What the Emu Saw

Published: December 8th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

“Your husband does realize, doesn’t he, how very dangerous they can be?” “He does, but unfortunately he never seems to care about such things.” These statements, reported to me after-the-fact, culminated a conversation between an Australian gentleman and my wife as they watched me approach and photograph an adult emu at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve in southeastern Australia. The concerned Aussie finally turned away with a shake of his head likely thinking that the world had too many Yanks anyway, so the loss of one wouldn’t really do it any harm.

It is actually correct that, if upset, emus can, with relative ease, eviscerate a human using their long claws/nails. However, during our six years of living and working in Australia, we found them to be more pest than threat. As when one strolled brazenly up to the grill on which we were cooking steaks and before we could shoo it from the vicinity took a steak in its ostrich-like beak and swallowed it whole. My thought as I chased it away to prevent it from repeating the performance was that I hoped the sizzling hot meat scalded its throat. Glancing around while we cooked the remaining steaks, I realized that we weren’t the only victims, as indicated by the numerous Aussie swear words issuing from various parts of the park.

Emus are not the only seemingly innocuous, Australian animal that can act as a pest and danger for human populations. As we wandered through Tidbinbilla, the most abundant large animal by far was the eastern grey kangaroo. Several mobs of these unique animals could be seen grazing their way across paddocks, or lounging under the scattered trees, or looking like so many sentinels leaning back on their thick tails while scratching themselves with the claws on their front feet. Like the emus, kangaroos can be dangerous in that they use their powerful back legs to kick out at anything seen as a challenger or threat. But, though Aussie farmers would probably argue that their biggest impact is in the destruction of crops, like the whitetail deer that blankets most of North America, the major hazard associated with these creatures is their adeptness at ending up in front of speeding cars at night.

As we continued our stroll, we ran across another common component of both the Australian bush and cityscape – the Sulfur Crested Cockatoo. Their ability to use their long curved beaks to carefully unearth and swallow crop plant seedlings or, alternatively, rip the wood siding off of houses makes them few friends. But it would be a much poorer land without their obnoxiously loud squawk echoing around paddock or subdivision. We watched the various flocks graze slowly across the open areas, reminding us more of two-legged sheep than anything else.

Though the Aussie animals, as usual, were captivating, they would have seemed out of place without the backdrop of the gum (eucalyptus) trees. With blindingly white or grey-splotched trunks and branches, they stood out against the brown, green and ochre landscape. To both touch and sight, they appear sculpted. To the sense of smell, they carry the aroma of healing and cleansing. I have spent hours on end with my back leaning against these native Aussies, book in lap, occasionally glancing up to see what might be passing before me. I did not have the time to repeat this interlude at the moment, but as I gazed passed the kangaroos, emus, cockatoos and gum trees at the hills known as the Australian Alps, I hoped I would once again experience this simple pleasure.

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28th May 2012

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