The emu: nature’s weatherman

By Angela Heathcote 27 February 2018
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Our spectacular emus take cues from the sky.

Have you ever seen an emu looking up at the sky? They’re not just daydreaming, but reading the weather.

According to Australia’s pre-eminent emu expert Stephen Davies, emus are visual animals with spectacular eyesight that they use to keep a close eye on clouds.

It’s likely, Stephen tells Australian Geographic, that during the long period of parental dependence —about six to seven months —broods of young emus learn to read the weather based on how their fathers (the main parental carers) react to different conditions.

“The father has learnt that thunder clouds mean rain and that rain means grass and herbage, so when he is cued to move he heads towards the biggest cloud bank he can see,” Stephen says.

“Thunderstorms and cyclones are things that attract the birds and you can actually see them change direction from day to day as the clouds change position.”

Related: Top 10 ingenious Aussie animal adaptations

Stephen learnt of emus’ weather-reading abilities while working at CSIRO from 1959 to 1984. He was asked to assist the Western Australian Government to better understand why the birds moved south-west in late winter and early spring, which caused a lot of trouble because the emus invaded crops.

“The emus will move as close as possible to the biggest cloud bank they can see and in WA this is often towards the south-west in winter, so the emu begins to move to the south-west and rapidly joins a large movement like the kind often depicted in photographs,“ Stephen says, adding that the two factors that impact emu movement are food and not wanting to be around other emus.

“The movement ceases when a good food supply is encountered and the last birds in the movement stop behind. The rest, however, are still meeting too many emus each day to stop and will pass through good feeding areas.

“Hot weather does not stop them, nor do clear skies, only an area where they can feed nearly alone.”