The Ostrich

Wood's Bible Animals, 1875

There is rather a peculiarity about the manner in which this bird is mentioned in the Authorized Version of the Scriptures, and, unless we go to the original Hebrew, we shall be greatly misled. In that version the Ostrich is mentioned only three times, but in the Hebrew it occurs eight times. If the reader will refer to page 370, he will see that the Hebrew word bath-haya'nah, which is translated in the Authorized Version as "owl," ought really to be rendered as "Ostrich." Taking this to be the case, we find that there are several passages in the Scriptures in which the word has been used in the wrong sense, and that in those places, instead of rendering the word as "owl," we ought to read it as "Ostrich."

The first mention of this bird occurs in Lev. xi. 16, and the parallel passage of Deut. xiv., in which the Ostrich is reckoned among the unclean birds, without any notice being given of its appearance or habits.

In the Book of Job, however, we have the Ostrich mentioned with that preciseness and fulness of description which is so often the case when the writer of that wonderful poem treats of living creatures.

"Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

"Who 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;

"Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath He imparted to her understanding.

"What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider." (Job xxxix. 13-19.)

There is rather a peculiarity in the translation of this passage, wherein the word which has been translated as "peacock" is now allowed to be properly rendered as "Ostrich," while the word which is translated as "Ostrich" ought to have been given as "feathers." The marginal translation gives the last words of ver. 13 in a rather different manner, and renders it thus:— "Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks, or the feathers of the stork and ostrich?" The Hebrew Bible renders the next verses as follows:—

"She would yet leave her eggs on the earth, and warm them in dust; and forget that the foot may crush them, or that the beast of the field may break them.

"She is hardened against her young ones, for those not hers; being careless, her labour is in vain."

In the same Book, chap. xxx, is another passage wherein this bird is mentioned. "I went mourning without the sun: I stood up, and I cried in the congregation.

"I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls," or Ostriches, in the marginal and correct reading. The Jewish Bible also translates the word as Ostriches, but the word which the Authorized Version renders as "dragons" it translates as "jackals." Of this point we shall have something to say on a future page. A somewhat similar passage occurs in Isa. xliii. 20: "The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls" (Ostriches in marginal reading), "because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to My people, My chosen." The Jewish Bible retains the same reading, except that the word "dragons" is given with the mark of doubt.

Accepting, therefore, the rendering of the Hebrew as Ostriches, let us see how far the passages of Scripture agree with the appearance and habits of the bird.

Here I may observe that, although in the Scriptures frequent allusions are made to the habits of animals, we are not to look for scientific exactness to the Scriptures. Among much that is strictly and completely true, there are occasional errors, to which a most needless attention has been drawn by a certain school of critics, who point to them as invalidating the truth of Scripture in general. The real fact is, that they have no bearing whatever on the truth or falsehood of the Scriptural teachings.

The Scriptures were written at various times, for instruction in spiritual and not in temporal matters, and were never intended for scientific treatises on astronomy, mathematics, zoology, or any such branch of knowledge. The references which are made to the last-mentioned subject are in no case of a scientific nature, but are always employed by way of metaphor or simile, as the reader must have seen in the previous pages. No point of doctrine is taught by them, and none depends on them.

The Spirit which conveyed religious instruction to the people could only use the means that existed, and could no more employ the scientific knowledge of the present time than use as metaphors the dress, arms, and inventions of the present day. The Scriptures were written in Eastern lands for Orientals by Orientals, and were consequently adapted to Oriental ideas; and it would be as absurd to look for scientific zoology in the writings of an ancient Oriental, as for descriptions of the printing-press, the steam-engine, the photographic camera, or the electric telegraph.

So, when we remember that only a few years ago the real history of the Ostrich was unknown to those who had made zoology the study of their lives, we cannot wonder that it was also unknown to those who lived many centuries ago, and who had not the least idea of zoology, or any kindred science.

Still, even with these drawbacks, it is wonderful how accurate in many instances were the writers of the Scriptures, and the more so when we remember the character of the Oriental mind, with its love of metaphor, its disregard of arithmetical precision, and its poetical style of thought.

We will now take the passage in Job xxxix. In ver. 13 reference is made to the wings and feathers of the Ostrich. If the reader will refer to page 260, he will see that the feathers of the Ostrich were formerly used as the emblem of rank. In this case, they are shown as fastened to the heads of the horses, and also in the form of a plume, fixed to the end of a staff, and appended to a chariot, as emblematical of the princely rank of the occupier. In the ancient Egyptian monuments these Ostrich plumes are repeatedly shown, and in every case denote very high rank. These plumes were therefore held in high estimation at the time in which the Book of Job was written, and it is evidently in allusion to this fact that the sacred writer has mentioned so prominently the white plumes of the Ostrich.

