And today we consider the timeless question: What do you do when 20,000 five foot tall flightless birds overrun your farm? Go to war, obviously.
Great Emu War
We spend a lot of time talking about climate change and how the world is being damaged by humanity. We think about species that are endangered, or extinct due to things we’ve done. But while creation is often fragile, sometimes it’s pretty tough to beat. Think about how pigeons have taken over nearly every city’s downtown on the planet. Think about how tough it is to get any kind of insect out of your home after it’s moved in. If we go to battle against nature thinking we’re going to automatically win we may come out embarrassed.
I’m James Dykstra, and today on History.icu we’re looking at one occasion when the natural world was all but indomitable.
In the early 1920s in Australia soldiers who had returned home after the First World War had been promised a reward. The Australian government was going to give them farmland for free. Much of the land was in the state of Western Australia and, unfortunately, it was not necessarily prime land.
As the Great Depression settled over Australia in 1929, the Australian government pressed the farmers to produce more wheat. However, with the supply of wheat higher, and with bad economic conditions the demand was lower and so the prices went down leaving the farmers in an even worse spot
If this was not enough, the farmers had a new problem to contend with: emus. These large, flightless birds migrate with the seasons. The birds can be over five feet tall and weigh from 35-40 kilograms. These are not the sort of birds that you want to tangle with.
They tend to be gregarious birds that enjoy the company of others of their kind, so the fact that 20,000 of them were migrating from inland Australia and heading towards the coast wasn’t entirely surprising. What caught everyone off guard was that the birds’ attention was drawn to the newly cultivated farmland given to the former Australian soldiers.
That probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. In an often dry country, the farmland was well irrigated, and the wheat crops provided a good source of food for the birds. You can probably imagine what kind of damage a group of 20,000 five foot tall birds could do to a farmer’s crops.
To add insult to injury, the emus damaged the fences put in place to keep out the rabbits. Rabbits had been introduced to Australia in the 1780s as an alternative food source. However, some escaped, and with few natural predators in Australia the rabbits bred like, well, rabbits. The millions of rabbits across the land ravage the crops unless stopped by rabbit proof fences. So what the emus didn’t destroy by knocking it over, the rabbits likely destroyed by simply eating it.
The infestation of emus was a horror for the farmers, but these were ex-soldiers and they were not easily defeated. George Pearce, the Australian Minister of Defence was brought into the battle and he promised help.
Two soldiers, under the command of Major GPW Meredith of the 7th Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery were sent, but the farmers were compelled to provide food, accomodation and 10,000 rounds of ammunition for the soldiers’ machine gun.
The three soldiers came, ready to deal with the invading emus, but seasonal rains drove the emus away temporarily. When the rain finally stopped on November 2, a mere 50 emus were spotted. As the local population tried to help the soldiers ambush the emus, they became aware just how fast an emu can run. And scatter.
When 1000 emus were in easy range two days later, the machine gun jammed after having killed only 12 birds.
By all accounts, these supposedly dumb animals quickly got a sense of the range of the guns the soldiers were using and learned to stay beyond that. By the 8th, a quarter of the ammunition had been used up and as made as 500 birds had been killed, though by some estimates as few as 50 had.
The media got wind of the whole affair, perhaps due to the fact that the Australian government had sent a Movietone News camera crew with the soldiers in an attempt to show the rest of the country how the government was standing by the veterans. Austrialian politicians had a field day with the whole affair, wondering if the soldiers were to be awarded campaign medals for the great war against the emus. Others suggested that the emus should get the medals since they’d won all the battles so far.
The troops were quietly withdrawn to end the mockery, but when the farmers complained again, they were supported by the Premier of Western Australia. The military returned on November 12, and by the time they withdrew on December 10 they had used up 9,860 rounds of ammunition with 986 birds confirmed killed. That’s 10 bullets per bird fatality. You almost get a Matrix-like feeling in your mind as these five foot birds bend and weave in order to duck a rain of bullets. In fairness, Major Meredith claimed 2500 more birds had been wounded and eventually died.
If all the birds claimed to be mortally wounded had actually died, the military killed less than 20% of the 20,000 emus damaging the crops. The problem in 1932 was only ended when what remained of the crops was harvested. THis removed the food source of the emus was which forced them to move on.
While the military was defeated in 1932, an emu bounty in 1934 was dramatically more successful, claiming more than 57,000 of the birds. Even so, the problem seemed to remain as the birds came back year after year. It was ultimately fixed with the development of a stronger, emu-proof fence.
Going to war against emus just doesn’t work, but maybe there’s something to be learned from them. As Major Meredith summed it up “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world.”
Thank you are due to:
Music courtesy of jjstiano at Looperman.com.
Emu photo from MemoryCatcher at Pixabay.com.