The Life of the African Ostrich
“Very little is known of the habits of the wild birds; nearly every extant account bristles with inaccuracies.”
There has been some desultory controversy as to whether Africa contains only one species of ostrich or several species. In Mr. W. L. Sclater’s Fauna of South Africa, four are mentioned, namely: Struthio camelus, which ranges over North Africa and Arabia, and in ancient times was found in Southwestern Asia; S. masaicus, S. molybdophanes, and S. australis. In view, however, of Professor Deurden’s recent researches, it is fairly clear that this classification will have to be revised. Possibly there exists only one species, which includes several varieties. The ostrich is only semi-gregarious and, like all animals not wholly gregarious, is subject to individual variation. It is, however, stated that the Somaliland ostrich has a horny shield on the top of its head. If this be so, and especially if the horn be an excrescence from the skull, not only will S. molybdophanes establish its claim to being a separate species, but an interesting link between the ostriches and the cassowaries will be suggested.
The genus Struthio belongs to the subclass Ratitae, all the genera of which are flightless birds with no keel to the sternum or breast-bone. Such are the rheas, the cassowaries, the emus, and the kiwis. Except the ostrich, none of the genera of this sub-class are found north of the equator. Up to a comparatively recent period, the ostrich ranged over the whole African continent except in the denser forests and on the higher mountain ranges.
Half a century ago the ostrich of Southern Africa was in danger of extinction; now, however, owing to domestication, its numbers have enormously increased. In 1913 there were 776,268 ostriches owned by farmers within the South African Union. Salutary laws for the protection of wild birds have also been enacted. Although wild birds have disappeared from the more settled parts, they are still to be found in considerable numbers in the less accessible areas, such as the Kalihari and Great Bushmanland deserts.
Very little is known of the habits of the wild birds; nearly every extant account bristles with inaccuracies. Some of the latter have their origin in the Bible, wherein, among other errors, it is stated that the eggs of the ostrich are hatched out by the heat of the sun, and that the young are cruelly deserted by their parents. In Job and Jeremiah the ostrich, which is really an example to many other birds in the matter of caring for its young, is held up to the execration of mankind as a cruel and unfeeling parent.
The male ostrich stands nearly eight feet high; the female about eighteen inches less. The upper portion of the body of the male, as well as the lower fourth of the neck, is covered with short, glossy black feathers. The foam-white plumes are the primary feathers of the wings; plumes of an inferior quality form the tail. The hue of the female is a dove-tinted brown. Her plumes are not nearly so luxuriant as those of the male, and are dingy-white in color. A full-grown male ostrich at the beginning of the breeding-season is a truly magnificent creature. The short, black feathers with which his back and sides are densely covered ripple and glint in the sunshine; his waving plumes gleam gallantly. So charged is he with abounding vigor that the blood suffuses the scales of the tarsi and the feet, the visible portion of the so-called thigh, the head and the beak, until they glow in clear crimson. His large, brilliant hazel eye flashes from beneath a fringe of black bristles. Fierce, fearless, and majestic, he stalks toward an intruder, lashing and whisking his plumes, hissing loudly, and snapping his beak. The strength of the ostrich is prodigious; he can disembowel a horse or kick through a sheet of corrugated iron. To an unprotected man in the open an infuriated ostrich is as dangerous as the lion. Many have lost their lives through ignorance of his strength, his speed, and his implacable ferocity.
Equally impressive is the demeanor of the male when wooing his mate. Here is the description given by Mr. Cronwright-Schreiner: —
‘A cock, if courting the hen, will often run slowly and daintily on the points of his toes, with neck slightly inflated, upright and rigid; the tail half-drooped and all his body-feathers fluffed up; the wings raised and expanded, the inside edges touched the neck for nearly the whole of its length, and the plumes showing separately, like an open fan, flat to the front, on each side of the head. In no other attitude is the splendid beauty of his plumage displayed to such advantage.’
The breast of the ostrich is oval, and bare of feathers. So strong is the sternum that it might almost be compared to the ram of a battleship—except that it is not beaked. The anterior portion consists of a bony shield which is heavily strutted by the ribs, and is but scantily covered with flesh. When the bird runs against any obstacle, or falls to the ground in its flight, it is the breast-bone which sustains the impact. When the cocks fight, as they often do, it is on this useful shield that the thundering kicks are usually received.
