Books

On Emu Pies, Riot Birds, and Roughing the Australian Outback

In her intimate new book “How to Be a Good Creature,” Sy Montgomery finds the confluence between humanity and wildness.

At age of 26, science author Sy Montgomery found herself far from the suburban parks of New Jersey where she grew up and deep in the sun-dried grasses of the Outback. For six months she'd been camping in South Australia, gathering notes on brown-nosed wombats for a biologist at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo. It was there, in the surprisingly wombat-less landscape, that she met the Emu Bee Gees, a furry, synchronized trio of ratites. 

After multiple run-ins with the six-foot birds, Montgomery decided to channel Jane Goodall's efforts with chimpanzees. She wore the same outfit every day, allowing the Emus to grow comfortable with her physical presence. Soon, she was digging through pies of Emu poop to identify food plants and keeping detailed lists of her quarry's behaviors.

It's this ritual of observation that makes Montgomery an icon in science writing. Her past works on octopuses, the Sundarbans, bird life, and river dolphins have earned her a litany of awards and a dedicated fan base. Her latest title, How to Be a Good Creature, holds true to form: It serves as a guidebook to the understanding and empathy that anchor human-animal relationships. Through 13 of her own experiences with wild and domestic creatures—Molly the Scottish terrier, Clarabelle the tarantula, the riotous Emus of the Outback, and more—Montgomery shows that curiosity and sentiment combined make the best nature adventures.

Read on for a glimpse of Montgomery's rendezvous with Emus.

Excerpted from HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2018.

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There was one big difference between my dream as a child of living in the wild woods and moving to the mallee scrub of Australia. In my childhood fantasies, I’d had my mentor with me to show me the way. But of course, Molly was long gone. She’d died peacefully as she slept, in her red canopy bed, when I was a junior in high school. Who now would lead me, a mere human, lonely, disoriented, and inexperienced, into the land of unknown animal powers?

I had no idea what I would study. So I began by assisting other people with their work—for example, taking plant samples for the grad student I was helping the first day I saw the Emus. There were usually only six researchers in camp at a time. Sometimes I helped another woman look for evidence of introduced foxes. One day, several of us were tearing down barbed-wire fences left over from when the park had been a ranch. We were cannibalizing the fence posts to mark wombat warrens for Dr. Parker’s study when I saw the three Emus again.

They arrived noiselessly at a corner of the park about five hundred yards from us. They appeared to be picking at a low, bird-nest-like clot of mistletoe in a eucalyptus tree. Again, the shock stung the top of my head, like a laser bolt. Pay attention!

We approached them with cameras and binoculars, ducking behind bushes in an attempt to hide, advancing only when we imagined they weren’t looking. But Emus are always
looking—the average bird’s eyesight is many times better than a human’s. We were within a hundred yards of them when one pulled himself up to his full height, black neck upstretched, and advanced straight toward us. At about twenty-five yards, the bold bird turned and ran. I noticed he also raised his tail and excreted a sizable watery mass. Thereafter, the three Emus ignored us and strolled off over a ridge.

I searched out the poop and found it was studded with green striated seeds. Mistletoe seeds! There and then, I knew what I would study. Are Emus important dispersers of seeds? What species do they eat? Do Emu droppings help seeds germinate better?

I spent my days roaming the Outback in search of “Emu pies.” For me, they were as precious, and potentially informative, as the discarded fuel tanks from an alien’s space ship. I’d gather them up, schlep them back to camp in bags, and try to identify the seeds I’d find. I’d then return half the seeds to the excrement from which they came and place the other half on a wet paper towel and see if one group grew better than the other.

At the close of one particularly sunny day, I paused to sit and rest on a fallen log. I was watching meat ants crawl over my boots, feeling happy and free. Now I had a scientific purpose to my wanderings.

When I looked up from the ants, I saw the Emus again, grazing. I ducked behind a bush, hoping to be able to watch them longer, unseen—but they had already seen me. One began walking straight toward me. He came within twenty-
five yards and ran, straight across my line of vision, and then stopped. The other two advanced and did the exact same thing. The three stood, as if waiting.

Was this a challenge? An invitation? A test? They must have wondered: Was I dangerous? Would I chase them? If I did, how fast could I run?

Trying to hide, I realized, was futile. I remembered that Jane Goodall, whose famous chimp studies chronicled in National Geographic made her one my childhood heroines, had come to the same conclusion. She didn’t try to steal glimpses of her study animals. Instead, she offered her presence, humbly and openly, until the chimps felt comfortable with her.

So thereafter, I dressed in exactly the same clothes every day: my father’s old green army jacket, blue jeans, red kerchief. I wanted to reassure the birds: It’s only me; I’m harmless. I reckoned they could see me long before I could see them.

