Flightless birds, or to give them their other, equally unflattering name, ratites, are some of the oddest of God’s creatures – improbable even. I mean, no-one really talks about swimless fish, do they? But you would think that being able to fly is almost part of the definition of a bird, if not an essential part of its job description then at least a highly desirable attribute for any avian wannabe.
So, what ever possessed a bunch (flock?) of odd-birds to trade-in the magical and much-coveted gift of flight for an eternity grounded – for it probably is an irreversible decision – is one of the great puzzles of evolution. Of course it would be no use asking the ostrich, Big Bird herself, why they did it because we all know what her response would be. When others such as ducks and seagulls are multi-skilled, taking to the water as well the ground and the air, loony ratites walked off on another path – in the case of the dodo, to extinction. Still, many of these feathery Venus de Milos have survived, flourished even, and are probably happy enough. This includes our own dear emus.
I want to say a few words in support of emus (dromaius novaehollandiae in the argot of zoologists), because one of them is the forgotten ‘other’ of the pair of bookends on our nation’s coat of arms.
She (I can only think of the emu as female, probably because of those whopping great eggs) was once on equal terms with the kangaroo in our symbology, but now is almost invisible, lost in the shadows of the glitz and hoo-hah surrounding her celebrity partner. So much so it is said that ‘emus’ even failed the spellcheck test in early versions of Microsoft Windows.
She does not deserve this cold shoulder. It is a source of national shame. She is, after all, as Australian as Vegemite and lamingtons, and should be as loved and honoured by Australians as the kiwi is by, er, Kiwis.
The emu is not our only large flightless bird, of course. But while the wily and wary cassowary lurks in the tropical rainforests of northern Queensland, this long-legged Aussie shiela is up front out there outback in numbers. Faster than a speeding bullet, she is the Cathy Freeman of the avian world. However, even though she is a common sight on the plains of Australia, regrettably she is never seen on the planes of Australia. And this is the rub.
Her image problem started when our fledgling international airline was looking around for a suitable emblem – it wouldn’t have been called a corporate logo in those days. Candidates abounded, so to speak, but they could hardly have chosen a flightless bird could they? I bet she didn’t even make the short list. So, what did they do? They chose instead an animal that would have been out-hopped even by the Wright brothers, and then stuck wings on it.
Unbelievable! What a humiliation for our Top Bird! Now the ‘flying kangaroo’ (good grief) is up there with such mythical beasts as the unicorn, the dragon, the garuda and the bunyip in modern global iconography – a sort of marsupial Superman. I just bet Ms Emu is rueing the day that one of her dopey forebears failed to renew her flying licence.
She may yet have the last laugh, however. There is a role she can play for Australia in the twenty-first century, for which she is uniquely qualified. She can be out there for us, in cyberspace, as e dot mu: Though she does not twitter, she may nevertheless catch the eye of (the somewhat anagrammatic) Elon Musk.