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The Great Emu War: In which some large, flightless birds unwittingly foiled the Australian Army

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I have to admit it – that’s some real Australian behaviour going on up there. Why are the emus so attracted to his upside-down bicycling? Beats me, but maybe his upturned shoes look like comely emu heads. Which sounds kinda dumb, but don’t let those 80-pound lugs fool you – they once brought the Australian Army to its knees.

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“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world… They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.” – The Sun Herald, 5 July 1953.

In the years following World War 1, the Australian Government struggled to find things for their veterans to do upon returning home. From 1915, a ‘soldier settlement scheme’ began to be rolled out across all states, and eventually it saw around 5,030 ex-soldiers given plots of land, which they were to convert into working farms, primarily to cultivate wheat and sheep.

By September 1920, the government had purchased 90,000 hectares for the veterans, but still needed more, and started to place the remaining soldiers in some pretty marginal areas of Perth in Western Australia. This made things tough, because setting up a prosperous farm with little to no experience in a good area is no small feat, let alone in an area where the land is barely useable. And on top of that, the veterans were put under even more pressure when the Great Depression hit in 1929, causing wheat prices to plummet. The government promised subsidies for wheat, but those subsidies never came.

And then there was the issue of the tens of thousands of West Australian emus that wanted their land back. Emus had been a protected native species up until 1922, when they’d made such a nuisance of themselves on the wheat farms – flattening crops, eating them down to a stub – that they were officially reclassified as ‘vermin’. By late 1932, there were 20,000 of them wreaking havoc on the marginal wheat farms of the beleaguered veterans, and even these men, trained riflemen, who felled thousands of the mighty birds, could not put a dent in their numbers. Bounties were put on their beaks, but to no avail.

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

Look at these fearsome warriors. Credit: David Cook/flickr.com/photos/kookr

The veterans couldn’t get access to the ammunition they needed, so they called on the Australian military to take action. It was a pretty ludicrous idea – sending the army to cull 20,000 flightless bird giants – but as Murray Johnson suggests in the Journal of Australian Studies, it could have been a propaganda exercise to show that the government was doing something to support its struggling war heroes.

Led by Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, the army set out on 2 November 1932, determined to gun down a group of 50 birds in the district of Campion. They moved in formation behind the birds, and the birds answered their organised assault with inspired chaos, scattering themselves in all directions to minimise the casualties. But despite their best efforts, says Johnson, “the first blood in the bizarre ‘Emu War’ had thus been drawn by the Australian army.”

It was game. on.

Two days later, the emus had their revenge. Concealed gunners sighted 1,000 emus nearby, and waited patiently for them to make their way over. At point-blank range, says Johnson, the soldiers open fired, felling maybe 10, 12 emus. But then the machine-gun jammed. The emus scattered once again, having delivered 1,000 of their fluffy hides into the hands of the soldiers before snatching almost all of them back just as quickly. The media had a field day, quoting one of the recruits as saying:

“The emus have proved that they are not so stupid as they are usually considered to be. Each mob has its leader, always an enormous black-plumed bird standing fully six-feet high, who keeps watch while his fellows busy themselves with the wheat. At the first suspicious sign, he gives the signal, and dozens of heads stretch up out of the crop. A few birds will take fright, starting a headlong stampede for the scrub, the leader always remaining until his followers have reached safety.”

The army tried gunning them down in moving trucks, but found they couldn’t aim properly at their speedy foes. A lone victim rendered himself a nuisance all the way to the end, his corpse getting tangled up in the vehicle’s steering equipment, which caused it to veer off and destroy half a length of somebody’s fence.

“On 8 November, it was reported that Major Meredith’s party had used 2,500 rounds of ammunition – twenty-five per cent of the allotted total – to destroy 200 emus,” says Johnson. “When one New South Wales state Labor politician enquired whether ‘a medal was to be struck for those taking part in this war’, his federal counterpart in Western Australia, responded that they should rightly go to the emus who ‘have won every round so far’.”

A second campaign was mounted by Major Meredith on 13 November 1932, killing 40 emus. Two days later, barely any, but about a month later its was reported that 100 emus were being killed every week. Even so, Meredith did the maths and found that it took 10 bullets to bring down every one emu, which was a pretty dismal effort. He was recalled and – all praise our skittery warrior bird-giants – the Great Emu War had finally come to an end.

Unfortunately for our conquering heroes, the government decided to provide the ammunition that the locals needed to take care of the problem themselves, and some 57,034 emu lives were claimed over six months in 1934.

Now, the gangly bird that takes its place of pride on the Australian coat of arms with our other awkwardly-gaited native, the kangaroo, has had its status as a protected animal reinstated. The emu population around Australia is estimated to be around 600,000 to over 700,000, and nationally they’re classified as ‘of least concern’. But conservationists are working to save several wild populations at risk of local extinction due to encroaching human activity, including the western Sydney population and the Clarence Valley population in Grafton, New South Wales.

Related posts:

King of the Killer Whales: The Legend of Old Tom and the gruesome ‘Law of the Tongue’

Meet Australia’s Easter Bunny: the long-eared greater bilby

New Zealand’s little spotted kiwi birds are in more trouble than we thought

Bec Crew About the Author: Bec Crew is a Sydney-based science writer and award-winning blogger. She is the author of 'Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' (NewSouth Press). Follow on Twitter @BecCrew.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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