Remember When Australia Went To War With Emus?

Remember when Australia launched a military operation to deal with emus? Twice?

"They can face machine-guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop."

Those were the words of Major G. P. W. Meredith in 1953, the man tasked with ridding Western Australia of emus. He was armed with machine guns -- and he lost.

Australia in 2018 is on the verge of another great Emu War, as drought across the state of New South Wales pushes the two-metre tall birds closer into civilization.

There's An 'Emu War' In Broken Hill

Emus have become a regular sight on the streets of Broken Hill, as residents put out water for the thirsty birds. But authorities are warning tourists and residents alike to be careful, as the flightless birds can pose a danger to humans.

But we'd be well advised to learn from the mistakes of the past: you don't mess with emus lightly.

The great Emu War, as it was dubbed by the media, is part of the fabric of Australian history. It wasn't so much a war but a repeated and failed military assault against two-metre tall birds that were largely indifferent to the rounds of bullets.

'New Strategy in a War on the Emu' - Sun Herald, 5 July 1953.

The military operation was launched in November 1932, a baffling response to rising tensions between farmers stricken by falling wheat crop prices and a government that had first encouraged them to grow the crops, then failed to deliver on promised subsidies.

Into this boiling tension wandered -- quite literally -- the emus, with about 20,000 of the flightless birds deciding that cultivated farmland was an easier feed than the bush.

The farmers, who were mostly ex-soldiers and had seen the effectiveness of machine guns first hand during Wold War I, demanded machine guns to deal with the problem. The government happily agreed.

The trouble was that the birds were a lot more difficult to murder than your average front line.

The first assault managed to kill, at most, about half a dozen birds from a flock of 50. The second managed about 12 birds from a flock of 1,000. By the fourth day, an observer glumly noted to the Sun Herald that "each pack seems to have its leader now -- a big, black-plumed bird which stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of our approach."

As noted in Britannica, the ornithologist D.L. Serventy described how "the machine-gunners' dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated", accusing the emus of using the "guerrilla tactics" by simply splitting up into small units that made machine guns useless. The audacity of nature!

"There's only one way to kill an emu -- shoot him through the back of the head when his mouth is closed, or through the front of his mouth when his mouth is open," one soldier remarked. "That's how hard it is."

Emus are particularly hard to kill with machine guns. Who knew? Photo: Getty.

By the time the military withdrew about a week later, they had managed to slaughter no more than, at most, a few hundred birds. Reports range from 50 to 500 birds, so your best option is to stab a guess at somewhere in the middle and call it a day.

Although the soldiers and farmers were defeated, they didn't give up, and by the middle of November a second military operation was launched.

That one proved far more successful, and by December 10, General Meredith reported that almost 1,000 were killed outright and another 2,500 were fatally injured.

But it wasn't the last time farmers requested a military-grade offense to deal with the pest problem. They made similar requests in 1934, 1943 and 1948, at one point even requesting that low flying planes drop bombs on the birds.

'Request to use Bombs to Kill Emus' -- The Mail, 3 July 1943

Those request were rejected, and instead the bounty system set up in the 1920s was used to great effect, with some 57,000 emus claimed. At its peak, a beak was worth four pence, with a bonus of six pence for an emu egg.

By 1953, the government had abandoned the use of military-style assaults altogether and decided to build a better fence.