The wings have lost almost every vestige suggestive of their original function. Contrary to general opinion, they are of no use toward accelerating the speed of the bird when it runs; if anything they are a hindrance—especially if the bird be hard pressed. But they are serviceable in covering the eggs during the process of incubation, and also in enabling the bird to turn at a sharp angle in the course of a rapid run, or even to stop almost abruptly. In the process of ‘waltzing’ or gyrating, which will presently be described, the wings enable the bird to retain or recover its balance. But the true use of the wings lies in the transcendent beauty of the primary feathers. These were developed through sexual selection, by that influence which ever strives to lead the Caliban of passion from the morass to the mountain peak.
Incidentally, it is due to the beauty of its plumes that the ostrich has not become practically extinct in Southern Africa. Among the many animals which man has taken from their natural environment and adapted to his needs, the ostrich is the only one in respect of which sheer loveliness, as distinguished from utility, — in its usually restricted sense, — formed the motive of domestication. It is also the only one which has benefited by the change. The ox, the horse, and the sheep have been reduced to a servitude of which many of the aspects are cruel. They all subserve material needs. But the ostrich furnishes plumes which are probably the most perfect decorative items in Nature’s storehouse, and, fortunately for itself, is otherwise of no use to man. It is kindly treated; even the removal of the feathers is quite a painless process. All this may be not without significance in the general scheme of things. As Emerson sang of the Rhodora, ‘Beauty is its own excuse for being’; and in the estimation of a deeper civilization, a humming-bird flashing through sunlit greenery may be of far more importance than a fat bullock in the abattoir.
In the leg of the ostrich occurs most marvelous specialization. The bird has but two toes, the third and the fourth, the outer being somewhat short. The toes have springy pads beneath and are armed with strong nails. From the foot the tarsus rises for about eighteen inches; it is covered with wide transverse scales. Above the tarsus is the so-called thigh, which is really the tibia, or shin. Here the bone is swathed in huge muscles which are covered with naked skin—usually dark blue in color in the adult bird.
Dr. Haughton, in Volume IX of the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, gave an excellent description of the ostrich’s mode of running: ‘In the act of running the leg of the ostrich is to be regarded as a jointed lever having four joints, viz., the hip, the knee, the heel, and the metatarsal joints. As the animals springs from foot to foot, the whole limb on reaching the ground is bent as far as possible at each of the articulations, and when the spring is made, the muscles proper to each joint increase the angle made by the bones meeting at the joint, so that the effect of the whole is to unbend the limb, and give it a maximum of extension at the moment of leaving the ground. During the spring the antagonist muscles again bend the joints, so that on next touching they are at their maximum of flexion, again waiting to be unbent by the muscles that open the angles of the joints; and so on. As the animal runs, it is thrown alternately from each foot in contact with the ground, as from a catapult, and advances by successive leaps or springs from foot to foot.’
The speed thus attained is very great. For a comparatively short distance when the sun is hot, or for a practically unlimited distance if the day be cool, an adult ostrich can easily outspeed a horse. In running the bird holds its head somewhat low, with the neck flexed. Strangely enough, although the neck moves with slight undulations, the head remains steady. One peculiarity which does not appear to have been noted by other observers is this: if an ostrich be kept moving continuously on a very hot day, it will suddenly fall, roll over on its back, and die—apparently of head-apoplexy.
Sight is the special sense of the ostrich; the sense of hearing being next in importance. The sense of smell is, I am convinced, of use only in connection with feeding and in the matter of recognition of the young. I have several times had wild ostriches pass within a few hundred yards to leeward of where I lay concealed, without evincing the slightest alarm. The nostrils are narrow an lie in a membranous groove rather forward on the bill. The brain is exceedingly small; its weight has been computed to be in the proportion of 1 to 1200 as compared with the whole body. The brain of the eagle is about 1 to 150; that of the parroquet as 1 to 45. If one deducts from the ostrich’s brain those portions specialized for sight and hearing, the remainder is almost infinitesimal. It has been related that Heliogabalus caused the brains of six hundred ostriches to be used for a single dish. Yet the ostrich is by no means a stupid creature.
