The Emu War: When Australia Lost to Birds

Can you imagine your country having a war against birds and losing? Well, surreal as it may seem, that happened in Australia. The Emu War, an event that remains in the nation’s history books.

This event occurred between November 2 and December 10, 1932. It all started when these flightless, 37 kg average birds were causing great damage in Campion, a district of Western Australia. Its development is simple… “Surprising”.

The Great Emu War

The Emu War: When Australia Lost to Birds

It is believed that around 20,000 emus discovered the newly cultivated land in Campion and decided to settle in the area. They used the place to breed and access food and water easily. Basically, it was paradise for them.

The problem was that farmers were losing their minds when their wheat crops were destroyed. The birds didn’t only devour the wheat completely but also damaged the fences, allowing the passage of rabbits, another invasive and destructive pest.

The farmers saw their land totally invaded, and with the price of wheat continuing to fall due to the Great Depression, despair was understandable. They reached a point where they asked the army for help, starting the Emu War.

To add a little more context, it should be noted that emus, until 1922, were a protected species, but that changed radically. First, farmers, mostly ex-military, started shooting birds without success.

In a single day, they managed to finish off only twelve emus, while their numbers multiplied by the dozens. They, therefore, decided to turn to the Australian Ministry of Defence and Sir George Pearce, head of the ministry at the time. Pearce, seeing the impending emergency, decided to send an army armed with Lewis submachine guns to finish off emus once and for all. Starting the Emu War.

The offensive against the emus

The Emu War: When Australia Lost to Birds

The troops quickly deployed, taking strategic areas where the emus inhabited. After all, with 10,000 stockpiles of ammo, it was impossible to fail, right? Well, yes, it was possible.

The emus were ridiculously fast targets, which made them very difficult to hit. And if, by some miracle, they hit one, the bullets did not slow them down. The advantage of the birds was such that G. P. W. Meredith, a member of the seventh infantry battalion of the Royal Australian Artillery and operations commander, declared:

«If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world… They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks».

The army managed to shoot down a hundred birds, but the emu population kept growing. They simply could not keep up with the birds, neither with strategy nor with planned ambushes. They even used vehicles armed with machine guns, but they were still defeated in the Emu War.

The withdrawal begins

The Emu War: When Australia Lost to Birds

The ornithologist Dominic Serventi denounced the operation as «an attempt at the mass destruction of emus». And he described the Emu War as follows:

«Evidently, the Emu’s command had ordered guerrilla tactics, and its difficult army soon splits into countless small units that made the use of military equipment ineffective. Therefore, a defeated field force withdrew from the combat area after about a month».

After the retreat, the army returned to the battlefield on November 13, and for the next three weeks, Major Meredith claimed 986 emus and 9,860 spent ammunition. Exactly, 10 rounds were needed for confirmed death. Another 2,500 injured emus later died.

On the other hand, the attempted extermination of emus received great media coverage, which caused a wave of sympathy with the birds. Social pressure had a negative impact that forced the government to withdraw the troops. The army, once again, was defeated, but this time definitively.

Fortunately, emus became a protected species under federal legislation to protect biodiversity in 1999. Despite major attempts to exterminate them, they are still plentiful in Australia, and large walls are now used to keep them away from crops. In the end, it wasn’t that hard to beat them either.

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