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Australian Environmental Issues

A true-blue battler

Box jellyfish
How to avoid the stings and what to do if stung

So you wrestle crocs...

Unfairly judged in killing off the thylacine?

The wise little gnomes of Australia

Victors of the great Emu war

Shaping everything from how Australians speak to how they salute

Funnel Web spider
Yyou'll never leave your ugg boots outside

Most herbivores don't grow a spine until they are the size of an elephant. Not so the roo.

Kill less people than cows

Shark attack Australia
How to ensure you don't go by the name of Bob

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Keg of muscle

The mainland's largest marsupial carnevore

Mythical creatures
Yowies and dropbears; some say they are myths but those who are not afraid to talk have shared their stories






The Emu

Masters of Battle Strategy and Bullet Carrying

"If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world." Major Meredith

Emus have been walking the plains of Australia in something reasonably close to their present form for about 80 million years. The Emu was around when the dinosaurs still walked the plains. They knew Australia when it was covered in rainforest. They saw the McDonald Ranges when they were the height of the Himalayas and were there as it was eroded to small hills. Through all the changes, the Emus persevered. Then the Europeans came…

Whereas the Aboriginal people viewed the emus as either a totem or food source and valued them accordingly, the colonists just saw them as a pest. Western Australians even built a 2000km long fence to keep out rabbits. When rabbits made it through before it was even completed, it was repurposed to be a fence to keep out emus migrating across the landscape. While it did stop thousands of emus, some managed to break through the fence lines to continue their march. Farmers then complained that the emus were devasting crops by "rolling on them". They also blamed the emus for the holes in the fence that had let the rabbits through (even though the fences were no longer being defined as necessary to stop rabbits because they had failed to do that before even being finished). Rising anger towards the emus culminated in the Great Emu war of 1932 which involved deploying the Australian army to fight the birds.

The war was commanded Major G. P. W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery. At his disposal were four soldiers, two Lewis machine guns, 10,000 rounds of ammunition and a militia of farmers (presumably). The brave Diggers initially engaged a party of 50 birds on the now abandoned townsite of Campion in the south west. The men tried to herd the emus into the line of fire, but the plan failed when they broke ranks and scattered. Two days later, a flock of around 1000 birds was sighted heading towards a local dam. Rather than herding, Meredith meticulous planned an ambush. Again, once the Diggers opened fire, the birds scattered and only around a dozen were killed. In desperation, Meredith had the machine guns mounted to trucks so the fleeing emus could be pursued. Unfortunately for Meredith, the trucks proved incapable of following on bumpy terrain and the gunners found it impossible to get clean shots. Dejected, Meredith rose the white flag amid mocking newspapers commentary. Meredith explained the difficulty of his task by referencing the emus bullet carrying capacity. In his own words,  

“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.”

Bird expert Dominic Serventy had a different take. Instead of attributing the emu’s victory to their bullet carrying capacity, Servently felt they had won the battle of strategy. In his own words,

“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.”

Meredith’s failure was really a failure of knowing the enemy. If he had consulted Aboriginal people, he would have discovered that emus have a natural curiosity that Aborigines exploited by laying on their back and kicking their feet in the air. When the emus came to investigate, a hunting mate would jump out to hit them in the neck with a club. Admittedly, the risk of casualties was far greater than Meredith faced with machine guns. If emus get close enough, they have powerful leg muscles a sharp talons which are capable of disembowelling a predator of human size. Nevertheless, close-range engagement provided far more efficient kill rates than what achieved by the army and its heavy machiney.

Emu's can be attracted by kicking legs in the air.

Aside from being criticised as a classice failure to appreciate the enemy's strengths, the Great Emu War can criticised for making an enemy out of a potential friend. Although the emus broke rabbit-proof fences that allowed rabbits to get through, the fence itself was a stupid idea that was never going to stop a single pregnant female that would make it obsolete. If anything, the emus just showed the stupidity of it and damaged egos in the process. Rather than keep building fences, West Australians should have conceded the idea was bird brained. As for the criticism that they damaged crops by "rolling on them", emus also provided benefits by eating enormous quantities of plague insects like locusts or caterpillars as well as mice. Furthermore, unlike cattle and especially sheep, they do not cause soil compaction or destroy grass roots, and their dung gradually helps vegetation recover. If farmers had been a bit more entrepreneurial, they could even have made some money out of the birds coming onto their land. Emu oil is used for the treatment of muscle aches and sprains, emu skin makes excellent leather, emu meat is sold in the niche gourmet market and emu feathers are very popular in hats.

