The Great Australian Emu War

Recently my roommate told me about the 1932 "emu war" in Australia. He said 1932 was a dry year that made 20,000 emus restless, causing them to invade a residential neighborhood en masse. The Australian military had to take them out with heavy artillery. Is this true? -- Evan, Greensboro, North Carolina

Tell a story like this about virtually any other country and my reaction is going to be: this guy needs to change the filter on his hash pipe. With Australia, however, it's never wise to dismiss crazy claims out of hand. Though the account you heard was embroidered, the essence of the emu-war story is true.

After World War I the Australian government encouraged returning soldiers to raise wheat and sheep in the sparsely populated state of Western Australia. More than 5,000 hardy souls did so, but most struggled. Among the challenges: weather, rampaging rabbits, and emus. (I get most of this from a 2006 article by Murray Johnson in Journal of Australian Studies.)

The emu is a large flightless bird similar to the ostrich. Extensive fences normally kept emus out of coastal cropland, but high postwar prices led to fencing shortages, and new farms and water supplies made for attractive habitat. Initially considered protected game, emus were reclassified as vermin when they became pests to farmers. Emu culls racked up high body counts, with more than 3,000 killed in 1928 alone. But it wasn't enough, and in 1932 some 20,000 emus surged into western wheat fields.

Facing the destruction of their crops, the beleaguered farmers sent a deputation to Perth to see . . . well, you might suppose they'd have demanded an audience with the minister of agriculture. But no-these men had been soldiers before they were farmers. So they went to the minister of defense, who authorized military action against the emus, provided the farmers covered the cost.

Resources assigned to the expedition consisted of two Lewis machine guns, 10,000 bullets, and a pair of gunners under the command of Major G.P.W. Meredith. A Fox Movietone cinematographer was sent along to film the highlights. Arriving Nov. 2, 1932, Meredith's troops drew first blood in a skirmish later that day. The emus tended to stay near tree cover, making them unexpectedly difficult to shoot. On Nov. 4 an ambush of 1,000 emus went awry when the machine gun jammed.

By Nov. 8 the army used 2,500 rounds to kill just 200 emus, leading the prime minister to suspend the campaign. When one politician facetiously suggested that the troops be awarded medals, another retorted that the medals should go to the emus, since they had "won every round so far."

A renewed assault beginning Nov. 13 wasn't noticeably more effective, with a meager kill rate of 100 emus a week. The enemy proved to be fast, smart, and (Meredith insisted) capable of surviving multiple bullet wounds.

By early December emu incursions subsided, due more to the wheat harvest than casualties. Hostilities ceased Dec. 10. The official final tally: 9,860 bullets to kill 986 emus, an implausible ratio of exactly ten bullets per emu. (Meredith contended many more emus had crawled away to die unseen.)

The embarrassed government resisted calls to repeat the experiment and instead adopted a more successful policy of supplying farmers with free ammunition and setting a bounty on the birds.

The emu war wasn't the last time the Australian army faced off against wildlife. In 1992 an upsurge of feral cats in western Queensland threatened native fauna, including the letter-winged kite. So many cats were lounging in newly empty kite nests, Professor Jack Pettigrew of the University of Queensland reported, that at night their glittering eyes made the trees look like they'd been strung with Christmas lights.

Pettigrew's team culled quite a few cats, but he tells us things didn't get serious until the environment minister saw a newspaper photo of two seemingly well-fed feral cats relaxing in a nest. Cute kitties, many readers doubtless said, but the minister thought: these brutes must be exterminated. The army soon bagged 423 felines. No word on tactics, weaponry, or ammunition expenditure, but the lessons of history having been learned, I'm confident it was one bullet, one cat. (Thanks to Terri-Anne Kingsley for research.)


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