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In between world wars, Australia fought another implacable foe: Flightless birds

This emu is named Stan.
Photo: Lisa Maree Williams (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Emu War

What it’s about: In 1932 the world was in the throes of the Great Depression. The best thing you could say about the era—perhaps the only good thing—was that the horrors of WWI had been left behind, and the horrors of WWII were as yet unknown. The world was at peace, but in Western Australia, veterans who had fought the Kaiser faced another implacable enemy: emus. The large, flightless birds began to overrun farmland that had recently been given to Australian and British vets, who fought back the only way they knew how: by waging war.


Biggest controversy: The soldiers turned farmers were already having problems before the emus showed up. Veterans of the Great War had created new farmland in Western Australia, clearing land and setting up irrigation. The Australian government promised subsidies to grow wheat, but never followed through. As a result, farmers went into 1932’s harvest refusing to sell their wheat, as prices continued to fall.

Enter 20,000 emus. The birds traditionally spend breeding season inland, then migrate coastward, and were delighted to find their usual stomping ground now had more fresh water and food growing everywhere. Not only did they eat and trample crops, they left holes in fences that let rabbits get through and cause further problems. The farmers did not mess around: They went straight to the Minister Of Defence. Their first request? Machine guns.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The emus won. The tactically brilliant birds tended to scatter at the first sound of gunfire, making them hard to target. Each flock of birds had at least one member standing guard to warn the group of approaching soldiers. And as emus can run over 30 mph, a machine gun mounted on a truck was unable to catch them. Major G.P.W. Meredith of the Royal Australian Artillery, who commanded the operation, observed that even when the birds had been shot, they were still fast and maneuverable, noting that “they can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.”

The operation got lots of bad press, not because they were slaughtering birds, but because so few had actually been killed. The Australian House Of Representatives sounded a retreat in the War On Emus after just a few days. Meredith announced, “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world.”


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The peace was short-lived. Emus continued to eat and destroy crops, and then a drought hit, which not only hurt crops further, it pushed emus by the thousands into farmland, in search of food and fresh water. The Premier of Western Australia requested help from the military, and the Ministry Of Defence resumed the war. This time they were more successful (it’s not clear whether they revised their tactics or simply had better luck), at one point killing 100 emus a week. The troops were recalled after a month, and Meredith claimed 986 kills and 2,500 wounded birds. (Yes, we know those numbers don’t jibe with 100 emus a week. It’s not clear whether those are conflicting accounts from the time, or simply sloppy Wikipedia-ing.)

Also noteworthy: Australia eventually switched tactics. By year’s end, the Emu War was getting bad press in Britain, who saw it as the “extermination of the rare emu.” Although farmers requested military assistance a few more times over the years (including 1943, when one assumes the army had bigger things on its mind), they were always turned down. Farmers turned to a less lethal method, exclusion barrier fencing (which also kept out rabbits and dingoes). Which isn’t to say the birds weren’t still being killed. Australia had had a bounty system for emu removal since the 1920s, and over 50,000 bounties were claimed in six months of 1934 alone.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Emus aren’t the only animals Australia fought a losing war with. Rabbits arrived on the island with English sailors in 1788, and quickly became an ecological disaster, overgrazing to the point of causing erosion problems and driving plant species to extinction. Rabbits have even destroyed trees in significant numbers by girdling (removing a strip of bark in a ring around the trunk, which hampers the trees’ ability to transport sucrose to its roots and eventually kills the tree).

Further down the Wormhole: The Australian side in the Emu War was armed primarily with Lewis guns. These were American-designed, British-manufactured light machine guns used in WWI, still in use as late as the Korean War. The gun was small enough to be carried and used by one soldier (it was set on the ground to fire, rather than held), was mounted onto aircraft of both World Wars, and was used by the U.S. Navy. Navies are essential to protecting shipping lanes, transporting troops, and establishing supply lines during wartime. So much so that countries don’t even need to have access to the ocean to have one. We’ll look at the Navies of Landlocked Countries next week.


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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.