Living Dinosaurs? Hawley author finds her Muse among local emus
The Recorder. November 8, 2014. By Diane Bronacccio.
Is this gawky, Dr. Seuss-like bird — the emu — directly related to Tyrannosaurus rex?
Author Elizabeth Thwing of Hawley takes her young readers through the fossil evidence, and it’s just one of a few hundred astonishing facts in her first book, “Amazing Amusing Emus: Yesterday’s Dinosaurs on Today’s Farm.”
Thwing’s book ($21.95) was released in August and it’s a nonfiction book filled with almost unbelievable (but real) facts like these:
∎ The 10-inch newborns take 24 hours to “break out” of their eggshells, which resemble very dark avocados. “Think of yourself stuffed inside of a basketball,” writes Thwing. “With no room to move, you can guess how a nearly born emu feels.”
∎ It’s the second largest bird in the world. It can’t fly, but it can run up to 40 mph in short spurts.
∎ The emu was once hated by farmers in its native Australia because the big bird knocked down fences, trampled crops and ate the farmers’ grains. But when those farmers found out the odd birds fascinated foreigners, they got rid of these “pests” by exporting them to zoos and to private collectors overseas, in the United States and elsewhere. But now the valued emu is Australia’s unofficial “national bird,” it’s illegal to export them.
∎ Is it pronounced “e-moo” or “e-mew”? (The Australians say “e-mew.”)
∎ In the wild, it’s dad who sits on the nest guarding the eggs and feeding the hatchlings, while mom takes off and is “free as a bird,” in Thwing’s words.
Thwing has been writing nonfiction magazine articles for children for about 20 years. But the genesis of this book began in 2007, when Thwing saw a Route 2 road-sign for Songline Emu Farm. Thwing said she was surprised to learn there were emus in western Massachusetts — and on a farm, of all places.
“That was the start of the research, that lead to an article that never got submitted,” she said. Thwing was getting ready to pitch her article on emus to “Highlights for Children” magazine, when she saw the latest issue, which happened to have an article about emus in it. Thwing realized her own research was far too extensive for a magazine article, so she began thinking about a book.
Thwing said she went to Songline Emu Farm to do research and asked them to “take a chance” on her. Thwing came up to the Gill farm during emu hatching seasons, winters, breeding seasons and many other times over the next five years, taking the photos that are included in the book.
“There was a lot of in-depth research out there,” Thwing says of information available from the Internet, but the farm — “That’s the best primary research that you can get, right at the site.”
“Most of the stuff written about emus are for little kids, and are non-factual,” she said. “They make (the emu) more of a cartoon character.”
The Songline Emu Farm is the setting for most of the photographs in this book, as Thwing follows Stanley and Geri Johnson and Dee Dee Mares through some of their routine duties. Besides giving the history of the emu, Thwing goes into great detail about how Songline Emu Farm feeds, raises and breeds the birds in captivity.
The book is intended for readers ages 11 and older, but Thwing finds adults are also reading it.
Songline Emu Farm has also posted it for sale on the Farm’s website (allaboutemu.com), believing the book will make a good Christmas present for young readers. But Dee Dee Mares says it’s gotten the attention of other emu farmers.
“What I’ve gotten so far is emu farmers and they’re giving positive (comments) on how factual the information is,” said Mares, who is president of the New England Emu Association. “(Thwing) really did her research very well. The American Emu Association is very interested in this book.”
To do the research, Mares said, Thwing came to the farm throughout all the seasons, to observe “every step of it.”
“She went through the entire year with us two or three times,” said Mares.
Songline will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. The farm, which is less than 2 acres, currently keeps 18 breeder birds on the grounds, sending most of its hatchlings to contracted farms for their “grow-out” first year — when they mature from infants to “teenagers,” in human terms.
The birds lay their eggs in winter and Mares said the farm is expecting between 200 and 300 eggs this year, with at least 100 hatchlings resulting. Mares says the female birds can lay up to 40 eggs each.
