Once Upon a Time, Australia Lost a War to Birds

A few thousand emus prevailed over machine guns

APicture: Sean Twomey/Pexels

At the beginning of the 20th century, Australia was a largely uninhabited continent. After the First World War, the government initiated an enormous resettlement program for veterans, allocating more than 90000 hectares of tillable land. As the demand for more land remained persistent, the remaining soldiers were allocated the less fertile land in Western Australia. The Great Depression of 1929 coincided with a drought, leaving the farmers on these marginal lands in a dismal condition. Apart from making ends meet in meager returns and measly rations, the ex-soldiers had an extraordinary grievance. In 1932, a mob of about 20000 emus had infested the wheat farms, giving the cultivators a run for their money. When their efforts at ousting the birds fell short, the disgruntled veterans appealed to Canberra for help. Heeding their call, the government sanctioned an unusual military operation against the flightless birds.

On November 2, 1932, Major Meredith commandeered some men armed with Lewis guns into Campion, aiming to exterminate the emu menace once and for all. The eager locals had spotted some 50 emus and soldiers open-fired at the flock. However, the emus broke away into smaller groups, evading the artillery fire. Barring a few casualties, most emus escaped the onslaught unscathed. The subsequent military report held the narrow range of the guns responsible for this failure. After a couple of days of rain-inflicted delays, the artillerymen got another opportunity to salvage their reputation.

Waiting in their ambush on November 4, Meredith and his men saw a group of nearly a thousand birds approach them. This time they waited patiently for the emus to congregate close enough before firing. Once adequate proximity had been achieved, the soldiers shot at the mob, felling at least 12 emus. Before they could carry on with the massacre, the machine gun jammed, and the remaining emus ran away to safety. Once again had the emus eluded their seemingly sly opponents. In the following days, the army came up with frantic efforts to gun down the emus. One, included them mounting the gun on the back of a moving truck, charging at the birds as they made their escape. Even such an elaborate scheme managed to claim a single bird’s life.

Traveling south, the troops continued to run from one failure to another. The birds seemed to be prepared for them and the hunt grew increasingly tedious. An army observer noted that “each pack seems to have its own leader now — who stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warn them of our approach.” By Nov 8, 1932, Meredith’s men had exhausted 2500 rounds to stake claim to just 200 birds. Owing to the criticism in the media, the operation was temporarily halted only to be reinstated in a few days. Going at the mission with renewed vigor, the men saw better results but still couldn’t out trick their feathered foe. Meredith was recalled on 10 December 1932 and reported to have killed 986 emus with his allotted ammunition of 10000 rounds. The war was over and the emus had clearly won.

To aid the beleaguered farmers, the Australian Government responded with a decentralized approach to the infestation. They placed bounties on emus and began to supply ammunition to the worst affected regions. The soldiers-turned-farmers unleashed small attacks on the birds resulting in widescale success. In a period of just six months, 57034 bounties were cashed out, greatly curtailing the pestilence. Moreover, the bounties induced cash inflow into the Depression-affected communities, shouldering some economic hardship. Even though the Aussies eventually succeeded in gunning down the birds, the Great Emu War goes down in military history as one of the most disgraceful failures, a source of everlasting scourge for the Australian Army.

Now as ridiculous as this episode may sound, it actually serves us crucial lessons in our present context. The failed war on emus is no different from the aggressive centralized policies that failed to curb the spread of coronavirus. All over the world, the countries that resorted to stringent lockdowns for short spans of time have fared much worse than places that called for individual effort to uproot the virus. For instance, we can look at India or the United Kingdom where situations quickly deteriorated once their respective clamp-downs were lifted. On the other hand, places like Korea that focussed on developing individual sanitation above everything else have achieved more promising results. Only by approaching the pandemic as individual bounty hunters can garner a victory in this war. When the Australian Army can look so laughable in hindsight for losing to a bunch of birds, only time tell how moronic we appear for letting a single-celled organism control our lives for nearly two years.

More by Shourya Agarwal

A bewildered star gazer thrusting from distortion to discovery.

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