Most of the older observers mention having seen ostriches herding with the larger wild animals, such as the zebra and the gnu. From my own observations, especially in connection with the hartebeest, I am convinced that it is the other animals which seek the society of the ostrich for the purpose of being insured against surprise. The commanding height and matchless eyesight of these birds give them a range of vision probably unsurpassed by any other flightless animal—except, possibly, the giraffe. In this connection it is interesting to note that in the first book of the Anabasis, Xenophon mentions the circumstance of ostriches and wild asses associating together on the plains to westward of the Euphrates.
Although it is usually the high, open desert plains that the ostrich frequents, it is also to be found in broken, bushy tracts. I have personally seen them in the wooded country on the East Coast, in a tract lying between the sea and a practically (to them) impassable range of mountains. In view of the number and variety of the carnivora there existing at the time, the survival of these birds was very surprising indeed. But it was only in the southwestern deserts that i had opportunities of observing the ostrich’s habits. The observations made are necessarily scanty and incomplete. The shy and elusive nature of the bird is an almost insuperable bar to any connected scrutiny. The mere approach to a nest may cause the loss of a whole brood, for if the birds be badly scared they may not return. Even an unobliterated spoor in the vicinity of a nest may cause them to abandon it.
Another danger lies in the possibility of the eggs being scorched, or chilled, when the birds decamp—according to whether heat or cold prevail. But the greatest danger arises from the jackal, which is almost invariably to be found in the vicinity of a nest, waiting for an opportunity to maraud. The usual way in which a jackal does mischief is by rolling an egg out to the rim of sand surrounding the nest, and then pushing it back hard with his nose. This cracks the egg—possibly also the one it strikes against. Occasionally two, or even three jackals will attack a nest at the same time, and fight vigorously over the contents of each egg as it is broken. The havoc then wrought may easily be imagined; it usually results in the abandonment of the nest.
Sometimes the white-necked raven (Corvultur albicollis) coöperates with the jackal. He will carry a small, heavy stone up into the air and drop it into the nest. Jackal and raven then share amicably the contents of the smashed egg. When only one, or perhaps two, eggs have been destroyed, the birds when they return may eat up the broken shells and go on sitting.
In the desert one could not avoid constantly associating the jackal with the ostrich. The central area of the Great Bushmanland waste is usually completely arid. It is absolutely level, except where the barren sand-dunes intrude over its northern margin. Of the larger fauna one finds in it only the oryx and the ostrich. But in the breeding-season of the latter, central Bushmanland literally abounded with jackals—especially in the vicinity of the ostrich nests. It was clear that the marauders were there for the purpose of preying on the eggs or the newly hatched chicks. So far as could be ascertained, there was literally nothing else for them to eat. The recognizable contents of the stomachs of jackals shot at this season were invariably the spoil of ostrich nests. It was quite exceptional to locate a nest without at least one fresh jackal-burrow in its vicinity. More than once I have seen the cock in fierce pursuit of an interrupted marauder who, twisting and doubling, — yelping dolorously the while, — made frantic efforts to reach his burrow. The jackal usually escapes, but not invariably. In the vicinity of recently abandoned nests, one occasionally found evidence indicating that some skulking brute had met a violent and richly deserved end.
The association of the jackal and the ostrich appears in ancient myth and literature. Flinders Petrie relates that in prehistoric Egypt, when the king was slain, the door to the underworld was supposed to be opened b the jackal, and through it the soul was wafted on an ostrich feather. In Job, in Isaiah, in Micah, and in Lamentations, ostriches and jackals are mentioned in the same text.
