ARMY AGAINST FLIGHTLESS BIRDS
Before Europeans came to Australia emus used to feed exclusively on wild vegetation, but after their arrival cultivation started and the bird changed its feeding habits and developed a special liking for crops, such as wheat and gradually became a problem for the farmers. In 1932, the confrontation between newly-arrived humans and the native bird reached such a point that army was called out to fight the gangs of Emus, a large flightless bird indigenous to Australia. In this unequal war ultimately emus were the winners!!! The war is still remembered in Australia today as the greatest defeat ever incurred on the Australian nation and her subjects.
On the battlefield birds proved to be better strategists than the army with all their guns including two machine guns — they played hide and seek with the army and tired it out. All that army could achieve by wasting more than 10,000 cartridges was picking up a few hundred dead birds. This farcical episode is still remembered as Emu war or the Great Emu War — the name given by country’s media.
Causes of the ‘War’
After the First World War was over a large numbers of ex-soldiers from Australia, along with a number of British army veterans took up farming in Western Australia. From 1915, a ‘soldier settlement scheme’ began to be rolled out across all states, and eventually it saw around 5,030 ex-soldiers given plots of land, which they were to convert into working farms, primarily to cultivate wheat and sheep.
With the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, these farmers were asked to increase their wheat crops, with the government promising subsidies that never came. Notwithstanding the recommendations and the promised subsidies, prices of wheat continued to fall. The difficulties of farmers further increased with the arrival of as many as 20,000 emus that regularly migrate after their breeding season, heading to the coast from the inland regions. With the cleared land and additional water supplies being made available for livestock by the farmers, the emus found cultivated lands a good habitat, and they started foraying into farm territory — in particular the marginal farming land around Chandler and Walgoolan. The birds consumed and spoiled the crops, as well as leaving large gaps in fences where rabbits could enter and cause further problems.
After the farmers relayed their concerns about the damage a deputation of ex-soldiers met the Minister of Defense, Sir George Pearce and requested for deployment of machineguns in the area as they were aware of the destructive power of the weapon. The Minister readily agreed, although with conditions that the guns were to be used by military personnel, and troop transport was to be financed by the Western Australian government, and the farmers would provide food, accommodation and payment for the ammunition. Pearce also supported the deployment on the grounds that the birds would make good target practice.
After a meticulous planning military involvement was due to begin in October 1932 under the command of Major G.P.W. Meredith. He himself commanded a pair of soldiers armed with two Lewis Automatic Machine Guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The operation was delayed, however, by a period of rainfall which caused the emus to scatter over a wider area. The rainy season was over by 2 November 1932, at which point the troops were deployed with orders to assist the farmers and, according to a newspaper account, to collect 100 emu skins so that their feathers could be used to make hats for light horsemen.
The first attempt
On 2 November about 50 birds were sighted. As they were out of range of the guns, the locals attempted to herd them into an ambush, but the birds sensing danger split into small groups and ran so that they were difficult to target. Nevertheless, while the first fusillade from the machine guns was ineffective due to the range, a second round of gunfire was able to kill “a number” of birds. Later the same day a small flock was encountered, and “perhaps a dozen” birds were killed.
The next significant event was on 4 November when Meredith planned an ambush near a local dam, and over 1,000 emus were spotted heading towards their position. This time the gunners waited until the birds were in close proximity before opening fire. The gun jammed after only twelve birds were killed, however, and the remainder scattered before more could be killed. No more birds were sighted that day.
By 8th November, six days after the first engagement, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired. The number of birds killed is uncertain: one account claims just 50 birds, other claimed 200 to 500, but Meredith’s official report noted that his men had suffered no casualties.
Summarizing the culls, an eminent Australian ornithologist Dr. Dominic Serventy commented:
“The machine-gunners’ dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.”
On 8 November, representatives in the Australian House of Representatives discussed the operation. Following the negative coverage of the events in the local media, which included claims that “only a few” emus had died, Pearce withdrew the military personnel and the guns on 8 November.
After the withdrawal, Major Meredith compared the emus to Zulus (largest ethnic group in South Africa), and commented on the striking maneuverability of the emus, even while badly wounded.
“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. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.”
The second attempt
After the withdrawal of the military, the attacks on crops by emus continued. Farmers again asked for support. James Mitchell, the Premier of Western Australia lent his strong support to renewal of the military assistance. Additionally, a report from the Base Commander indicated that 300 emus had been killed in the initial operation.
Acting on the requests and the Base Commander’s report, by 12 November the Minister of Defense approved a resumption of military efforts. He defended the decision in the senate, explaining why the soldiers were necessary to combat the serious agricultural threat of the large emu population. Although the military had agreed to loan the guns to Western Australian government on the expectation that they would provide the necessary people, Meredith was once again placed in the field due to an apparent lack of experienced machine gunners in the state.
