George Fryhofer has seen some strange creatures running through the woods in Burke County, but the 5-foot-tall, three-toed birds that have been turning up near Shell Bluff are probably the oddest.
"I had seen one of these things once before, and a friend of mine shot it," said Fryhofer, of Waynesboro, Ga. "At the time, I criticized him for doing that, but he may very well have done the right thing."
The flightless birds of Australian descent are emus, which became popular in the 1980s and 1990s as investors raised them for breeding stock. However, as the market for emu meat waned, some farmers got out of the business altogether.
Today, the powerful birds can turn up anywhere - even along Spring Branch Church Road, where Fryhofer photographed an adult bird recently as it crossed the highway in front of his hunting land.
Although the prospect of wild emus galloping through the autumn woods could make deer season a lot more entertaining, Fryhofer wonders whether the birds can reproduce in the wild - and whether they are dangerous to humans or capable of causing crop damage, as feral hogs often do.
"These, apparently, could be reproducing," Fryhofer said. "A couple hundred yards away there were some smaller ones."
Reports of wild emus are rare, but not unheard of, said Vic VanSant, a Georgia Wildlife Resources Division biologist.
"Occasionally people will call and tell us they have them running loose, but it's not something we respond to," he said. "We think of them as domestic livestock, so they aren't anything we worry about. It's like when someone's cows get loose."
VanSant doubts emus can reproduce in the wild - a sentiment echoed by Lt. Col. Jeff Weaver of the Department of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Section.
Weaver also pointed out that while the emu craze of the 1990s might have slackened, their meat is still very desirable and the animals are still considered valuable. Thus, owners of the birds likely would make every effort to recover emus that get loose.
However, recapturing a 100-pound bird that can run 40 miles per hour is easier said than done, according to Cecelia Griffith, whose family raises emus at their Misty Oaks Farm in Bibb County, Ga.
"We've had emus on our farm get loose and we have to corral them and get them back in, which is no small feat," she said. "Sometimes a neighbor will call us to say there's an emu in their yard."
Griffith thinks it is possible for emus to survive and reproduce in the wild.
"They're easily adaptable, and are very happy eating grass and crickets and pecking through specks of dirt," she said. "So they can live in the wild, lay eggs and raise young in the wild, so it is certainly possible there could be some emus just living out in the woods."
Most farmers who get out of the emu business sell or give away any surplus birds, she said. But there are isolated situations where birds are "dumped."
"It's not the best thing to do, and not common, but it's not unheard of, either," she said. "There are people who just want to get out of the emu business and they basically give up, and people have been known to just set their birds free."
Emus also have been reported on Army Corps of Engineers lands along Clarks Hill Lake, but not recently; and wildlife authorities have, in past years, been called upon to assist in resolving emu problems.
One of the most notorious emu fiascos occurred in 1998 when a Milledgeville, Ga., farmer disposed of 60 birds by releasing them into swampland along the Oconee River, where members of a hunting club hoped to hunt them like deer. It took months, but eventually the birds were rounded up or killed.
The prospect of feral emus is no laughing matter for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which has received numerous inquiries about such situations in recent years.
"We hear there are lots of them, running wild, all over the state," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "We got a lot of complaints over the years, but now it's pretty much tapered off and we don't get as many."
What should landowners do if they find unwanted emus whose owners can't bne located?
"You can make them into boots, if nothing else," Irvin said. "Or just eat them."
HUNTER EDUCATION CLASSES: Georgia's Department of Natural Resources will offer hunter education classes Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 11-12, at Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon. Classes are 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. each night and attendance is required both nights. A class for hunters who took the at-home CD-ROM course will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 18 at the same location.
Residents and non-residents born on or after January 1, 1961 must successfully complete a hunter education course prior to purchasing a season hunting license. For more information about the courses and license requirements, go to www.gohuntgeorgia.com or contact any DNR office.
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.