The ostrich hates the jackal implacably, but does not fear him. As a matter of fact the only creature the domesticated ostrich dreads is the dog. So fearless is he that he will unhesitatingly attack anything else which he deems to be an enemy, no matter how formidable; and as enemies he is apt to class all intruders upon what he considers to be his domain. Mr. Cronwright-Schreiner mentions the case of an ostrich charging a moving locomotive. Several instances have occurred of men having been kicked out of the saddle. But let a dog of any description appear, and the fiercest bird will almost invariably flee with every indication of terror. This is probably due to race-memory. The wild dog (Lycaon pictus) was formerly common all over South Africa; it frequented both forest and desert, ranging freely and hunting in packs which occasionally numbered over fifty individuals. The wild dog is now rarely met with except in a few of the densely bushed areas. But even yet their melodious hunting-cry, — ‘Ho-ho-ho-ho,’ — or their short, sharp bark, ma be heard at night echoing through the scrub-filled gorges of the Great Fish River valley, in the Cape Province. It may easily be imagined what an ever-present terror the ostrich was subjected to when packs of these creatures, insatiably ravenous, roamed over the country, as they undoubtedly did less than a century ago.
The making of the nest by the breeding cock and his mate is a simple and rudimentary process. From the nature of the case, the observation of wild ostriches in the act of nidification is a practical impossibility. But one has ample opportunity of observing the nest-building of domesticated birds. A cock and a hen select some sandy spot, usually slightly higher than the surrounding ground and as a rule in the vicinity of some low bush. The cock, lying on his breast, kicks the sand out backwards and sideways. A slight depression is thus formed, surrounded by a low, irregular ridge. In the formation of the latter the hen assists in a futile way; she walks round, picking up spoonfuls of sand in her beak and dropping them on the ridge. During this operation she droops and flutters her wings, making a clicking noise with their joints. She soon afterwards begins laying, depositing an egg which weighs about three pounds every second day. Some hens will sit almost from the beginning of the laying period; others will wait until almost the full number of eggs has been laid. This number apparently varies among wild birds, from ten to twenty. The eggs are ivory-white in color and are minutely pitted all over. One wonders why the coloration is not protective, as in the case of nearly all birds that nest in open spaces. Possibly the heat of the sun may account for this.
The low ridge surrounding the nest tends to become obliterated, owing to the manner in which the bird lets itself down upon the eggs. It treads carefully among them, arranges its feet at the proper distance apart, then sinks back until its tarsi lie horizontally on the ground. This brings the bulk of the body outside a section of the ridge, and in working itself in so as to cover the clutch of eggs, the bird drags the sand, of which the ridge is formed, in with it. However, the ridge is rebuilt in a curious manner. The sitting bird, if excited in any way, — more especially if alarmed, — pecks at the sand outside the nest and, lifting it in beakfuls, deposits it on the raised margin.
Mr. Cronwright-Schreiner, probably the best authority regarding ostriches in a state of domestication, considers that monogamy is normal among these birds, and that such is the only condition quite favorable in the matter of the hatching out of the young. The subject is an interesting one, the evidence in favor of both monogamy and polygamy being very strong. My own experiences among wild birds led me to conclude that the usual breeding family consisted of a cock and two hens. Mr. Schreiner’s main points are, (1) that a pair make the nest, and (2) that the best results ensue when there is only one hen. The circumstance of the pair making the nest is not, it is submitted, of any particular significance. The South African Bantu are a polygamous people, but no Bantu will marry more than one wife on one occasion. That the best results in the matter of incubation are found in monogamy is undoubted.
It may be that the ostrich is polygamous against his will, but in his natural condition his polygamy—or at least bigamy—is hardly to be doubted. The original numerical proportion of the sexes is about equal, but the males fight and kill one another after the manner of men; consequently there is a certain number of redundant females. When several of these attach themselves to an already married male, the consequences are apt to be disastrous.
When a nest contains too many eggs, the latter cannot all be covered by the sitting bird. About twenty is the number giving the best results. Instances have been recorded of as many as a hundred and fifty eggs lying in and around a single nest. In such a case, not a single chick would be hatched out. However, the question as to whether the ostrich has been born polygamous, has achieved polygamy, or has had polygamy thrust upon him, must for the present remain unsettled.
The cock sits on the eggs from about four o’clock in the afternoon until about eight next morning. Although he sits for approximately sixteen hours to the hen’s eight, the actual trouble incidental to hatching is more or less evenly apportioned between the two. About eight hours of the cock’s sojourn are spent in sleep. He has an unbroken eight-hour period wherein to feed. The hen, on the other hand, has two four-hour periods. In feeding the birds stroll leisurely along, cropping suitable herbage on their course. In leaving the nest or returning thereto, the wild bird never takes a straight course. The motive underlying this is obvious.