Second phase of the mission was mounted in 1932 on 13th November and the army achieved a degree of success over the first two days, killing about 40 birds. Third day proved to be far less successful, but by 2 December the guns were accounting for approximately 100 emus per week. Meredith was recalled on 10 December, and in his report he claimed 986 kills with 9,860 rounds, at a rate of exactly 10 rounds per confirmed kill. In addition, he claimed 2,500 wounded birds had died as a result of the injuries that they had sustained.
By December 1932, news about the Emu War reached Great Britain. Some conservationists there protested the cull as “extermination of the rare emu”. Dr. Serventy described the cull as “an attempt at the mass destruction of the birds”.
Winston Churchill’s famous speech on the Emu War:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in Western Australia, we shall fight on the Great Barrier Reef and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength on Aires Rock, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight in the desert, we shall fight on the emu nesting grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving to the evil emu cause, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the Australian Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, all the bloody emus will die.”
The Sun Herald wrote in its edition of 5 July 1953:
“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. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.”
Despite the problems encountered with the cull, the farmers of the region once again requested military assistance in 1934, 1943 and 1948, only to be turned down by the Government. Instead, the bounty system that had been instigated in 1923 — after the emus were first declared vermin in 1922 in Western Australia — was continued, and this proved to be effective: 57,034 bounties were claimed over a six-month period in 1934. Later by the year 1970 the figure fallen to about 13,000 beaks reason was reduction in the price money to only 20 cents, perhaps less than the price of bullet.
More about Emus
Emus feed on fruits and nutritious vegetation including the fruits of Zamia, which contain highly potent toxins and is powerful enough to kill even big animals, but emus remain unaffected despite the fact that each of them eats it in hundreds. When food becomes scarce in one area, they move to other places, travelling hundreds of kilometers. During the journey, they consume fat deposits situated in their body, which they put on during good days when the food is plentiful.
Emus belong to a monotypic family Dromaiidae, which includes only one genus Dromaius novaehollandiae (emu). Confined to Australia and inhabiting dry open country, they are closely related to another flightless bird (ratite) cassowary. Emus with brown-grey hair like plumage, vestigial wings and no tail feathers, are stout-billed birds that feed on vegetable matter and fruits. These long-legged birds have three toes and short claws, which help in fast running. They nest in a hollow in the ground. Another species D. diemenianus (dwarf emu) is extinct.
There was a time, some 15,000 years ago, when there existed at least six kinds of emus, but today we have only one species. Reasons for the extinction of other five species are not known.
The name ‘emu’ comes from a Portuguese word ‘ema’, which means crane or large bird. It was in the year 1696 when the first Portuguese and Dutch navigators set their foot on the west coast of Australia and saw large tracks of a strange bird and called it ‘ema’, which gradually changed into ‘emu’.
Today the bird is very familiar to all Australians because it is found on the coat of arms with kangaroo. Both these creatures are very common and unique to Australian continent and are found nowhere else on the earth.
Emus are found throughout Australia and have ability to withstand wide variations in temperature. They are equally at home on the heights of snowy mountains with temperatures below freezing point and on open plains in summer where temperature generally is around or over 40 degrees C.
The structure of their feathers is one important feature of their physiology, which helps them to sustain such variations in temperature. Bird’s feathers are such that they give the impression of being double, but the fact is that two separate feathers come from the same quill. Actually, each feather has a normal outer shaft, with an inner shaft of the same length. The combined effect of these slender feathers gives a rather coarse, hairy appearance, almost furry for the first few centimeters, and grass-like at the outer extremity. Result is that the plumage becomes extraordinarily efficient insulator, which prevents loss of body heat in frigid altitudes and overheating in scorching heat of the desert region.
Emus and Aborigines
There was a time when emus used to play a very important role in the lives of Australian Aborigines whose whole social life were dependent on this bird. In other words the bird played the same vital role for the native Australians as the bisons did for American Indians. It provided various by-products to them, e.g. feathers for ornamental purposes and for making ceremonial shoes for sorcerers or avengers of crimes, fat obtained from the bird was used as a skin salve, sharp bones as shoulder pins for cloaks, and for boring holes in wood and skins, etc.
The amount of significance Aborigines attached to the bird can be understood by the fact that they have given special place to it in all their rituals and legends. Among the Aborigines of Australia there is hardly any tribe who has not included emu in its cave or bark paintings. Everywhere one could find either the bird as a whole or its footprints or eggs depicted with special significance.