Ravalli Republic via Associated Press
GRANTSDALE, Mont. (AP) -- A large crack appears in the giant, emerald green egg, exposing teal and white layers beneath. A small beak pokes out, then a clawed foot.
Hours and hours of struggling follow before the egg finally breaks open and a damp, matted emu chick bursts into the blinding light of the world.
The newborn takes a few quick looks around, gauges its strange new surroundings, and collapses from exhaustion.
It's springtime, and that means it's hatching season at the Wild Rose Emu Ranch in Grantsdale. Clover Quinn and her husband Joe are endlessly busy tending to more than 60 chicks and several dozen eggs that need constant attention. They have several adult breeding pairs on the property, and the females produce a new egg every three days. The eggs must be kept in an incubator with temperature and humidity controls, and the new chicks must be fed and cleaned almost constantly.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Clover watched intently, making chirping noises to mimic the sound of an adult male, as one of the chicks emerged from its shell and flopped around for a minute.
"It's interesting what happens in the shell," she said. "When they reach a certain stage of development, their body is the exact same size as the egg, and their neck is tucked into their soft belly and their feet just fold up around them. So their head just pokes through their legs and they rub it on the inside of the shell. Their beak is serrated, so it's like a little saw from the inside.
"And then right before they do that they peck into the air sack, and as soon as they break the air sack and start to take their first breath, they have four days in which to hatch. Their body absorbs the remaining egg yolk into their belly, and that's their food for four days."
In the nursery behind their house, Clover and Joe have set up heat lamps and mirrors for the chicks. High-pitched chirping fills the room.
"We use the mirrors on each end because it's good for the chicks to use their legs as much as possible and build up their strength," Clover explained. "They see the mirror on one end, and they think 'oh hey, there's babies over there' and they go running over to check it out. Then they see babies on the other end."
The Quinns first started raising emus in the Bitterroot Valley in 1996 after friends bought some and invited them over to take a look.
"I do a lot of crossword puzzles, and all I knew about them was that they are a three-letter flightless bird from Australia," Clover said. "But I fell in love with them right away."
The Quinns sell emu meat and emu oil at the Hamilton Farmers Market, online and at retail stores all over the region. The oil has anti-inflammatory properties and is great for any skin or joint condition, such as arthritis, acne and eczema, according to Clover.
The meat is ultra-lean and is high in vitamins like B12. Quinn said she sells the meat to upscale restaurants and at local, organic-oriented grocery stores.
"There has been a movement toward healthy meat and healthy food in the past few years," she said. "The first 12 years that I sold emu meat, boy I just ended up at the end of the season giving it away practically, a dollar a pound. Then two years ago, we started selling out in four months."
Quinn said the emu steaks are fantastic in stir fry, as long as the meat isn't overcooked.
Clover is president of the Montana Emu Association and a Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce member. In 1999, she was invited to Russia to help two farms learn more about raising emus.
"They eat a lot of pork sausage over there," Quinn said. "You can still taste the grease in your mouth for hours after you eat. So they were trying to figure out a way to eat healthier meat."
Quinn also hosts dozens of school field trips every year, teaching kids in the valley about her favorite flightless bird.
Information from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.