This Week’s Creature Feature

Backyard birds like the familiar cardinals, bluejays, wrens and woodpeckers are an everyday sight in Chesapeake Country. But guinea fowl waddling through neighborhoods? Or a four-foot emu trekking across fields? 

Not so everyday. 

A flock of free-range guinea hens enjoyed a pastoral New Year’s weekend wandering through a Huntingtown neighborhood, foraging for insects and seeds across winter-dormant lawns. 

The harmless birds are African natives that have been widely domesticated. On Sheckells Road, the flock came, they grazed and they left. But the walkabout wasn’t all easy-come, easy-go. Obstacles were encountered.

In one yard, a rail fence stood between the flock and its destination. Fitting in between the rails wasn’t easy for the well-fed birds. It took one particularly large hen five tries. She succeeded only after a short running start gave her enough forward momentum to push through and join her fellow-journey hens on the other side. 

The flock hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

The guinea hens’ Calvert appearance raised curiosity, but it didn’t cause much of a ruckus.

Unlike the errant emu. That big bird was a news event.

Listeners to WTOP news radio on Thursday, January 6, learned about the roaming emu. Word quickly spread. The emu was spotted in fields and woodland edges south of Owings and in Huntingtown. Nobody knew where the bird came from, how long it had been loose or if it was injured. No one came forward to claim the bird.

Throughout the day, WTOP broadcasts warned citizens to call Calvert animal control if they spotted the bird. With powerful talons, an emu could be dangerous if cornered.

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) are Australian natives. The flightless birds are in the same family as ostrich and can grow five to six feet tall and weigh as much as 150 pounds. With powerful legs similar to an ostrich’s, it can run up to 40 miles an hour. Emus live about 30 years. 

Emu products include leather, meat, feathers and decorative egg shells. Emu oil is sold for cosmetic and pharmaceutical purposes. Emu meat is low-fat, with more iron, protein and vitamin C than beef, and less sodium than beef, chicken or turkey, according to the Maryland Emu Association. 

Nobody can be sure if Calvert farmer Bobby Nutwell knew all this when he spotted the emu on a private field in Owings. 

“Nutwell was legally goose hunting when he saw the bird running across his field,” says Lt. Dave McDowell of the Calvert County Sheriff’s office. “He said the bird was headed right for busy Chaneyville Road that runs next to the field. Nutwell believed the bird was going to cause a traffic accident and therefore posed a threat to public safety.” 

So Nutwell shot and killed the bird.

The public’s reaction was swift — and stern. Postings on websites and Facebook pages decried the killing, some insisting that Nutwell be arrested for poaching.

Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans says not so quick.

“We can’t see any violations,” says Evans. “It was a judgment call on his part. He’s a legal hunter.”

Back on his Owings farm, Nutwell expressed no regrets about his kill. On a televised interview he stood next to the giant bird, hung upside-down from a rafter. 

“I got him,” Nutwell said. “And we gonna eat it up.”