It’s always brought up as a fun fact that, at one point in history, Australia sent troops on an “all-out” assault against emus that were destroying the Western Australian Outback. A while later, it was decided that the humans wouldn’t win and the history books marked a big ‘L’ for the Aussies in the Great Emu War of 1932.
When it’s put like that, it’s funny and makes a great fun fact that can be brought up whenever Australia’s military might is in question. But the thing is, Australia’s military kicks ass — and saying, “Australia lost a war against a bunch of flightless birds,” while sort of true, doesn’t really do what actually happened justice.
If there’s anyone who could actually be blamed for the perceived failure of the Great Emu War, it’s this guy, Sir George Pearce. The man who decided to set up the Australian Army for a lifetime of jokes.
The Australian government didn’t just decide to go on a mass Emu-killing spree out of the blue. It was in response to the destruction of farms caused by emus in their search for food and water. After WWI, Australia rewarded its returning veterans with farmland to call their own. The only stipulation was that this farmland was basically barren Outback that was plagued with native animals. The terrible soil didn’t leave farmers with many options in terms of crops, but wheat grew fairly well given the conditions. Unfortunately, wheat also attracted emus.
Of the nearly 5000 veterans who participated in the program, very few were able to grow crops without having them destroyed by hungry birds. Even fewer could afford to build fences to keep the emus at bay. The government, not willing to address the problem of terrible land quality, decided that the emu was entirely at fault for crops not growing.
It was declared by Western Australian Senator, Sir George Pearce, that veterans and troops should tackle the problem head-on and hunt the birds.
Good luck fighting an enemy too stupid to know it’s been shot four times with only enough ammo to take out half the population even if your aim is perfect.
The biggest misconception about the Emu War is that it was a massive assault staged by the Australian military. It wasn’t. It was literally just three men, a pick-up truck, two Lewis machine guns, and 10,000 rounds. There were veteran farmers who also took up arms, but only Major G.P.W. Meredith and his two gunners were officially at war.
That’s three men versus 20,000 massive birds.
Emus aren’t just large turkeys. They stand at an average height of six feet four inches, can run up to 31 mph, have the strongest legs of any animal, and can easily shred apart metal fences with their talons. As the three Aussie hunters found out, emus can take roughly five bullets before realizing they’ve been shot and ten rounds before they finally die.
Emus naturally flock in hordes of hundreds, which means that any time the hunters unloaded into the horde, the birds would quickly disperse into smaller mobs that scattered in different directions. With only so many guns, the hunters could only focus on those smaller mobs while the rest took off running.
If they aren’t in mobs, you’ll be searching for hours just to find one.
In that respect, the hunters were technically efficient. They managed to gun down a confirmed 986 emus over the span of a few weeks. Of the 9,900 rounds they used, they averaged out about one kill per ten or so rounds — the estimated number required to kill an emu. The three men also faced constant backlash from the news and local farmers during their hunt.
The media laughed at them for the absurdity of it all and dubbed it the “Great Emu War” to make light of the situation. It give readers a moment of levity during the otherwise-grim Great Depression. While the general population thought it was silly to send any troops after birds, the farmers were upset that the government sent only three guys to go solve a problem spanning an Australian state that’s twice the size of Alaska.
The hunters tried to give up several times because they knew how pointless it was — but each time, they were pushed back into hunting emus. Eventually, they gave up on December 9th, 1932, and everyone laughed at the three men for failing to do the impossible.
The only logical way to deal with the emus was what happened eventually. The government placed a bounty on the emus and let the farmers handle it — which they did very well. Over time, the farmers would collect a bounty on over 57,000 emus and the farms turned profitable again. It should also be noted that some farmers were smart enough to breed emus and collect a bounty on the birds they’d raised, but that was bound to happen.
All in all, the Aussies would eventually prevail over the emus. It just took more than three guys in a pick-up truck to do it.