Years ago when I was contributing to a report for a native title claim in the Pilbara, I came across this passage written by Émile Clement over a century ago:
The phrase I enjoy the most is: “[t]he Emu, being a very inquisitive bird…”. Emus certainly have a funny way of looking at you sidewise like a chook calculating the odds that you will drop part of your sandwich. As a child, my sister was about to bite into a whole tomato when an inquisitive emu approached her from behind and snatched the tomato out of her hand. She turned to see a tomato-shaped bulge travelling slowly down its neck.
When I was researching the native title report I remember asking Aboriginal men of the Pilbara about the legs-in-the-air technique. The response was something along the lines of, “That sounds like something our mob would do. We’ll give anything a go if it works”.
And apparently it does! Here is a video of bird scientist extraordinaire Yaara Aharon-Rotman applying the technique to great effect in South Australia. She was not aware of its use in the Pilbara but learned it from a local guide.
It’s kind of amazing just how far away those emus are. In reading the Clement passage, Yaara was struck by how much stealth was required to approach an emu (“making use of every shelter of stones, rocks or bushes that may offer”). Today, emus are far less shy of humans. It puts me in mind of an entry in Leichhardt’s journal (1847, p505) about how magpie geese would scatter as soon as they noticed a man place a spear in a woomera.
I wonder if today’s magpie geese still “remember” that threatening gesture.