Inside Australia’s Hapless War Against Emus

In 1932, Australia went to war against an enemy like none it had ever faced before: the emu.
Great Emu War

Flickr/David Cook

If there’s one thing that human beings are good at, it’s killing other species. This is nowhere more true than in Australia, where humans have managed to accidentally drive hundreds of native species either extinct or onto the endangered species list. Which is precisely what makes a failure in that department — specifically the Great Emu War of 1932 — is all the more interesting.

The First Tremors

The trouble began for Australia shortly after World War I. Australia had sacrificed terribly in that war, sending tens of thousands of its young men to die in the doomed Gallipoli Campaign.

The survivors who staggered back had trouble adjusting to civilian life. At the same time, the vast interior of the continent remained — it was felt — shamefully underdeveloped. Letting one problem solve another, the Australian government issued land grants in a kind of Down Under Homestead Act, giving each veteran as much land as he could farm on the edges of Australia’s harsh, unforgiving Outback.

Just as in the United States, which was doing almost exactly the same thing in Kansas and Oklahoma at the time, this almost immediately led to overfarming, over- or under-irrigation, and generally unsustainable land practices.

This comes in part because Australia’s interior has a very dry and unpredictable climate, and droughts are common. When the interior gets exceptionally dry, native animals tend to migrate toward the edges looking for food and water.

Those are the two things that farms have in abundance, and so the first few waves of stray emus started drifting in from the mid- to late 1920s. Until 1932, they had always come in small groups and were generally easy to scare away from the fields.

The Face Of The Enemy

Emu War Emu Face

YouTube/CanWeTalk

The emus were easy to scare in the beginning because they’re large, relatively gentle herbivores. Up close, they have huge, powerful feet and claws that can disembowel a Komodo dragon, but left alone, they tend to flock at a distance from potential threats.

One thing they can do, however, is eat huge amounts of plant matter in a day. Even a single emu can strip a kitchen garden in a few hours, and a big enough flock of them passes over a wheat field like a huge, pinfeathered scythe.

Emus are esentially dinosaurs with beaks and feathers. Aside from the beaks, they’re hardly different from herbivorous theropods such as gallimimus and avimimus.

They don’t even have wings; their ancestors never flew, and emus have inherited a vestigial set of arms with bones and claws, but no muscle or tendons to control them. They just dangle off of the animals’ chests like earrings under their feathers.

What they lack in arms, the emus more than make up for in legs. Running at full tilt, an emu might get up to 30 mph on the open plains, and in a kick fight, it could give a kangaroo a run for its money. They also tend to peck when they get angry, which is whenever a human bothers them.

In the summer of 1932, a flock of 20,000 six-foot-tall, hungry dinosaurs emerged from the Outback looking for food. Worse, in order to get to the veterans’ farms, the emus walked right through the fence that had been laid out to keep the rabbits away from the cultivated land. Something had to give.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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