Alas, We’ve Flipped the Bird at the Bird

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.

9 thoughts on “Alas, We’ve Flipped the Bird at the Bird

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    The big Queenslander has a white tailed rat on their tails and not a marsupial according to those of us who take an interest in stuff like that, and thank goodness the Emu can’t understand why certain blokes with a mad gaze and a beard affiliate with them for last time I was in the UK there wasn’t an Emu in sight let alone a dark one. E — Mu’s are more certain harbingers of weather than some experts aka “the Flannery family” for when their brood of hatchlings is above the norm you know that the coming season is going to be fortuitous.

  • Daffy says:

    The joys of the outback et emus. Wife and I were driving back to Broken Hill from somewhere north of the city and an emu decided to canter alongside our speeding car. Possibly doing about 60 on the dirt road. It was fun until the emu decided that right turn was the next thing to do. Right across our bow. A heart thumping bit of heavy braking averted disaster – for emu and the Daffys. Crazy bird.

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      Long ago we had a bird strike just after takeoff at Essendon that did a deal of damage so it must have been a large bird. DCA had just become interested in stuff like that so a minion interviewed us at length. One of the questions asked the type of bird so I replied with “Emu.” The interview chap told me with some seriousness that Emu’s couldn’t fly and my reply of “this one could” had him terminate the interview and wander off muttering. Prof Bruce wasn’t around back then else he could have thrown light or is it “dark” on the incident.

    • lbloveday says:

      “A heart thumping bit of heavy braking averted disaster”
      Not so a mate, riding his vintage bike with wife in the sidecar in FNQ, emu ran into them.
      Dead wife, shattered mate.

  • pmprociv says:

    Would naming a footie team, or any sports team at all, after her boost her reputation?
    BTW, the SBS “Insight” episode coming up next week features our esteemed Dark Emu author, expostulating in deep anguish just how devastated he’s been by all the racist, personal attacks on him, a First Nations elder and Enterprise Professor. Will the name(s) of his mysterious, Aboriginal ancestor(s) finally be revealed? Will it be an Oscar-worthy performance? Not to be missed . . .

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    They’re very curious too. If you see them in a paddock while driving along an isolated country road, (traffic permitting) stop your vehicle and wave something like a white handkerchief. More likely than not they’ll stroll over to the fence for a closer look.
    I was mustering sheep on horseback when the dogs took after an emu with about six chicks I guess about a few weeks old. I managed to catch a couple to save them from the dogs. Holding them against my chest was not a smart move as they expressed their gratitude by excreting a large fraction of their own weight all down my front. We burnt the shirt.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Doubting Thomas, “We burnt the shirt.”
    Would this be a classic case of “Emu’s hit?” Geoff S

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    In a layover in Sydney (back before the world went mad), my weary family was trying to sleep when a group of American tourists of retirement age came to the same seating area. Their talking made further sleep impossible; but they did give us (Americans who moved here in 1990) some amusement when we heard one woman talking about “emoos.”
    My dad quietly laughed and leaned over to say to me, “That’s a cow with wings.”

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