KERRY CRANNEY has raised a mob of emus on her bush block near Maclean in northern NSW after a local sugar farmer handed over eggs he collected when a nesting father fled his cane harvester.
A licensed wildlife carer, Ms Cranney hatched the eggs in an incubator and became so imprinted on the birds that, 14 months later, they still seem to regard her as their mother.
But their survival is much more than a cute animal story.
Endangered … the 11 coastal emus Kerry Cranney has raised are thought to be a 10th of the remaining population. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
The 11 young emus - including a hatchling that had been attacked by a dog - may be the hope of their kind.
''In a few weeks, half the birds will be fitted with satellite transmitters courtesy of a $20,000 Roads and Maritime Services pilot program for a study into the movement of the emus,'' Ms Cranny said.
''As to the others, I've been testing dyes that will make them identifiable by coloured wing tips. Hopefully the gay colours will help me get feedback about their movements and behaviour after release.''
The Commonwealth and NSW governments have listed the coastal emu as endangered and the young birds on the Cranney property comprise about 10 per cent of the surviving population.
The emus have become a big issue. Conservationists have attacked proposals to upgrade the Pacific Highway to eliminate accident black spots, claiming it would be a death sentence for the birds.
The issue attracted worldwide coverage, especially of a plan to build emu underpasses on the Grafton to Harwood highway along the Clarence Valley.
However, there are fears the average emu may not be intelligent enough to use the underpass routes.
Ms Cranney does not want to buy into the bird brain debate, but simply wants to help track her birds' habitat to help researchers.
The satellite tracking devices are modelled on equipment used by the Queensland parks and wildlife service in researching the movement of cassowary populations around the Bingil Bay and Mission Beach areas.
Ms Cranney started nursing kangaroos and wallabies orphaned by collisions with vehicles on her isolated block at Taloumbi between Brooms Head and Maclean more than 20 years ago, before switching to emus. Although she lives down a long dirt track, she has put out signs along the road between the two towns warning motorists to watch for emus.
Highway upgrade or not, she believes dingoes and dogs, both feral and domesticated, wreak the greatest havoc on coastal emus.
''I stopped with the kangaroos because it was too upsetting to see them die and I'm so scared for the emus,'' she said. ''I've released birds in the past after raising them from chicks and half were killed by dogs.
''People round here know I'm not a rap for dogs … locals think of me as the 'lady with the big gun', so they make sure to keep their dogs under control.''