At the end of about six weeks the chicks will have hatched out. At first they are weak, utterly helpless creatures, with strange swellings on head, neck, and foot. However, within a few days they become active and, on the approach of danger, will scatter and take cover quite skillfully. They are a dull yellowish brown in color, with irregular longitudinal stripes of darker brown on the neck. The body covering is of down, interspersed with thick, short feathers with pointed tips. These suggest minute porcupine quills. Before eating food the chicks pick up small stones wherewith to furnish their gizzards. During the later stages of incubation—probably owing to want of exercise—the parent birds become constipated; their excrement is emitted in small, hard lumps. This forms the first food of the chicks. The latter do not all emerge from the shells on the same day; it usually takes about four days for the whole brood to appear.
After the first chicks have advanced from their stage of helpless bewilderment and are able to move about, the cock-bird leads them for short excursions in the vicinity of the nest, where they begin to peck feebly at whatever herbage exists. It is not unusual to see the cock leading five or six chicks afield, while another five or six lie or crouch stupidly on the raised margin of the nest, and yet another five or six are cheeping within the yet unbroken prison of the shell. There is considerable difference of opinion on the point as to whether one of the parent birds breaks the shells to free chicks whose emergence is unduly delayed. My own strong opinion is to the effect that the wild hen does so, by carefully pressing the eggs with the sternum plate. During the final period of hatching, both male and female—especially the latter—betray great excitement, and will fiercely attack any animal which happens to come near. The cry of the chick is pitched in a high key. When the chick is very young the note is tremulous; it is always liquid and plaintive.
The observation of wild birds engaged in the process of hatching is one of the most difficult operations a naturalist can undertake. It is possible to observe successfully only by locating the nest by day, and afterwards approaching it before dawn. Even this course is only occasionally successful. The level desert rarely contains any landmarks recognizable in the dark, so—unless one be accompanied by the Bushman guide, and Bushmen nowadays are scarce—there is considerable danger of missing the located spot. Moreover, there is always the chance of disturbing one or other of the hens resting in the darkness, and her flight ma cause the cock to rise from the nest and decamp. However, let us assume success, and that, after a tramp of several hours across the darkened waste, we have reached the place appointed for observation. The pulsing stars are above and around—almost incredibly lustrous. In our journey we have disturbed many a wild creature in those mysterious avocations which are hardly even suspected by day. The long-drawn, nasal ‘Yonk, yonk, yow-e-e-aow’ of many a questing jackal has sounded across the waste, awakening answers from kindred spirits far and near.
At length we have reached the objective—a patch of low, loose bush some ten feet in diameter. About two hundred yards away is the nest; it will be in full view after day has come, for we are on an almost imperceptible rise. Pallid grows the east. For a while flaming Phosphor outshines the dawn, but soon merges into the general effulgence. Then the black, mound-like body of the sitting cock becomes visible. He lies as still as a rock, with his long, snake-like neck stretched straight before him on the sand, his wings and tail spread tent-wise over the raised margin of the nest. The white plumes are almost completely hidden under the drooping fringe of black feathers. Herein is an undoubted instance of protective coloration. The cock, being jet-black, cannot be seen at night; the hen, which sits throughout the greater part of the day, is more or less the color of the desert sand. She thus attains a maximum of invisibility while on the nest.
At the approximate time the hens may be seen approaching—usually from different directions, but never in a straight line. They have, if the herbage be more than ordinarily scanty, perhaps slept miles away. At dawn they rose and started on their respective devious courses, cropping constantly at the herbage. When one of the hens has reached the vicinity of the nest, the cock will rise, carefully extracting his tarsi from among the eggs. As a rule the hen takes his place at once, but occasionally the eggs seem to be deliberately left to cool, as in the case of the domestic fowl. On one occasion I saw a cock come in swiftly form his feeding, sweep round the nest, and force the hen, which had left it, back to her incubation duties. He butted her with his breast-bone and showed every sign of indignation, flicking his wings and snapping his beak. It was evident that he considered that she had left the eggs for too long a period. The second hen usually sits on the edge of the nest, or, if eggs are lying outside the rim, she often sits on the. It was not possible to ascertain whether or not the same hen invariably took the most important position on the nest.
