MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Emus are not a common sight in southern New Jersey. But Barbara Rheault has five of the lanky, ostrich-like birds in her science classroom at Mullica Township Middle School.
“They are different,” she said, as one of the chicks squirmed and nuzzled her neck. “And I can work lessons around them about fertilization and life processes.”
The project started eight years ago when George Mathis’ daughter was a student in Rheault’s class.
“He offered some emu eggs and the equipment to hatch them,” Rheault said.
The eggs are eye-catching, bright blue and hold the equivalent of a dozen chicken eggs. Rheault typically get the eggs in November or December, and they start hatching a couple of months later. Rheault can only keep them for a few weeks because they double in size every week for the first couple of months after they are born.
Mathis, owner of Twin Birch Farm in Mullica, said the emus reach their adult size of about 120 pounds in 18 months. He has eight emus on the farm but has had as many as 27. He said his wife decorates the eggs, and they eat both the eggs and the meat.
“I still sell some of the birds, but I figured let the school hatch some eggs and learn from them,” Mathis said.
Among the facts that students learned are that emus have a hook behind their leg that they use to defend themselves. They come from the ostrich family, and they cannot fly. The female lays the egg, but the male incubates it and takes care of the hatchling.
Gino Pinto, 10, said the chick’s feathers are striped because it creates a diffusion pattern that helps them hide from predators.
Although just a couple of weeks old, the chicks are fairly active. Students are not allowed to hold them, but one chick followed the students and Rheault down the hallway after class, skidding a bit on the flooring but picking up speed as it got its footing. Rheault scooped it up as it rounded a corner.
“They will start getting a little rambunctious,” Mathis said.
Rheault also participates in the New Jersey Quail Project, hatching quail eggs, and admits she had considered not doing both.
“But the students have really come to expect me to do the emus,” she said.
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