An Emu named Emma sometimes acts like her best friend, a dog named Charlie. She fetches, plays with Charlie’s toys, sits when asked to do so, and chases things, just like Charlie does. Her human family says that she thinks she's a dog, and that nobody ever told her she wasn’t. (Emus are Australia’s largest native bird, reaching heights of well over 6 feet.)
It makes a great story to say that Emma thinks she’s a dog, but it’s hard to justify. The fact that she is exhibiting some typically canine behaviors is fascinating, and surely fun to observe, but there are many reasons why she may act in ways that are similar to dogs other than an identity crisis. Animals are capable of learning a lot from those around them.
Imprinting is a specific type of learning. It is very rapid learning that occurs in a specific phase of life, such as when birds become attached to moving objects soon after hatching and follow them around. This sort of filial imprinting typically applies to ducks and geese, though it can happen in a wide variety of animals. It ensures that the animals follow their parents around, which is critical for survival. It is very likely that Emma the emu has imprinted on Charlie since the family got her when she was so young, and that has given her ample opportunity to observe his behavior.
Observational learning is the learning that occurs by watching others perform behavior that is novel to the observer. Role models are common in many species, and Emma may be exhibiting observational learning with Charlie as her role model for behaviors such as chasing, fetching, playing with toys, etc.
The fact that Emma is performing behaviors that may be more typically seen in dogs than in emus is evidence of the fact that the environment strongly influences behavior. So Emma’s potential behavioral repertoire is quite large, but the environment that she is in (a dog is present) results in a particular set of behaviors out of all those that are possible. Emma’s behavior suggests that emus have the capability to learn those dog-like behaviors, but that in their usual social environment, they don’t develop.
So, I’m not convinced that Emma “thinks she’s a dog.” I think that she is an emu whose behavior is perhaps a bit unusual for members of her species, but clearly can develop in the right situation. I also think this is one of the coolest stories I’ve read in a long time, and I wish that I could see Emma myself. She sounds like a very hip bird!
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