The emu's ability to survive so many changes says much about its adaptability. According to folklore, emus have a mysterious mechanism that tells them where the rain is, and will travel for hundreds of kilometers to take advantage of a deluge. They seem to be keenly attuned to subtle weather cues, particularly the sight of distant cloud formations and the sound of thunder from afar. They are opportunistically nomadic and feed on grains, flowers, fruit, soft shoots, insects, mice, grubs, and even other animal dung. They are powerful swimmers and and capable of crossing any river. Although they must drink every day, they are very good conservers of water. Their feathers deflect most of the sun's heat which allows them to forage right through the day when nearly all other animals must take shelter.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the emu is its mating. Once cupid's arrow strikes, the gentlemen and his fair maiden mate every day. Every second or third day, the female will lay a dark green egg weighing about half a kilogram. After the lady lays her seventh egg, the male will become broody and begin sitting on the eggs. The female will then seek another male for more intimate rendezvous. After her act of infidelity, she may return to lay more eggs. As many as half the chicks in the brood may be fathered by others. Once the male starts brooding, he will not eat, drink or defecate. For the next eight weeks, he will survive on accumulated body fat, losing up to one third of his body weight. Meanwhile, the female may go on to another lover's nest to lay more eggs. In a good season, a female Emu may nest up to three times. Once the chicks hatch, the male will protect them. He will also adopt any strange chick found wandering, as long as it is no bigger than the chicks in his own brood.


Questions to think about

The justification for the The Great Emu War of 1932

Below is the 1932 Hansard entry discussing the case for the Great Emu War. Explain whether you believe the minister gave satisfactory answers that justified the war and his part in it.

Mr Rosevear asked the Assistant Minister for Defence, upon notice -

1.   Who is paying the cost of what is known as the "Emu war" is Western Australia?

2.   Who suggested the use of machine guns and trained troops and officers?

3.   Is it a fact that the operations have been an expensive failure?

4.   Will he consider the question of ceasing these military operations against emus?

Mr Francis - The answers to the honorable member's questions are as follow : -

1.   The expenses in connexion with ammunition used are being defrayed by the settlers. The railway fares are being paid by the State Government. The military personnel receive no extra pay and there is no additional cost to the Commonwealth Government.

2.   The settlers on the fringe of the wheat belt interviewed the Minister for Defence and pointed out that, owing to the dry spell inland, thousands of emus were damaging rabbit proof fences and devastating crops by rolling on them. The settlers stated that ordinary firearms were useless to stop the inroad of emus and requested that machine guns be loaned to them to destroy the birds. The Minister for Defence would not agree to allow the settlers the use of the machine guns but intimated his willingness to make available military personnel accustomed to operating the guns. The gun crews comprise one officer and two other ranks and two guns.

3.   No. The reports furnished show that some hundreds of emus are being destroyed and any expenses are being borne by the State Government and the settlers.

4.   Termination will depend upon reports from the Military Commandant as to future success in this matter. I may add that the State Government has strongly urged the operations to continue.

From Hansard Parliament of Australia Tuesday 22nd November 1932 https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id:%22hansard80/hansardr80/1932-11-22/0145%22

The forgotten shield bearer

The Kangaroo and Emu are two animals that can not walk backwards. As a metaphor of the great Australian trait to leave baggage in the past and look optimistically to the future, the two hold the shield on the Australian Coat of Arms. Whereas have been used to represent Australia via sporting teams etc countless times, the Emu has. Think of some explanations for why.

Market the Emu

Emus are one of the few native Australian animals that are suitable for farming. Unlike Kangaroos, they don’t lose weight when enclosed and are actually quite easy to enclose. They are also very environmentally friendly. Their feet don’t tear up the toil. Furthermore, they are omnivores so they will eat huge amounts of insects that may have otherwise threatened food crops.

Under good captive conditions, a pair of emus may produce ten eggs a year, which yield on average 5.5 chicks. At the end of 15 months, these would yield 4m2 of leather, 150 kg of meat, 5.5 kg of feathers, and 2.7 litres of oil. Eggshells of infertile eggs are suitable for carving.

Create a marketing campaign to increase demand for the various products from Emu. Consider

  1. Will the meat be positioned as gourmet or low class dogfood like kangaroo?
  2. Emu feathers have been used on the slouch hat. Are there any iconic pieces of clothing it could be used on?
  3. Carving emu egg shells used to be a form of high art in Australia. Could this tradition be revived?
  4. Organic – Australia is the largest producer of organic food in the world. How could the Emu help satisfy demand for organic and environmentally friendly food?
  5. Lamb is positioned as a dinky di true blue Aussie meat. Could emu ever be seen the same way?
  6. Festivals – Lobster on romantic occasions, Turkey at Christmas, Vegemite when travelling, could Emu be positioned as the food of a particular time?
  7. What cooking shows could be sponsored so that they use the Emu in recipes or challenges?
  8. Create a slogan


Invasive ferals


Carp and Trout
A tale of two ferals

New hope for Cane Toads
The many unknown predators of the toad

A fence almost 2,000 km long to keep rabbits out of WA? Sounds like a great idea! If it doesn't work, we'll build another one!

The Willow
How a change in its status from asset to weed led to fish kills with blackwater and blue-green algae outbreaks

To bait dingos?
Should the health of the ecosystem be considered or just the kennel club registration?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Environmental values

Environmental problems
How money and ideology shapes environmental "science."

Australia's Stockholm Syndrome with gum trees.

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Climate change in Australia
Australia was once covered in rainforest. Could it be again?

The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?




Australian environmental science is defined by an ideology that is not unlike a prison warden. There, the scientists are not seeing themselves as part of the ecosystem, but as masters over it; protecting the rights of the species that they say have rights and killing those that they say do not…but inevitably killing both.

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions." Physicist John Reid - 2012