After that day, I began to encounter them more often. Soon I could find them almost every day. And within a few weeks, I could follow them at fifteen feet—close enough to see their eyes clearly, mahogany irises with pupils black as holes; close enough to see the shafts of their feathers; close enough to see the veins on the leaves of the plants they ate.

I could easily tell them apart. One had a long scar on his right leg. I named him Knackered Leg. (Knackered is Australian slang I’d learned from a zookeeper. It means “messed up” and is more impolite than I then realized.) His injury might have been the reason he sat down most often of the three. Black Head seemed to be the most forward emu of the group, and took the lead most often. It was surely he who approached us straight on during my second meeting with them. Bald Throat had a whitish patch on his throat where the black feathers were sparse. He seemed skittish. When the wind would blow or a car would approach, he’d be the first to run.

I referred to the three as “he” for no anatomical reason. There is no way humans can sex live emus until someone lays an egg. But I couldn’t think of these marvelous individuals as its. I knew, though, that they were not quite adult, because they lacked the turquoise neck patches that adorn the mature birds. And they were surely siblings, having left their father’s care (the male incubates the greenish-black eggs and takes care of the up to twenty chicks who hatch) only weeks or months earlier. Like me, they were just starting to explore their world.

What do they do all day? I wondered. On one of our rare trips to Adelaide, I’d visited the university library. Nobody had published a scientific paper describing the behavior of a group of wild emus before. So, while I continued the seed germination experiments (and yes, seeds did germinate more quickly after passing through an emu’s gut), chronicling the birds’ daily lives became the new focus of my work.

I developed a checklist of behaviors: walk, run, sit, graze, browse, groom, and so on. I took inventory of what each Emu was doing at thirty-second intervals for half an hour. Then I’d switch to a narrative description for the next half-hour. Back and forth I’d go, between methods, from the moment I found them each day till the moment they outpaced me and left, which they invariably did. I never tried to run after them—it would have been pointless—but I always hated to see them go.

Even the most mundane of their activities held me riveted. Watching them sit was a major discovery. First they dropped to their “knees”—what looks like a bird’s knee is more analogous to a person’s ankle—then, to my surprise, to their chests! I hadn’t realized they had two different sitting positions. Watching them rise was equally surprising. To stand, they jerked forward, using neck and chest to propel them to a kneeling position, and then made a squatting leap to their feet.

Seeing them drink was also unexpected—so much so that I hadn’t included it as a behavior on the checklist. It was weeks before I saw them kneel to scoop up beak-fulls from a puddle in the road after a rare Outback rain. Many desert animals get all their moisture from their food and don’t drink, and I hadn’t expected to see it.

Watching them preen was also revelatory, and deeply satisfying. I loved seeing them groom their stringy brown feathers. As their beaks combed roughly through the barbules of their feathers, it recalled for me sunny, sofa-bound afternoons with my grandmother brushing my hair. I imagined how good it felt for them. I found myself sharing their pleasure in this calming, intimate act.

On gusty days when the wind would toss their feathers, they would dance, throwing their neck to the sky, splashing the air with their strong feet. I had the feeling that they did this for pure joy. They also had a sense of humor. One day I watched them approach the ranger’s dog, tied on a chain outside his house. The dog barked hysterically, but bold Black Head, head and shoulders raised high, continued approaching the straining animal head-on. Once Black Head was within twenty feet, he raised his wing stumps forward, hurled his neck upward, and leapt into the air with both feet kicking, repeating the behavior for perhaps forty seconds. Soon the other two joined him, and the dog went absolutely wild. The Emus then raced off across the dog’s line of vision for about three hundred yards, before sitting down abruptly to preen—as if to congratulate themselves on the success of their prank. I admired shy Bald Throat and injured Knackered Leg for their bravery, and realized that their leader, Black Head, must have given them great confidence to be able to tease a predator.

The three were quite aware of themselves as a group. Whenever one would stray too far from the others, he would look up, assess the situation, and run or trot to close the distance between them to twenty-five yards or so. After a month, I could sometimes get within five feet of Black Head and within ten feet of the others.

I, too, looked to Black Head for guidance. If I could catch his eye, with a glance I’d try to assess whether he was happy with me following everyone or not. In a sense, I was asking his permission to follow. And yet in another way, by acknowledging him as the leader of the group, I made him my leader too.

Sometimes, he would look me directly in the eye and hold my gaze. Though in dirty clothes, my uncombed hair matting like the fur on a stray dog, when bathed in the sight of this giant, alien flightless bird, I felt beautiful for the first time in my life.

How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, by Sy Montgomery, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pages, $18. Buy it online at Barnes & Noble.

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