Emu’s are an ostrich type bird from Australia. They are a member of the ratite family (flightless birds such as Ostriches, Rhea, Cassowary and Kiwi) and can be around 5′ tall, weighing between 100?150 pounds when an adult.
A 6′ tall fence, which is buried below ground at least 6″ is advised. 30′ by 30′ is a minimum pen size for a mated pair during season. An 80′ x 80′ pen may be needed for some birds. The posts should be placed outside the fence fabric. We prefer a strong welded wire fabric (2″ x 4″) that will not allow the birds to stick their head through, nor allow predators inside. The posts should be outside the fabric. These birds can withstand our winters, but you must provide a dry shelter that keeps the birds out of the wind and moisture. Most birds are penned up inside, to help prevent predator problems. At least a 3-sided shed is required for any bird, which does not have to be heated for adult birds (although infrared heating may be advised for very cold weather). We advise a packed sand or dirt flooring. Do not use concrete floors, unless a rubber type mat is used. Fresh, clean water should be provided at all times. Automatic waters are convenient, but still should be checked daily. Be aware that if you use an electric water heater, properly ground the water tank and have the heater inaccessible to their pecking. These birds will peck at extension cords, objects that shine (even your eyes and jewelry), and any item that may catch their attention. You need to out-think ratites and prevent any problems. The eating of objects and metal is probably one of the most common problems that we see, sometimes referred to as “hardware”. Pick up all trash and daily observe for metal items, etc. that they can eat. Keeping up the maintenance of the buildings and fence is very important. Never approach an adult bird from the front, their kick can be very dangerous. Catching and handling these birds require certain techniques. We have a book showing these handling procedures at the clinic and/or see our ratite-handling handout.
The Feeding and other requirements for these birds are not very well known. We advise the commercial emu ratite pellets as 80+ % of their diet. The emu’s digestive system is mostly small intestine, similar to a monogastric animal. Emus and Rheas in nature eat fruits and seeds; a complete ratite food is better than a homemade diet. The ostrich’s digestive system is mostly large intestine, as their diet in nature is mostly grasses. You may supplement them with corn, apples, alfalfa pellets, horse sweet feed, greens and beets, even dog food ???? we do not advise using very much corn. We also do not advise feeding table scraps, junk food, etc. Please see our bird handout for greens that can be harmful for birds, as well as our avian poisonous plant list should you desire to feed these items. Grit is not required for birds on pellets, and these birds normally obtain sand from eating items off the ground. Birds eating too much gravel or sand can lead to impaction problems.
Sexing of the birds can be difficult. Emu’s can also be sexed by taking a blood sample. Visually sexing the birds can sometimes be done as early as 6 months of age. Once the sex of a bird has been identified, males can be leg banded on the right leg, and females on the left. The male makes a low grunting sound, while the female sounds like a bass drum (a drumming type sound). The birds mature at around 2?3 years of age. Their breeding period starts when the days become shorter, usually in late October, and will end in February. Overweight birds can have fertility and reproduction problems. Birds should be paired up at least a month or so before breeding season. Sometimes some birds are not compatible, and need to be switched to another mate ??? too much moving can cause infertility.
Eggs are laid approximately every 3 days, with usually 20?40 eggs in a season. In nature, the male mostly incubates the eggs after a couple of weeks. The eggs can be collected and kept at room temperature (55?60 degrees) for up to 7?10 days before incubating; rotate the egg daily during this dormant period. Each egg should be identified. Once you start to incubate you need to continue until the chick hatches in 45?60 days, usually around 48-52 days. (Incubation is a very specific requirement and is not covered here. Daily turning, low humidity (25%), temperature of around 98 degrees, etc.) Because of the opacity of the emu egg, candling is more difficult than with the other birds. An infrared candler is available, but usually sound and movement can help identify fertile eggs before they are placed in the hatchery.
Newly hatched, precocial chicks can be removed from the hatchery once or twice a day, and placed in a brooder at 85?90 degrees. Iodine is routinely placed on their navel after hatching. It is normal for a chick to maybe not eat for up to 2-5 days, and loose weight during this period. Older chicks help show the newborn birds how to eat the starter food. Weigh the birds periodically and record this information. Small 1/8″ screen makes a fair flooring for a brooder. Rubber type mats (non?slick) can also be used. Use a good, firm surface for the chicks; not too soft or too slick. After 2 weeks of age, the chicks can be placed in runs during the day and in the brooder at night. At this age we like to see the ability for a chick to get into an area heated to 80 degrees at all times. If the air is too stuffy or hard to breathe for you, it definitely is bad for them. Adequate ventilation is needed 24 hours a day, but not drafty either (our ratite/poultry facility handout has more specific information). A 3′ by 3′ shelter per 10 chicks is adequate. When using a heat lamp or brooder, be aware that if the birds shy away from the heat, it is too hot; should the birds be piling up, it is too cold and/or not enough heated brooder space. After a month of age the birds can be left in the runs, providing the weather is fine and they have access out of wind, rain and cold. To avoid impactions, try to get the birds onto flooring that is similar to the surface they will be on as adults. We prefer a firm packed dirt floor. A pen of 10 birds is a normal grouping size for this age, and can be kept in a 40′ x 40′ pen. After 2?3 months of age, the chicks will start to loose their stripes. By 4 months of age an adult ratite food can be fed. Until the birds are adults, feeding can be ad-lib (left out all the time). Adults require about 1# of food daily and a pen space of 200-400 square feet per bird. Identity of the birds can be used with leg bands or microchips. Microchips can be placed in the left pipping muscle, if possible, or the left side in the upper neck. If your chicks develop splayed legs, we advise prompt treatment. Crooked legs can be a result of the flooring, genetics or imbalances of protein and minerals (either too much or too little of these various nutrients).
The birds can be vaccinated after 6 weeks of age for Eastern and Western Encephalitis (equine origin, killed vaccines). Repeated vaccinations should be every 1-2 months for 3 injections, then 1-2x yearly. Our area only periodically has WEE or EEE outbreaks every 4-8 years; once a year vaccinations in the spring are adequate. In some other areas there is a parasite called Chandlerella quiscali, a worm that migrates into the brain. We do not have this parasite, and thus the monthly ivermectin treatments are not indicated. Raccoon roundworm parasites, migrating in the tissues of the ratites, can be a problem if the fencing is inadequate.
Health certificates, lab testing and veterinary inspection is required for their travel between states. Should you purchase adult birds, we may advise radiographs for “hardware” in their stomach. Signs of bird sickness are weight loss, diarrhea, droopy eyes, feather abnormalities, eyes and nose discharge, swollen joints, difficulty in breathing and a quest bird that has fluffed feathers.
If the birds are intended for food, the use of some antibiotics and their withdrawal time needs to be considered. Some antibiotics, such as chloramphenicol, enroflaxin and some sulfa drugs are prohibited for use in all animals for food. Any product not FDA approved for use in food producing animals should not be used in Emus that may eventually be used for food.
The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic