The Great Emu War
After WWI, the Australian Government struggled to find things for their veterans to do upon returning home. From 1915, a 'soldier settlement scheme' began to be rolled out across all states.
By September 1920, the government had purchased 90,000 hectares for the veterans, but still needed more, and started to place the remaining soldiers in some pretty marginal areas of Perth in Western Australia. This made things tough, because setting up a prosperous farm with little to no experience in a good area is no small feat, let alone in an area where the land is barely useable.
Never mind that the Great Depression was just around the corner, striking in 1929, causing wheat prices to plummet. The government promised subsidies for wheat, but those subsidies never came
Emus migrate regularly after their breeding season, heading to the coast from the inland regions. With the cleared land and additional water supplies made available for livestock of the farmers, the emus found the farmland a good habitat and began to move in.
Very few could afford to build fences to keep the giant birds at bay and those that did were further frustrated when the emus broke these fences, letting the rabbits in.
While they pleaded with the government, the government was completely unwilling to admit any culpability or provide any assistance and instead pointed the finger at the emu, blaming them for everything
Some of the ex-soldiers were sent to meet with the Minister of Defense, Sir George Pearce to petition for the use of automatic weapons against the encroachers.
The minister agreed with the conditions that the guns only be used by military personnel and troop transport was to be financed by the Western Australian government, farmers would provide food, accommodation and payment for the ammunition. The minister also thought this was a good idea as it would be good target practice.
Many speculate that this was just a method to help calm things with the already angry farmers
The military would be dispatched, armed with automatic weapons and a thirst for vengeance. This would be the beginning of the great Emu war
Yes indeed, a whole army of three men, a pick up and truck, two machine guns and 10,000 rounds (half of the estimated number of emu). Sure some of the vet farmers joined in, but it was only Major GPW Meredith and his two gunners officially at war
The assault was set to begin in October 1932, but weather caused this to be delayed until November 2nd
And they were woefully underprepared
You see Emus aren't just large turkeys.
They stand at an average height of six feet four inches, can run up to 50 km/31 mph, have the strongest legs of any animal, and can easily shred apart metal fences with their talons.
And, as the three Aussie hunters would find out, emus can take roughly five bullets before realizing they've been shot and ten rounds before they finally die.
Emus are native to Australia and these living dinosaurs have been around for millions of years, and frankly they're pretty damn cool
And despite this declaration of war, Australia agreed at some point as the emu features on Australia's coat of arms and also on its fifty-cent coin
Emus have this whole child care thing figured out. The paired birds build a next together in which the female lays between 5-15 large green eggs in, before wandering off to find another baby daddy
Meanwhile the male incubates the eggs for 55 days, not eating, drinking or defecating, rarely leaving the nest during this time, losing up to 8 KG / 18 LB.
When the eggs finally hatch, the male stays with them for 2 years, defending them and teaching them how to find food. While foraging they softly whistle at each other to keep track of the family
Emus become sexually mature at 18 months
Also did I mention that they are insanely cute?
Emus of Tasmania
There once was three species of emu and now we only have one
Tasmania, an island state south of Australia once was flush with emus (like much of the continent still is today) once had its own subspecies which is now extinct
It's not clear exactly what caused their extinction, but it can be heavily implied that colonists, who loved the meat of emus and kangaroos did a lot of damage, if not be the direct cause
The last wild emu of Tasmania died in 1865 and the last captive bird died not much longer after in 1873
It's hard to not compare the numbers. In just 25 years of European colonists inhabiting the island, an entire species went extinct, meanwhile the aboriginal people managed to coexist with them for 40,000 years...
But there's hope, the birds have been reintroduced to Tasmania in recent years
Back to the War
On Nov 2nd the war began. When the troops arrived in Campion they spotted a mob of 50 emus. The birds were out of range and locals tried to help herd them into an ambush, but the birds just split into smaller groups. They attempt an assault anyways which was completely ineffective due to their range. The second assault killed "a number of birds"
By the end of the day, they had managed to kill just over a dozen emu
On Nov 4 Meredith and his troops prepared an ambush near a dam where they knew 1,000 emus were heading. This time they waited for the birds to get into range before opening fire. The gun jammed after only twelve birds were killed and the remainder scattered and escaped. There were no more birds sighted that day
For supposedly an incredibly dumb bird they seemed to be holding their own
There is a general consensus that emus are incredibly dumb, so let's get a professional opinion:
Louis Lefebvre is a biologist and comparative psychologist at McGill University who studies the bird mind and wrote many papers and books on the topic
When asked to name the world's dumbest bird, Lefebvre answered,
"That would be the emu."
The next day's headlines read,
"Canadian researcher names National Bird of Australia 'World's Most Stupid Bird.'"
This did not make Lefebvre popular in Australia. But his position was buoyed when he appeared on an Australian radio show, and one caller related a story of being in the outback with aboriginals, who told him that if he lay down on his back and raised his foot, the emus would come to investigate, thinking he was one of them.
In search of other anecdotes, I turned to Reddit and found this story by GoodwaterVillainy
Emu's are very stupid and ours were no exception. We had a "Breeding Pair" that never seemed to do the deed. One day however, I went to the pen to find one nesting. I was very excited. We waited for a couple of months before deciding to check the egg. It was a fucking milk carton.
Tim Nielsen is the supervisor of birds at the Royal Adelaide Zoo and believes that Emus could be a contender for one of the dumbest birds on the planet and he has some amusing anecdotes to back this up, one of which is as follows:
colleague of Tim's was driving along a dusty old road and noticed that an emu
was running parallel with his car and the fence. Out of curiosity he accelerated ahead, pulled
over and continued to observe the emu, which by this stage was several hundred
meters away. The emu continued to run
towards the car and, upon reaching it, proceeded to run straight into it,
knocking itself out in the process.
It's often cited that emu brains are about the size of a marble, and this is responsible for their low intelligence, but I think we know now that size is not everything
A study published in 2016 by the national academy of sciences decided to take a closer look at how we judge intelligence in birds
Emu brains comprise for .06% of its body mass, where humans it is 2%. So the first thing they did was count the neurons in 28 bird species. The results were not surprising
While I'm sure we all expected humans to have a lot more neurons than pretty much any animals, things get more interesting when we look at this in the form of density: neurons per gram
Though owl monkeys have about the same size of brain as a raven, the concentration in a raven is quite a bit higher in comparison. In fact most birds pack in way more neurons per gram of brain tissue than other animals
The higher density allows for more connections, increasing the capacity for information processing in a small container. Songbird and parrot brains accommodate two to four times more neurons than rodent brains of similar weight, and around twice as many as some primate brains. In fact, on that list, humans rank even below squirrels and emu. So maybe they're not so dumb after all?
Back to the Battlefield
In the following days Meredith moved south where the birds were "reported to be fairly tame" but they didn't have much success there either. By the 4th day the army observers note that
"Each pack seems to have its own leader now - a big black-plumed bird which stands fully 6 ft high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of their approach"
At one point, Meredith even mounted one of the guns to a truck, which really didn't help as the truck couldn't keep up with the birds and ride was too rough to really get any shots off
By Nov 8th, 6 days after the first engagement, 2,500 rounds had been fired but the number of birds defeated was uncertain, one account said 50, but others range from 200-500 (as per the settlers). But Meredith's report did say that his men had suffered no casualties
Summarizing the culls, ornithologist 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."
Nov 8th, the Australian House of Representatives discussed the operation. Following the negative coverage of the events in the local media (that included claims that "only a few" emus had died) Pearce was forced to withdraw the military personnel and guns that day
As the war ended public sympathy moved to the emu. Media reports - showing fleeing or dying emus, revolted the public and there were even protests back in England at the ongoing emu war
The Australian Parliament questioned Pearce over the tactics and asked if there was a better way to solve the problem. One member of Parliament even sarcastically asked if there were to be medals of honor struck for this war. Clearly they were not impressed by the failed attempts thus far. Pearce assured Parliament they were acting humanely and the tactic of mass culling was required. He requested another chance to defeat the emus.
After withdrawal, Meredith compared the emus to Zulus commenting on their striking maneuverability even when 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 razing of the farms by the emus continued and again farmers pleaded for support
The Premier of Western Australia, James Mitchell gave his strong support to bring the military back in. Meanwhile the official report of the first round from the Base Commander was issued, stating that 300 emus had been killed
Using the report for support, on Nov 12th Pearce approved resumption of military efforts and defended the decision in the Senate, by stating that the soldiers were necessary to combat such a serious agriculture threat. Although the military agreed to lend the guns, the government expected them to provide their own personnel. Again Meredith was placed in the field due to the apparent lack of experienced gunners in the state
The war entered round 2 on Nov 13th and they found some success over the first two days with estimated 40 emus killed.
By Dec 2nd the soldiers were killing about 100 emus per week.
In December 1932 the word of the Emu War had spread, reaching the UK, some conservationist there protested the cull as "extermination of the rare emu"
On December 10th, Meredith was recalled and reported 986 kills with the use of 9,860 rounds, a rate of exactly 10 rounds per confirmed kill and in addition 2,500 birds were wounded had died of the injuries they had sustained.
Despite the problems with the cull, the farmers would again request 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 was continued and would prove to be effective, 57,034 bounties were claimed over 6 month ins 1934
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.
Throughout the 1930s and beyond, exclusion barrier fencing became a popular and effective means for keeping Emus and other wildlife out of agricultural areas
In some instances farmers called for their extermination by using light bombs dropped from low-flying planes or by machine-guns, in the same way as they were destroyed in 1932, when thousands were destroyed to safe-guard crops. But there would never be another outright emu war, the military had learned their lesson
In November 1950 Hugh Leslie raised the issue of the emus in Federal Parliament and urged Army Minister Josiah Francie to release a quantity of .303 ammunition from the army for the use of farmers. The minister approved the release of 500,000 rounds
Other Emu Incidents
In the 1990s, emu was billed as America's next red meat. Environmentalists touted its eco-friendliness, nutritionists gushed over its health benefits, and chefs praised its tender meat.
But emus never really took off, which makes sense as they're flightless birds. Like kangaroo, people from the up-over have a hard time as seeing the 'exotic ' bird as food
Making the market unstable and unreliable. It didn't help that knowledge about farming these animals was lacking and facilities capable and willing to process the meat were limited
There are only 13,300 emus in the US, a 72% decrease in the last ten years, meanwhile the bovine is going strong with 29 million. Even exotic peacocks outnumber emus 3 to 1
One emu yields 25 lbs of meat and two gallons of oil used as a skin salve in some products. The large eggs are coveted by artists and make an omelet the size of one made with a dozen chicken eggs. While it takes five acres to raise just one beef cow and calf, it takes less than three acres to raise an emu
Emu meat is rich in myoglobin which is what makes meat red and consequentially, makes it taste quite similar to beef, but it has a low fat content similar to chicken.
So why did the boom fail? Mostly marketing. the American Emu Association says that while they take out ads in farm magazines, they just can't fight the monolith that is the cattle industry
Due to the limited processing plants, emu is also not cheap at $25-$30 a lb where beef averages at about $8 lb
Not that it's doing much better in Australia. Across the entire continent there are less than 300 birds on farms. It's not great in India either who had bought into the mad rush only to find few buyers and ultimately caused many farmers to just abandon the birds in the wild rather than pay for their feed
Checking reddit for anecdotes as you do and I found this story. (The user has since deleted their account so I don't have a username to credit)
There were a lot of emu experiments in the late 80s where I'm from (north-central Arkansas - Judsonia, to be precise). Might have been early 90s - Not sure, exactly.
Idk how it got started, but the locals got the idea that emus were miracle birds, and this get-rich-quick scheme started to spread. Kind of like the beanie babies thing, except with large flightless birds that will kick the shit out of you and your dog.
At some point, the emu market crashed and all the local farmers were left with these expensive ass monster alien birds. I don't know why the market crashed, or why there was even a market to begin with. Nonetheless, people lost their life savings in these prickly headed mutant turkeys. You couldn't pay anyone enough to take a live one off your hands.
An elder at my dad's church doubled down on the emu craze. I think he was left with about 2000 of these motherfuckers. So what do you do with 2000 dinosaur birds that eat as much as a small horse every day?
You go to fucking WAR.
Only not with guns... 2000 shotgun shells costs a fuck ton of money to a broke ass emu farmer.
So yeah.. The church had an emu war to save the elder's farm. It was a long, bloody battle. Miraculously, no humans were lost in the struggle.
The fallen emus were shipped away to a dog food factory.
But not everyone hates emus
The aboriginals revered emus and frequently included them in their stories. From those that survive, we know that there were a handful of different beliefs among aboriginal tribes. Beliefs is a far too simple word to sum up such a complex concept that is a blend of lifestyle, religion and culture, but one common word you see that describes these systems is: the dreaming
Within the dreaming there are hundreds of stories, many take place in the plane of the Everywhen, a world inhabited by ancestral figures often of heroic and supernatural abilities, but not to be confused with gods.
Among these are a plethora tales about animalistic ancestors including many about the emu
One story in particular goes:
Long ago there was a cat called Jootetch who was married to an Emu called Wej
One day, Wardu the wombat paid a visit to Wej while Jooteetch was out hunting. Wardu was secretly in love with Wej and she was tempted by his charms. At sundown, Wej told Wardu to leave before Jooteetch returned as he would kill them both in a jealous rage. However, before Wardu left he painted Wej with a precious red ochre that was used for special ceremonies.
When Jooteetch returned he asked Wej why she was decorated with this precious ochre and who gave it to her? She told him that she found it but he knew she was lying as he had recognized Wardu's tracks leaving their camp.
Jooteetch pretended to believe her and asked her to build a fire for the cold night ahead. When the fire was ablaze he grabbed Wej and threw her into the flames. With the strength of her powerful legs she jumped so high into the sky that she never ever returned.
Now on a dark night, if you look up at the Milky Way, you can see her as the dark patch between the stars which is known to the Aboriginal people as Wej Mor.
In recent years the Emu War has become a popular meme and in 2020 inspired a video game entitled Emu War
The Emu War has been referenced in various memes, spiking in the mid-2010s.
Below is a collection of memes that I have curated for your enjoyment:
The Future of Emus
While the emu has endured for millions of years, there could be an end in sight
An upgrade and extension of a vermin control fence running across Western Australia (the State Barrier Fence) is nearing completion. When finished it will stretch coast‐to‐coast, completely cutting off the emu migration routes
Imagine thousands of emus stuck behind a fence, their migration route blocked by wire and steel posts. Imagine them dying of starvation, thirst, or exhaustion, their bones and feathers rotting in Western Australia's red earth. It's coming.
Before the settlement of Australia's west, emus moved as they needed, southwest toward the coast some time in winter, northeast in summer, or the other way around if the rains so dictated. In some years, thousands joined forces to journey together, forming one of nature's great spectacles. They faced dangers, of course: natural predators and the aboriginals who found many creative ways of capturing and hunting the emu
But the Aboriginals respected their prey. Among some groups, when a young hunter took an emu for the first time, his comrades would make him lie on the lifeless body, thanking it for nourishing them. others taught that the yolk of an emu egg was responsible for the Sun's first rising. They took only what they needed, just as the birds themselves took only the plants, grubs, and insects that sustained them, a balance set out in the Dreamtime.
European settlers, however, were different. They cleared the land and planted wheat. And so the emus, who could only have seen the new cropland as a tucker basket just right for long seasonal walkabouts, became the enemy. There would be war.
Since then, Western Australia's emus have faced many other shootings, and even strychnine poisoning, yet they still manage to gather in huge numbers in some years. But this new fence, reinvented, reinforced, and running without end or breakage, could be their undoing.
Following an environmental review period and subsequent approval by the Minister for Environment on April 15th 2019, the construction of the extension of the State Barrier Fence began on May 23rd 2019. More information about the review is available from the Environmental Protection Authority.
This fence is also going to do a lot more then just make the lives of emus difficult
The extension will cut through the largest intact temperate woodland on earth, the Great Western Woodlands.
