious foods around. Dry grasses are not typically favoured by emus; they tend to prefer leafy green grasses and other more juicy varieties. Emus tend to target healthy plant shoots and roots by digging under the ground - they can cause devastation to industrial crops such as wheat if left uncontrolled.
Emus don’t eat other birds and would struggle to catch them. They are also not known to consume the eggs of other birds or reptiles, though they are sometimes fed chicken eggs in captivity.
Side profile of an Emu in the wild
Feeding emus meat scraps is common when they’re kept in captivity, including chicken. Whilst their staple diet in captivity is primarily a high-protein feed, emus will eat all sorts of other foods and may develop a fondness for particular meats, fruits, seeds or other food.
Emus have a specialised organ called a gizzard, which is found in the digestive tract of all birds.
Emus, as well as other birds, don’t have teeth and must swallow their food whole, which would wreak havoc on their digestion if they did not possess a gizzard. It’s a strong, muscular organ that helps squeeze and crush hard-to-digest food.
Many birds actively swallow grit, sand and stones, which are passed to their gizzard, increasing its crushing and grinding power. It seems that birds have an innate sense of when to swallow more stones to top up their supply, as the stones wear down over time and are excreted.
Foods can pass between the stomach and the gizzard, aiding the digestion of tough and hard-to-digest foods. Emu gizzards are notably large and muscley, probably because their diet involves the consumption of many tough varieties of plants. Emus swallow stones regularly, some of which may weigh 45g or so. Their gizzards may contain as much as 745g (1.642 lb) of stones and grit at any one time.
Emu getting an easy meal by feeding in a paddock
Emus live solely in Australia, and there are just one species of emu - the rest have been hunted to extinction. Emus primarily inhabit northern, southeastern and southwestern Australia, and their diets vary with the region.
In drier, more arid environments, emus will forage what foliage they can but can go weeks without eating. Once they find a food-abundant area, emus will gorge upon everything from berries and seeds to ants, cockroaches and grasshoppers. Acacia and casuarina make up a good portion of their plant diet. They prefer green, nutritious shoots to dry grasses.
Adult emu feed formulas contain some 14-17% protein, often non-medicated poultry pellets. Diets can be enriched with everything from leafy green vegetables to fruits, seeds, grains such as oats, mealworms and dried crickets, meat scraps or any other healthy food that the emus take to. Emus are flexible eaters but can become picky if offered a wide choice of foods, so don’t be surprised if they leave some uneaten!
Australian Emu being fed in captivity
Emus are fierce adversaries and actually have a reputation for killing other predators such as snakes, bobcats, wild dogs and opossums. Their claws are beastly, and their legs are seriously strong and muscular, which, combined with their speed, makes them a challenging animal for other predators to take on.
Emus may rarely be eaten by packs of wild dogs, crocodiles and dingoes. Wedge-tailed eagles have been known to target emu chicks.
In the wild, baby emus have a diet that primarily includes insects, vegetation and seeds. This diet is dependent on what food sources are abundant and available within their habitat. In captivity, baby emus are given a speciality feed that ensures that the nutrients required for development and growth are satisfied.
A male Emu with three chicks, drinking from a pool of water
As with most other birds, Emus drink water and require a considerable amount to keep hydrated. Generally speaking, adult emus will usually consume anywhere from 9 to 18 litres of water each day. Consumption tends to be larger quantities at once instead of lots of times per day.
As emus generally live in warm climates, they require plenty of fluids to ensure they do not become dehydrated and to also aid with the processing of food.
That would depend on the emu! Emus are flexible omnivores and are physically able to eat almost any food. But, they are also known to be picky eaters at times. Some common favourites include fruits and leafy greens. Most emus prefer softer foods to hard, dry or tough grasses, even though they can digest both.
Emus require a balanced omnivorous diet which includes plenty of healthy green vegetables, grasses, shoots and seeds, as well as plenty of protein which comes in the form of insects in the wild. An overly meaty or high-fat diet is not ideal for emus, and they avoid poisonous insects and reptiles.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox