Australia has so many things the rest of the world doesn’t. The emu is one of them. About 725,000 of these brown, flightless birds roam the Outback. The only larger bird in the world is the ostrich of Africa. Emus run up to 30 miles per hour and can go for weeks without eating. They will migrate great distances to find food; generally this means they go north in the summer, south in the winter. They travel mostly unimpeded, except for the occasional hungry dingo. Early European settlers killed emus and used their fat for lamp fuel or to stop them from being a nuisance. Except for a few species that were hunted to extinction near the Commonwealth’s European settlements, the modern-day Dromaius novaehollandiae is not endangered in the least.
Aboriginal Australians hunted and ate emu and used the remains for a variety of other purposes, including medicine, string, and clothing. In fact, the emu figures prominently in the Aboriginal creation myth, in which the sun was created by an emu’s egg being thrown into the sky. The emu is appears on Australia’s coat of arms opposite a kangaroo; both animals were chosen because they can only move forward, not backward.
Which leads to the Great Emu War of 1932
The Great Depression hit Western Australia just as hard as the rest of the world. Much like the Dust Bowl in the American Midwest, the land of Western Australia was dry and unfit for farming. Nevertheless, the government had settled many World War I veterans on marginal land outside Perth on the west coast of Australia and promised to support them in becoming wheat farmers. However, the subsidies the government promised never arrived. Wheat prices plummeted; the farmers were close to insolvent. They were angry. And those damn emus weren’t helping.
Food was scarce in the parched Outback when 20,000 migrating emus entered the area in search of something to eat in the spring of 1932. They loved the wheat, what little of it there was. They tore up the dry and pathetic fields, obliterating the fences designed to keep them out. Just ten years earlier the had been reclassified from a protected native species to vermin due to their penchant for ruining crops. The veteran soldiers-turned-farmers shot all they could, but it was a losing battle.
Their imaginations landed upon an ideal solution. Several of the veterans cornered Australia’s Minister of Defence and talked up those new fangled machine guns they’d used in the Great War. What a perfect solution for their bird problem! The minister agreed and arranged for a deployment of Australian military personnel to the emu-infested area. The government would pay for everything except for the soldiers’ food, lodging, and ammunition. It was cheaper than providing the promised wheat subsidies.
Major G. P. W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery rolled into town with two soldiers, two machine guns, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. On November 2, 1932, fifty emus were spotted near the town of Campion. The townspeople tried to corral them into an ambush, but the birds simply ran away. Later, the gunners encountered a smaller flock and shot about a dozen.
Two days later the gunners took position near a dam where 1,000 emu were spotted. They opened fire and killed another dozen emu. Then their guns jammed and the rest of the flock ran away. The misadventures continued to pile up. A week later, the soldiers had expended 2,500 rounds of ammunition and had only 50 dead birds.
Here’s how the debacle looked according to ornithologist D. L. Serventy: “The machine-gunners’ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.”
The Minister of Defence withdrew the soldiers and their guns on November 8, comparing the stealthy and hearty birds to Zulu warriors in the process. But emus continued to decimate the crops, and he changed his mind several days later. Meredith and his soldiers returned to the outskirts of Perth with their unreliable weapons. On November 13, about 40 emus were killed. For the next month, Meredith reported much greater success: Nearly 1,000 kills with 10,000 rounds of ammo. Not a bad ratio. Even better, he claimed that an additional 2,500 birds eventually died from their wounds. The mission ended on December 10.
Murray Johnson, possibly a cynic, possibly gifted with intuition, theorized in the Journal of Australian Studies that the whole military episode was an exercise in propaganda to make the veterans believe the government was doing something to assist them in the face of their economic decline.
But the Great Depression lingered, the farmers in Western Australia continued to struggle, and the emus came back for more wheat. Further requests for military intervention in subsequent years were denied and the region resorted to a much more successful strategy—bounties. In 1934 some 57,000 emus were killed for reward, usually the equivalent of 25 cents per head.
The whole episode was captured for a newsreel. You can see it on YouTube.