Mares said that emus all have different personalities, but that the farm selectively breeds the birds for good temperament. Also, the birds on the farm are comfortable with human contact.
“They’re as different as people,” says Mares. “All the birds are friendly here and some are just downright affectionate. They will follow you around.”
“Emus are hilarious to film,” she continued. “They like the camera. They are attracted to all glittery, shiny things.”
In her book, Thwing recounts a school group tour in which an emu plucked a sparkly headband off a girl’s head. The girl was not hurt (nor was the headband). The emu was just curious.
Ties to T-rex?
In 1861, German scientists discovered a fossil that had an unbelievable combination of bird and reptile features — wings, feathers, wishbone, teeth and a reptilian tail. The fossil showed tiny shrunken wings with a sharp, curved claw at the end. A hundred years later, John H. Ostrum, a U.S. paleontologist, dug up fossilized remains of a meat-eating dinosaur, about the size of a wolf, that walked upright on two legs but had claws at the end of shortened arms to slash its food apart. He discovered that his dinosaur find had at least 22 similarities to the earlier bird fossil and wrote an article, saying the dinosaurs were less lizard-like and more like non-flying birds.
That opinion, which was ridiculed for a time, eventually gained more plausibility with other fossil finds.
In her book, Thwing displays a three-foot wide, three-toed footprint that was discovered in 2006 in Montana. The print is believed to belong to a T-rex and it looks like a giant version of the three-toed emu’s footprint.
Also in the book is a photo of a little claw on an emu’s tiny wing, which the author suggests is a “leftover from its dinosaur days.”
E xcerpt from “Amazing Amusing Emus:”
“The Great Role Reversals or
Who’s the Boss Around Here?”
“Who’s the bashful bird? Not the female emu, especially during the mating season. When emus pick partners in warm weather … she’s the one who does the choosing. When she spies a male bird she fancies, she fluffs her neck feathers and parades around. … She inflates the large air sac on her neck and burps up a drumming or booming call that sounds like a bongo drum. Her actions seem more like a performance for the stage than a mating dance. If she’s successful, the male fluffs his feathers and follows her example. Stanley (Johnson) says he often cocks his head to one side as though looking for her approval.
“His air sac is smaller, so the sound he coughs up sounds like a pig’s grunt. The two birds walk about eyeing each other, drumming and grunting. They’re like two people who date once or twice and them must decide whether they like each other enough to continue going out.”
(Thwing goes on to write that, if the birds choose each other, they’ll remain together until the cold weather, when the female lays the eggs.)
“She lays her eggs during the coldest season of the year. In the wild, when the female is ready, the male does all the preparation for her. He digs and scratches a hollow in the ground with his long pointed toes. He tugs at grass with his feet and collects leaves in his beak and lines the hollow. This simple nest shows the female where to put the eggs.
“After she lays an egg, the male covers it with grass and leaves, to hide it. This natural insulation keeps the new egg warm, but not warm enough for the embryo inside to begin growing. Three or so days later, the female adds another egg to the nest. When about eight or nine appear in the nest, the male turns into Mr. Mom. From now on, the clutch is his sole responsibility.
“No one is sure why, but sometimes more than one female lays her eggs in that same nest. Mr. Mom doesn’t know or care which eggs are his and which belong to the outsider. He accepts them all. When this happens, Mr. Mom finds himself sitting on as many as twenty giant dark green eggs …
“He plants himself on the nest full of eggs from 52 to 56 days, using his body heat to keep them warm. He also protects the clutch from small lizards that like to eat the insides of the eggs. During this “sitting” period, Mr. Mom doesn’t eat, drink or defecate. … He rises only long enough to turn the eggs several times each day. Instinct guides him in this important job. …Turning prevents both the chick embryo and the yolk sac from settling to one side of the egg. Staying centered helps the bird inside grow with well-formed body parts.”
“Amazing Amusing Emus” is now available in local bookstores, including World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield and Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls. It’s also available on Amazon’s website, at www.createspace.com, from Songline Emu Farm or from Thwing directly, by email.