The Great Emu War

After World War I, many Australian soldiers returned home, looking for ways to earn a living. A number of them settled in Western Australia intending to be wheat farmers, but found the environment less than ideal to cultivating the crop. In 1929, the Great Depression furthered these swords-to-plowshares entrepreneurs, but what came next was devastating.

Roughly 20,000 emus came for a visit.

Emus are a flightless bird indigenous to Australia. While typically docile, at heights reaching six and a half feet, they can be imposing. They have strong, clawed feet which are strong enough to rip through wire fences. Emus are fast, as well, able to run roughly 30 miles per hour over meaningful distances. (For perspective’s sake, sprinter Usain Bolt holds the record for the fastest 100 meter dash, at 9.58 seconds. That translates to roughly 24 miles per hour.) They have keen sight and hearing and are generally believed to be very aware of their surroundings, especially for a non-human animal. In this case, the emus made themselves at home on the farms, eating the crops and literally transforming areas into their new habitat. To make matters worse, the emus destroyed parts of the fences designed to keep hostile animals away from the farmlands, thereby allowing entry to wild rabbits (and their voracious appetites).

The solution? Soldiers. Soldiers with machine guns.

Three soldiers — a major and two infantrymen — made their way to the Western Australia with a pair of machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition in tow. The goal was simple: find the emus, open fire, eradicate them en masse, and declare victory. But the plan went awry as the emus dispersed into small groups, effectively neutralizing the machine guns’ ability to kill multiple birds in a single outing. After killing only 50 to 300 emus, the soldiers withdrew and regrouped. A few weeks later, they were more successful, totaling roughly 1,000 slaughtered emus, but not successful enough.

Over the course of the next two decades, farmers would repeatedly call for military intervention to help them against the birds, only to be rebuffed.

Bonus fact: Despite the above, the emu appears prominently on the Australian coat of arms. Also pictured is the red kangaroo. Both animals were likely chosen because of their size (they are large enough to hold a shield, in theory) and because they are aboriginal to the nation. Some argue that the two animals also symbolize progress, because, as the story goes, neither animal is able to move backward. Unfortunately, this theory falls flat — while it is rare for either of the animals to move backward, both are capable of making the motion.

From the ArchivesThe Pig War: A skirmish over a pig. Not 20,000 of them — just one.

Related: A giant emu puppet (it’s over 3 feet tall — giant for a puppet, but not for an emu).

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