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Stuff You Should Know is part of my regular podcast playlist. One recent episode caught my eye, moving it to top priority. Emu Wars. That’s right. I said Emu Wars. You want to know more, don’t you? I sure did!
What were the Emu Wars?
Technically, the Emu War wasn’t actually a war. It was a nuisance wildlife management program in Western Australia undertaken by the Australian military in 1932. The name Emu War was given to the events by the media after it had become an embarrassment of typical government ineptitude; the Emu War was a massive public relations debacle.
Spoiler alert – the emu problem didn’t end in 1932. I love this quote from a 1953 article in The Sunday Herald in Sydney which describes the threat this way:
“The enemy is the tough, prolific, gangling marauder of the sand plains whose species … has invaded, in a frenzy of hunger, some of the finest fields at the time of ripening of the harvest to shear off crops with voracious beaks and to trample with great webbed feet 100 plants into the earth for each one eaten.”
Sounds serious, right? Let’s find out more…
A little background to the story
After WWI, many returning soldiers were in need of a civilian job so the Australian government bought some low-quality farmland in Western Australia and gave it away. It was a tough life but the soldiers-turned-farmers were surviving. Then in the early 1930s, the Great Depression and a drought combined to cause poor crops and hardship. The Australian government promised subsidies for wheat but failed to deliver. Then, in the fall of 1932, came the final straw. Emus. Thousands of hungry, marauding mobs of emus.
You see, emus have lived in Australia for years. As part of their natural lifecycle, emus periodically migrate from the dry interior parts of Western Australia back towards the more lush area closer to the sea. This lush area has become home to prime agricultural lands full of emu candy, aka wheat. What is a hungry emu to do when faced with fields of yummy wheat in its path? Eat it, of couse!
The farmers had rifles and killed a few of the offending emus but there were A LOT of emus eating ALL the wheat. The veterans remembered from the war how much more effective machine guns were when faced with a large opposing army so they went to the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, and demanded the government provide machine guns to deal with the emu invasion. Sir Pearce agreed to provide the guns with stipulations. Only soldiers would be allowed to fire the guns and the farmers must pay for the ammunition as well as provide food and shelter for the soldiers while deployed. The military sent three soldiers and two Lewis guns out to the fields to clear out the emus and save the wheat.
Not fair, right? Killing hundreds of emus at a time with machine guns? Not to worry. Everyone involved soon learned that emus are much harder to gun down than advancing armies of men. At the first shot they scatter chaotically and over time they learned to stay out of range of the guns completely. On the first day of hostilities, only about a dozen emus were killed. Several more skirmishes were fought over the course of a month using a variety of tactics such as ambush and truck-mounted pursuit. None were particularly effective. Not long after the war started, word started to spread about the government ineptitude (possibly because they had sent a film crew to capture their victories to be used in propaganda movies) and the operation was cancelled. The three soldiers and their two Lewis guns were recalled back to base.
Watch the original footage of the Emu War
The propaganda machine at work… this video has a more positive spin on things than what really happened.
How many emus did they kill?
The emus were the undeniable victors in this war. But how many casualties did they suffer? Major Meredith claimed to have killed 1,000 birds outright, with another 2,500 eventually dying from wounds inflicted by the Lewis guns. Other observers of the time claim much lower numbers – only 100 to 1,000 birds killed in total.
It’s not over though
While the Emu War of 1932 ended in a victory for the emus, the conflict has continued. In a tale that continues across all of time, the expansion of people into the natural territory of wild animals results in conflict. The animals have a natural instinct to live and the people claim dominion over everything the eye can see. It’s usually impossible for both sides to be completely happy about the situation, making conflict inevitable.
After the initial Emu War in 1932, the farmers again requested military assistance against emu invasion in 1934, 1943, and 1948, and were turned down each time.
Attempted mass killing of emus by machine gun turned out to be pretty ineffective. Other control measures that have been used over the years include-
Exclusion barrier fencing had already been in use to protect the agricultural zone from rabbits and dingoes. More fences have been added in an attempt to keep the emu out as well. The use of exclusion fencing, especially against the emu, is controversial but somewhat effective.
Shooting emus one at a time with a rifle is much more effective than using a machine gun. The government offered a bounty for emus killed to encourage individual effort against the invasion. The beak bonus system introduced in 1944 pays 4 per beak plus sixpence per egg. Though not necessarily a quick and easy solution, the bounty system is effective. Between the years of 1945 and 1960, local farmers claimed bounties on over 284,000 emus.
Want the video version of the war?
I was quite surprised when I mentioned the Emu Wars at dinner one night and Bella knew exactly what I was talking about. Apparently she learned it from a YouTuber that she follows, Sabrina Cruz. Here’s the video that she saw.
More about Emus
Okay so the whole Emu War thing was kind of crazy right? After reading about the emu invasions, I wanted to know more about emus themselves. Here are a few interesting facts I learned.
Symbol of Australia
Though they spent some time on the vermin list, emus are now back on the protected species list. They are a cultural icon and national symbol of Australia and can be found on the national coat of arms.
Emus are a tall, flightless bird. They stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh about 70 pounds on average. They run fast – sprinting at speeds up to 31 miles per hour. Emus have long necks, long legs, and their feet have just three toes. The center toe has a claw and is about 6 inches long (claw + toe). The bottom of the foot is padded, similar to what you would find on a dog’s foot. Anybody want to race an emu?
The feathers of an emu are somewhat unique. Rather than being stiff, the feathers are soft and flexible. Emu feathers also have a double plume which means two feathers come from each shaft. The feathers of an emu flow more like hair rather than holding their shape like most other bird feathers. Pretty cool, right?
Emus are a bit unique in that the male birds incubate the eggs on the nest then take care of the chicks until the next breeding season. (The breeding season begins in about January and mating usually occurs between April and June.) Once the eggs have been laid, the male emu ceases to eat or drink and only stands up to turn the eggs (about ten times per day). This is a crash diet the Hollywood stars would be proud of. During the 8-week incubation period, male emus lose about a third of their body weight. He survives on stored body fat and any morning dew he can reach from the nest. That’s some serious dedication right there!
Emu dads guard the baby chicks for up to seven months while teaching them how to find food. He keeps all other emus (and any other dangerous animals) away from the babies (remember those claws?). At night he shelters them with his feathers.
What was that sound?
Emus are usually silent but when they do use their voices, it is unlike any bird you’ve heard before. It’s a low booming sound. If I heard the sound of an emu out in the wild, I would be looking for someone with a drum, not a bird!
They also hiss when threatened. I’ve never been hissed at by an emu but I was threatened by a turkey once. It was an effective scare tactic and I’m sure it would be even more so with the larger emu!
Current emu status
According to Bush Heritage Australia, adult emus have few natural predators – only dingoes and wedge-tailed eagles. Eggs and chicks are eaten by wild dogs, pigs, eagles, foxes, snakes, and goannas (a type of monitor lizard). The secret to survival is clearly to avoid being eaten while small because once you’re big, no one is going to mess with you!
Currently the largest threat to the emu population is man-made – habitat loss and fragmentation (remember the exclusion barrier fences?), vehicle collision, and deliberate slaughter.
The emus were considered a nuisance animal for several years but are currently protected by federal legislation and have been reintroduced in Tasmania.
Hi! I’m Sheila - a wife, mom to 3, and favorite human of a slightly-neurotic dog. I’m laid-back, sometimes scattered, a little curious, love to laugh, and always up for a fun road trip. Be amazed! Be inspired! Let's share the joy of discovery together.
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