When I was growing up on the North West Coast of Tasmania we would drive through Emu Bay on the way to Burnie. There was also the Emu Bay Railway, but for some reason I never associated these names with the actual presence of the birds.
Recently I discovered that emus had been plentiful in Tasmania before European settlement. They were smaller in size than those in the rest of the country, and became extinct in the mid 19th century. It’s such a sad, but common story isn’t it?
And now I discover that King Island too had its own, even smaller emus, less than half the size of those on mainland Australia, and with darker plumage.
Look at the size difference between the Tassie emu bone on the right and the noticeably shorter King Island specimen.
The flightless King Island birds went extinct even earlier; soon after Europeans began to visit the Bass Strait Islands. The little emu was hunted relentlessly for food by sealers. Another factor was that land clearance and fires damaged their habitat. Oddly enough the last King Island emu died thousands of miles away, in France.
A French expedition commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte set off in 1800 with the aim of charting the ‘missing’ part of Australia and collecting natural history specimens.
Three King Island emus were taken back to France and presented to Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine for her garden of exotic animals.
When the last of the three birds died in 1822 it was preserved at the Paris Museum of Natural History. The feather being displayed below was gifted to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery by the Paris museum in 2000.
In 2021 news came that King Island resident and historian Christian Robertson had made an amazing discovery while searching for natural history treasures among the sand dunes. He recognized fragments of an emu egg, and painstakingly pieced them together. It is the only known egg from the subspecies. The photo is from ABC News.
Now here is a remarkable thing about the egg. Despite the King Island emu being so much smaller than its mainland counterpart, its egg was of a similar size This is believed to be due to the chicks being born into a hasher environment on their windswept, Bass Strait Island. They needed to be stronger, and to keep themselves warm. Poor little female bird though.
No-one l likes to believe that an animal has gone extinct; just look at the continuing efforts to locate a Tasmanian Tiger. In 1949 Edward Hallstrom, the chairman of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo Trust, claimed to own a dwarf emu, and was advertising for more. He said that his emu was the Kangaroo Island sub-species and that more were living in NSW and the south west corner of Queensland. As far as I am aware, there was no response to his plea. Well….what a surprise!
There is an amusing side story to this piece. I live in Blackheath (Blue Mountains), and at one point I was researching the dwarf emu over a working lunch in the village. I ordered my meal and then became completely absorbed in my work. The meal arrived and as I was about to take my first bite the waiter rushed up full of apologies and said; ‘ So sorry, I’ve given you the wrong plate.’ Instead of my corn fritters I had been about to eat avocado and chicken sandwiches; utterly oblivious to the error. 😍
By the way, the fritters were lovely (I think).
FOR MORE ON EMPRESS JOSEPHINE’S ZOOLOGICAL GARDEN AND THE AUSTRALIAN CONNECTION, CLICK HERE.