Chapter 50 - The Giraffe Hunters by Mayne Reid

A Talk about Ostriches.

The Ostrich (Struthio Camelus) is supposed to be the Benonim, Jaanah, and Joneh, mentioned in the Bible. It is the Thar Edsjanmel or camel-bird of the Persians, of which everybody knows something and of which nobody knows all.

With the general appearance of the bird, I presume that my young readers are already acquainted, and shall therefore say little or nothing about it.

The stumpy-footed, two-toed, long-legged, kicking creature has wings that are apparently more useful to man than to itself. In fact, the possession of these apparently superfluous appendages is generally the cause of its being hunted by man and by him destroyed.

It is one of those unfortunate creatures, persecuted to gratify the vanity of other perhaps equally unfortunate creatures, called fashionable ladies. A full-grown ostrich is usually between seven and eight feet in height, but individuals have occasionally been met with measuring more than ten.

Its nest is merely a hole in the sand, about three feet in diameter, and usually contains twenty eggs. Half this number may be seen lying outside the nest, and elsewhere scattered over the plain. These are supposed to be intended as food for the young when they have first broken the shell. This supposition, however, is not founded upon the observation of any fact to justify a belief in it.

Job (chapter 39), speaking of the ostrich, says, she “Leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in the dust, and forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them. She is hardened against her young ones as though they were not hers: her labour is in vain without fear.” This account does not altogether correspond with modern observation.

In the heat of the day, when the eggs are under the burning sun, the ostrich can well afford to leave them for a while and go off in quest of food. At night, when it is cool and the eggs need protection, the bird is ever to be found doing its duty, and the male ostrich is often seen in charge of the young brood, and assiduously guarding them. At such times, if molested, the old birds have been known to act in the same way as the partridge or plover, by shamming lame, so as to mislead the intruder.

From much more now known of the ostrich, it cannot be said to be wanting in paternal or maternal instincts; and the idea of its being so has only originated in the fact of their nests being so often found deserted during the hot hours of the day.

The food of the ostrich generally consists of seeds and leaves of various plants. Owing to the nature of the dry desert soil on which it is obtained, the only species it can procure are of a hard, dry texture; and it is supposed to be for the purpose of assisting nature in their digestion that the bird will swallow pebbles, pieces of iron, or other mineral substances. Some have been disembowelled, in whose stomachs was found a collection so varied as to resemble a small curiosity shop or geological museum.

Stones have been taken out of the stomach of an ostrich each weighing more than a pound avoirdupois!

When this great bird is going at full run,—for of course it cannot fly,—its stride is full twelve feet in length, and its rate of speed not less than twenty-five miles to the hour. It cannot be overtaken by a horseman, and its capture is generally the result of some stratagem.

It always feeds on the open plain, where it can obtain an unobstructed view, and be warned in good time of the approach of an enemy. It possesses a sharp vision, and from the manner its eyes are set in its small, disproportioned head, held eight or ten feet above the surface of the ground, it can take in the whole circle of the horizon at a glance. On this account the utmost caution is required in approaching it.

In one respect the author of the book of Job has closely followed nature in his description of this bird; for “God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding.”

The ostrich is a stupid creature, and is often captured by taking advantage of its stupidity. Nature seems to have placed in its little head the belief that in running to the leeward it will encounter some impassable barrier, and be overtaken by whatever pursues it. Ostrich-hunters are well acquainted with this peculiarity, and on approaching a flock they always ride to the windward. This manoeuvre is observed by the birds, who believe that an attempt is being made to cut off their retreat in the only direction in which it can be successfully made. They immediately start on a course which, if continued, must cross that taken by the hunters. Owing to the greater distance it has to run, the latter often get near enough to bring the bird down with a shot. Were the silly bird to retreat in the opposite direction, it would be perfectly safe from pursuit.

The feathers of the ostrich are beautifully adapted to the warm climate of the desert country it inhabits. They allow a free circulation of the air around its skin, while giving shade to its body. The white plumes of the male bring the greatest price, and sometimes sell for 12 pounds the pound, Troy weight, of only twelve ounces. The black feathers seldom fetch more than a fourth of the price.

Two species of ostrich are found on the great plains of South America, and one other in Australia. None of these attain the gigantic proportions of the African, nor are their plumes at all comparable in beauty or value to those of the Struthio Camelus.

Ostriches were once a favourite article of food with the Romans; and it is stated that the brains of six hundred of these birds were consumed at one feast. The flesh is still eaten, but only by the native Africans. The bird possesses great strength, and can run at a rapid rate with a man mounted on its back.

It was undoubtedly designed by its Creator for some other purpose than that of contributing to the gratification of man’s vanity.

Ostriches are easily domesticated. This is done to some extent by the Arabians, who breed and bring them up for the sake of the feathers, as also to procure them as an article of food.

But the more enlightened people of the present day make no other effort to ascertain their utility, than to keep a pair or two of them shut up in a public garden for children and their nurses to gaze at.