When the chicks have all become stronger on their legs, the parents lead them away to pastures they have already located, where suitable food is to be found. Should danger occur, the old birds utter a single note of alarm; then the cock hurries the brood away. Hissing violently, crouching forward and with her wings forming a fluttering shield before her body, the hen faces the enemy. This, it may be noted, is the practice of all desert antelopes, whereas, in the flight of antelopes of the forest, it is the male which covers the retreat. To these rules there are, I think, no exceptions. But if, in the case of the ostrich brood, the danger be formidable and close at hand, the chicks will immediately scatter and squat, skillfully making use of any available inequality in the ground. Then the parents will endeavor to attract attention to themselves by falling to the ground and pretending to be injured. As the enemy approaches, the bird will spring up, run a short distance, and fall again. In this procedure the ostrich imitates the sand-piper with extraordinary exactness. The danger over, the chicks run about uttering their distinctive call. The parent birds do not reply; they move slowly about within the area containing the chicks, and their commanding height enables the latter to see and rally round them. The ostrich knows its own chicks, and will kill any others seeking its protection.
One of the most remarkable habits of the ostrich is that of waltzing, or gyrating. So far as I have been able to ascertain, this habit is confined to domesticated birds. None of the old observers mention it. I have spoken to many Bushmen and others familiar with the ostrich in its wild state; not one of them had ever seen or heard of wild birds gyrating. I have personally had wild ostriches under observation from a place of concealment at every season and at each hour of the day, but never have I seen them gyrating. Yet among domesticated birds the practice is universal.
It is usually indulged in when they are released from an enclosure in the early morning. Then the birds will run swiftly for a short distance, stop suddenly, lift their wings, and spin rapidly round and round, using a perfect waltz-step. They turn indifferently from left to right or otherwise. Before the gyration begins, they will often rush about on a zig-zag course; when it comes to an end, they will sometimes run for a considerable distance at top speed. Sometimes during gyration they become quite dizzy and fall to the ground; if they meet an obstacle and trip, a broken tarsus is apt to result.
Gyration is practiced by birds of all ages from about three months onward, but among adults it is not nearly so common as among non-nubile birds; therefore it can have no sexual significance.
Taking into consideration the constant menace under which these birds exist in their natural environment, the general practice of gyration or of any exercise calculated to attract the attention of enemies, is unthinkable. The young wild ostrich survives only with difficulty, and largely owing to its inconspicuousness; probably not more than twenty per cent of those hatched out reach maturity. So far as one can judge, the gyration is a pure and simple expression of the joy of life—as natural a manifestation of healthy and exuberant vitality as is the dancing of children of all ages and climes. It is conventional, for all birds gyrate in exactly the same manner. It is to be accounted for only on the hypothesis of race-memory. Probably the ostrich did not always dwell in an environment of danger; countless ages ago the species may have had its origin in some vast Australian tract wherein carnivora were scarce. And now, when the age-long menace has been lifted from the domesticated birds, a hint—a whisper down the interminable, echoing corridors of the germ-plasm—may have awakened in them the long-dormant spirit of joy.
Another remarkable habit of the ostrich is that known as rolling. It is almost exclusively confined to the male bird. Under sexual excitement or anger a bird will sink down on his ankle-joints with his tarsi horizontal, the tibia remaining erect. He will then open his wings forward and swish them alternately over his back. The head and neck, depressed backward, swing with the motion of the wings, the head striking the ribs on each side. The tail becomes widely distended. While thus engaged, the bird appears to be lost in an ecstasy of excitement; he becomes quite oblivious to his surroundings.
It is somewhat remarkable that erotic excitement and anger should be expressed in exactly the same manner. There is a kind of analogy to be found in certain behavior of the desert gazelle (Antidorcas euchore, miscalled the springbuck). This animal in its morning play expands and erects its dorsal mane of long snow-white hair, bends its back and sinks its head almost to the level of its hoofs. Then it bounds into the air, swaying from side to side. But if suddenly alarmed by an enemy, the gazelle acts in a precisely similar manner.