The WA Government, under pressure from farmers, will argue they are removing threats to stock and crops. They must also acknowledge however that they are creating another, potentially greater, long-term threat to native flora and fauna.
Peer-reviewed research suggests that the barrier fence is likely to increase fox and cat numbers by excluding dingoes, fragment populations of native species and stop seed dispersal.
Emus inadvertently disperse native seeds because they eat fruits from a range of native plants. Emus are estimated to transport seeds from 12 to more than 200 plant species, depending on the region. Emus travel long distances, and by restricting their natural movement the fence is also preventing dispersal of seeds.
In the absence of this dispersal, plant species may decline across large areas. Isolated populations, with no source of replenishment, may die out. This is particularly concerning for the future because many species need to alter their ranges due to global warming. Plants that no longer have the ability to travel long distances inside an emu may not survive accelerating rates of climate change because they cannot keep up with the shifting climate.
Environmentalists guess that the costs to farmers of crop damage caused by migrating emus once every five to ten years will be dwarfed by the expense of building and maintaining the fence combined with the cost of the lost ecosystem services provided by migrating emus. Alternative solutions need to be sought.
Deakin University researcher Euan Ritchie says the state barrier fence has had a questionable impact on controlling pest species historically, and extending it would likely cause more harm than good.
"There is anecdotal evidence from people who maintain the state barrier fence that large numbers of animals are dying along the fence lines. The south-west of WA is typically much wetter than inland WA, and thousands of animals are predicted to die along the fence lines each year trying to access more fertile habitats, particularly during major droughts. The south-west dingo fence hasn't at all stopped dingoes, just as historically, the rabbit-proof fence never stopped the movement of rabbits,"
How They Will Get Revenge
These days, thankfully emus are protected under federal legislation (but that won't stop deaths caused due to the environmental impacts of a giant fence...). Here's how they're trying to gain the upper hand
They may live longer than we originally guessed
Let me tell you about Pepe
Emus have a life expectancy of about 10-20 years in the wild, and 35 years in captivity
It was a hot day in the early 1960s when a forest worker pulled up at Maurie Killeen's farm in Valencia Creek, Australia, leaving him with a small cardboard box containing two emu chicks
The family was known for taking in animals and caring for them, but they had never raised an emu, never mind two.
But they made it work and the animals soon became part of the family. According to Ms Whykes
"The house gate was always open, he could have gone to the bush if he wanted to, but he's always been happy where he is,"
In 1990 Pepe's brother mysteriously disappeared but Pepe found a new best friend in a goat that lived on the farm. Unfortunately in 2017 Pepe's bff goat would die, but Pepe lives on in his memory.
Pepe is 58 years old as of this year and still going strong at least as of the end of July. While he can look a little rough around the edges the bird appears happy and healthy. Who knows how long he'll continue on, he may outlast us all.
Retaking their Land
In Your Pubs
In Yaraka, Australia the owners of the Yaraka Hotel were forced to ban two emus from their bar for bad behavior
Kevin and Carol are the two troublemakers, two friendly emus that have grown up in the small town. Apparently the Yaraka Hotel's open door policy was just too much temptation for the wily couple to deny
"They've been stealing things from the guests, especially their food. They'd stick their heads in and pinch toast out of the toaster. But the main reason we've banned them is their droppings. They're enormous, very large and very smelly, and they created great stains,"
In Your Towns
Only a few hundred miles from the site of the famous Emu War, Nannup, a small Australian town, population 1,300 came under siege last year and their captors haven't left.
Three families of emus roam the town now, somewhere between 20-40 birds. When they had shown up originally, they came with their babies, who were only a few inches then but now are 6 ft tall
This militia has the town split in two: on one side there are disgruntled residents whose rose bushes and fruit trees have been plucked; on the other side, are those who say the emus bring something unique to the town.
Ultimately the only action the town has taken has been the installation of signs about town. The birds are harmless to the humans, but could cause traffic accidents by unwary drivers
These lightless birds are determined and won't shy from a good fight. So who knows, they may win the next war too!
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