LIX: The Birds

Australia has a lengthy and notable military history. Over the years, the island nation has gone to war with New Zealand, Sudan, South Africa, China, Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and been involved in both World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, Russian Civil War, and a variety of regional conflicts and peacekeeping missions, the majority of which ended positively on the Australian side. But in 1932, Australia found itself embroiled in a bitter internal conflict against a homegrown enemy who was intelligent, agile, aggressive, and entirely covered in feathers.

It was the emu.

In late 1932, the Campion district of Western Australia was amok with large, flightless birds. And if there’s one thing you should know about large flightless birds, it’s that they are exceptionally aggressive. Emus can reach up to six feet tall and have tridactyl toes fitted with long, sharp claws. Another set of claws can be found at the end of each vestigial wing, and these nasty critters can have a stride of up to nine feet and reach speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour, and they look absolutely demonic. So when these nasty little dinosaurs raged out of control, destroying farmlands in Western Australia, the ex-soldiers who owned those farms decided to take matters into their own hands. With machine guns.

At the behest of the besieged farmers, Australia’s Minister of Defense authorized the sending of several machine guns and soldiers trained in their use to Western Australia to combat the flightless frustrations. But they didn’t count on one thing — despite having incredibly tiny brains for their overall body size, emus are actually rather smart. Emus have no particular fear of humans, and have actually been known to come up and peck at humans for the sheer purpose of eliciting a reaction. Nevertheless, troops were deployed on November 2nd, hoping to return home shortly with brand new emu feathers in their caps.

It didn’t go so well. At first, the Royal Australian Artillery managed to kill a few birds a day, but the emus quickly learned how to avoid the machine guns. It didn’t take long for the emus to determine exactly what a machine gun’s range was and could often be seen happily feeding just out of firing range, as if mocking the artillery. Even mounting the machine guns on trucks was unsuccessful, since the emus easily outran the vehicle. The first week of the four-week conflict saw only a few hundred birds killed with 2,500 rounds fired — barely making a dent in the 20,000 birds known to the roaming the area. The emus seemed immune to gunfire, able to run away at full speed and recover even after having been struck with several bullets. Disappointed with these results, the Australia House of Representatives decided to withdraw the military personnel.

As the weather grew hotter, the emu problem grew worse. The Premier of Western Australia started his own military effort against the birds, and his brief success prompted the Minister of Defense to reissue troops and weapons to the region. Yet there was still little success. As ornithologist Dominic Serventy described it, “The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics”. They spread out, making it difficult for the machine guns to target them. By early December, some reports had casualties at as many as 100 emus per week, but the amount of manpower and the number of rounds require to achieve those 100 emu deaths was extremely impractical; according to some reports, it required a minimum of ten bullets to bring down one emu. By December 10th, it was clear that the emus had won.

The farmers of Western Australia would request a rematch with the three-toed terrors again in 1934, 1943, and 1948, but the Great Emu War was the first and last time the Australian military would be involved.

It seems the emus failed to be flattered by their honorable place on the Australian Coat of Arms and insisted upon asserting their dominance as the avian emperors of the outback.

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