Extravagant, Aggressive Birds Down Under

A cassowary chick following its father along a beach in Etty Bay, Queensland, Australia
Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Creative
A cassowary chick following its father along a beach in Etty Bay, Queensland, Australia

Toward the end of his highly enjoyable book Where Song Began, Tim Low informs us that “it might be said that the world has one hemisphere weighted towards mammals and one towards birds.” The hemisphere weighted toward mammals is the northern one. And Low makes a convincing case that, in the south, birds of a most extravagant type occur. But is the southern hemisphere truly weighted toward birds? One window into the question is through bird–human interactions. We humans are used to getting our way with nature, but in the Antipodes birds occasionally gain the upper hand.

Such was the case when, in 1932, Australia decided to declare war on the emu, an enormous flightless bird whose image is emblazoned on the country’s coat of arms. Sir George Pierce, Australia’s defense minister, was beseeched by farmers from Australia’s southwest for deliverance from the ravening creatures, which were swarming out of the desert in countless thousands, driven south by drought. Sir George agreed to help, and so was sparked what would become known as the Great Emu War.

Major C.P.W. Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery was ordered to proceed with armed troops to the environs of Campion, a small town located near the emu “front line.” There, the army was to use Lewis guns (machine guns) to disperse the invaders. Hostilities commenced on November 1, but the birds were at such a distance that gunfire was largely ineffective. The next day, a thousand emus were seen advancing on a dam. Meredith and his troops were in a splendid position to inflict maximum casualties, but after only fewer than twelve birds were killed the Lewis guns jammed. Frustrated by the fleetness of the birds, Meredith had the machine guns mounted on trucks, but the emus easily outran the vehicles.

A month later, a crestfallen Meredith was forced to explain to the Australian Parliament that the war had been lost. He said of his foe:

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 the Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.

The war was not over, however. Irregular troops in the form of bounty hunters were enlisted, but even they could not subdue the foe, and the conflict continued for decades.

Being defeated in war by one’s avifauna is ignominious. But Australians are inured to being stung, bitten, envenomated, or outright eaten alive by a hostile fauna. Incredibly, Low claims that even Australian songbirds are dangerous. The Australian magpie looks like a very large jay,…

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