The ostrich emits several sounds, the best-known of which is the muffled roar known as the ‘boom’ or the ‘brom,’ which is uttered by the male bird—either as a challenge to a rival or as a love-note to the hen. The sound is divided into three utterances, the first two being short and the third long, with an interval of about a second between. It is generated in a curious manner. The bird shuts its beak so tightly that no air can escape; then it empties the lungs into the œsophagus through the larynx, inflating the neck for its greater extent. The air thus flows backward over the vocal chords.
This sound has been compared to ‘mourning’ by the Prophet Micah; and at a certain distance, when some of the elements have been subdued, it does convey a mournful suggestion. When heard close by, it suggests the utterance of an ox in pain, but at over a thousand yards it startlingly resembles the voice of the lion. The boom of the ostrich is but rarely heard by day, and the bird an utter it only when standing still. The other sounds are, respectively, a loud hiss of anger, a gurgle expressive of alarm, and the sharp note uttered to warn the chicks of danger.
The ostrich is usually a vegetarian, but his gizzard is a mill to which most objects capable of being swallowed are acceptable grist. It contains a number of large, rounded stones; almost invariable some of these are brightly colored. He will feed greedily upon locusts in the wingless stage, and apparently considers a young tortoise to be a tit-bit. Domesticated ostriches swallow the most extraordinary things; if one wears jewelry it is not safe to approach the fence of an enclosure in which friendly birds are kept. More than one lady has discovered this to her cost. With a lightning-like sweep of its beak over or through a fence, a bird will annex a brooch, a locket, or any other glittering object. Tennis-balls, kittens, the heels of glass bottles, cartridges, and small lengths of heavy wire, are among the articles which ostriches have been observed to swallow.
The plume of the ostrich is like nothing else in Nature. The nearest resemblance is to be found in an ephemeral thing—the foam of a breaking wave. It must be unthinkable ages since the wings of this bird subserved any use but that of beauty; their function in the matter of covering the eggs during incubation is quite secondary and could easily be dispensed with. The perfectly even barbs are soft as gossamer and, contrary to the rule among birds that fly, quite disconnected and independent one of the other. The quills, from their point of emergence from the socket, become increasingly flexible and lithe. The plumes convey suggestions of luxuriant ductility, of effortless grace, of sumptuousness, and, above all, of purity. From very ancient days they have been used by man as a decoration, but not until quite recently by women.
The beauty of the plumes of the ostrich and the mystery surrounding its habits, have ever attracted the interest of mankind. In ancient Egypt the plume, on account of the mathematical equality of the opposing barbs in point of length, — a peculiarity not present in the primary feathers of any other bird with which the Egyptians were acquainted—was regarded as the sacred symbol of Justice. Osiris was represented with two ostrich plumes in his crown. The hieroglyph for the plume was ‘shoo.’ This was probably onomatopoetic, and originated in the soft sound made by the plumes, when used as a fan.
The plume of the ostrich is in several respects the fairest thing which earth has produced. The creature which it glorifies is a member of an archaic class. Many of its congeners have disappeared; perhaps eliminated by the mammal carnivora; perhaps owing to their ‘expensiveness,’ as Lafcadio Hearn suggests, in connection with the elimination of the dragons of the prime. One may see in certain museums the unbroken shell of the egg—fourteen inches in length—of the Æpiornis, unearthed in Madagascar. The height of the bird—possibly the roc of Eastern legend—may have been anything up to twenty feet. The Diornis of New Zealand—another gigantic relative—was probably in existence in the seventeenth century. Fossil bones of struthious birds have been found in Samos, in Russia and in Northern India.
The vast African deserts have probably afforded the only conditions which rendered it possible for the ostrich to survive. Its hardihood, its speed, its wonderful power of vision, and, above all, its fecundity, have enabled it to triumph over extraordinary difficulties. Probably a toll of four fifths of the young is paid to the skulking, loathsome jackals which dog their footsteps, in the breeding season, to the most remote and barren wastes.
The caprice of man has given the southern variety of the ostrich a fresh lease of being. And the foam-like plumes, the very incarnation of purity and loveliness, are as though blown like derelict blossoms hither and thither upon the unlovely, brown, rigorous face of the unregarding wilderness.