The emu is the second largest bird in the world, only being exceeded in size by the ostrich; the largest individuals can reach up to 150 to 190 cm (59 to 75 in) in height. Measured from the bill to the tail, emus range in length from 139 to 164 cm (55 to 65 in), with males averaging 148.5 cm (58.5 in) and females averaging 156.8 cm (61.7 in). Emus weigh between 18 and 60 kg (40 and 132 lb), with an average of 31.5 and 37 kg (69 and 82 lb) in males and females, respectively. Females are usually slightly larger than males and are substantially wider across the rump.
Emus are diurnal birds and spend their day foraging, preening their plumage with their beak, dust bathing and resting. They are generally gregarious birds apart from the breeding season, and while some forage, others remain vigilant to their mutual benefit. They are able to swim when necessary, although they rarely do so unless the area is flooded or they need to cross a river. Emus begin to settle down at sunset and sleep during the night. They do not sleep continuously but rouse themselves several times during the night. When falling asleep, emus first squat on their tarsi and enter a drowsy state during which they are alert enough to react to stimuli and quickly return to a fully awakened state if disturbed. As they fall into deeper sleep, their neck droops closer to the body and the eyelids begin to close. If there are no disturbances, they fall into a deeper sleep after about twenty minutes. During this phase, the body is gradually lowered until it is touching the ground with the legs folded underneath.
In the wild
Once common on the east coast of Australia, emus are now uncommon there; by contrast, the development of agriculture and the provision of water for stock in the interior of the continent have increased the range of the emu in arid regions. Emus live in various habitats across Australia both inland and near the coast. They are most common in areas of sclerophyll forest and savannah woodland, and least common in heavily populated districts and arid areas with annual precipitation of less than 600 millimetres (24 in). Emus predominately travel in pairs, and while they can form large flocks, this is an atypical social behavior that arises from the common need to move towards a new food source. Emus have been shown to travel long distances to reach abundant feeding areas. In Western Australia, emu movements follow a distinct seasonal pattern – north in summer and south in winter. On the east coast their wanderings seem to be more random and do not appear to follow a set pattern.
Emus forage in a diurnal pattern and eat a variety of native and introduced plant species. The diet depends on seasonal availability with such plants asAcacia, Casuarina and grasses being favoured. They also eat insects and other arthropods, including grasshoppers and crickets, beetles, cockroaches,ladybirds, Bogong and cotton-boll moth larvae, ants,spiders and millipedes. This provides a large part of their protein requirements. In Western Australia, food preferences have been observed in traveling emus; they eat seeds from Acacia aneura until the rains arrive, after which they move on to fresh grass shoots and caterpillars; in winter they feed on the leaves and pods of Cassia and in spring, they consume grasshoppers and the fruit of Santalum acuminatum, a sort of quandong. They are also known to feed on wheat, and any fruit or other crops that they can access, easily climbing over high fences if necessary. Emus serve as an important agent for the dispersal of large viable seeds, which contributes to floral biodiversity. One undesirable effect of this occurred in Queensland in the early twentieth century when emus fed on the fruit of prickly pears in the outback. They defecated the seeds in various places as they moved around, and this led to a series of campaigns to hunt emus and prevent the seeds of the invasive cactus being spread. The cacti were eventually controlled by an introduced moth (Cactoblastis cactorum ) whose larvae fed on the plant, one of the earliest examples of biological control.