Passing the next portion of the description, we find that the Ostrich is mentioned as a bird that is careless of its eggs, and leaves them "in the earth, and warrneth them in the dust, and forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them."

Now it is true that the Ostrich is often known to take the greatest care of its eggs, the male collecting and sitting on them, and watching them with loving assiduity, and by some persons this fact has been brought forward as a proof that the writer of the Book of Job was mistaken in his statements. A further acquaintance with the habits of the bird tells us, how­ever, that in those parts of the world which were known to the writer of that book the Ostrich does behave in precisely the manner which is described hr the sacred writer.

Several females lay their eggs in the same nest, if the title of nest can be rightly applied to a mere hollow scooped in the sand, and, at least during the daytime, when the sun is shining, they simply cover the eggs with sand, so as to conceal them from ordinary enemies, and leave them to be hatched by the warm sunbeams. They are buried to the depth of about a foot, so that they receive the benefit of a tolerably equable warmth. So much, then, for the assertion that the Ostrich leaves her eggs "in the earth, and warmeth them in the dust."

We next come to the statement that she forgets that "the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them." It is evident from the preceding description that eggs which are buried a foot deep in the sand could not be crushed by the foot, even were they of a fragile character, instead of being defended by a shell as thick, and nearly as hard, as an ordinary earthen­ware plate. Neither would the wild beast be likely to discover much less to break them.

A more intimate acquaintance with the history of the Ostrich shows that, even in this particular, the sacred writer was perfectly correct. Besides the eggs which are intended to be hatched, and which are hidden beneath the sand to be hatched, a number of supplementary eggs are laid which are not meant to be hatched, and are evidently intended as food for the young until they are able to forage for themselves. These are left carelessly on the surface of the ground, and may easily be crushed by the hoof of a horse, if not by the foot of man. We meet, however, with another statement,—namely, that they may be broken by the wild beasts. Here we have reference to another fact in the history of the Ostrich. The scattered eggs, to which allusion is made, are often eaten, not only by beasts, but also by birds of prey; the former breaking the shells by knocking them against each other, and the latter by picking up large stones in their claws, rising above the eggs, and dropping the stones on them. The bird would like to seize the egg, rise with it in the air, and drop it on a stone, as mentioned on page 337, but the round, smooth surface of the egg defies the grasp of talons, and, instead of dropping the egg upon a stone, it is obliged to drop a stone upon the egg.

Up to the present point, therefore, the writer of the Book of Job is shown to be perfectly correct in his statements. We will now proceed to verse 16: "She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers." Now in the Jewish Bible the passage is rendered rather differently: "She is hardened against her young ones; for those not hers;" and, as we shall presently see, the reading perfectly agrees with the character of the Ostrich.

There has long existed a belief that the Ostrich, contrary to the character of all other birds, is careless of her young, neglects them, and is even cruel to them. That this notion was shared by the writer of the Book of Job is evident from the preceding passage. It also prevailed for at least a thousand years after the Book of Job was written. See Lam. iv. 3: "Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones: the daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness."

It is probable that this idea respecting the cruelty of the Ostrich towards its young is derived from the fact that if a flock of Ostriches be chased, and among them there be some very young birds, the latter are left behind by their parents, and fall a prey to the hunters. But, in reality, the Ostrich has no choice in the matter. The wide sandy desert affords no place of concealment in which it might hide its young. Nature has not furnished it with weapons by means of which it can fight for them; and consequently it is forced to use the only means of escape by which it can avoid sacrificing its own life, as well as the lives of the young.

It does not, however, leave the young until it has tried, by all means in its power, to save them. For example, it sometimes has recourse to the manoeuvre with which we are so familiar in the case of the lapwing, and pretends to be wounded or lamed, in order to draw the attention of its pursuers, while its young escape in another direction. An instance of this practice is given by Mr. Andersson in his "Lake Ngami." "When we had proceeded little more than half the distance, and in a part of the plain entirely destitute of vegetation, we discovered a male and female ostrich, with a brood of young ones, about the size of ordinary barn-door fowls. We forthwith dismounted from our oxen, and gave chase, which proved of no ordinary interest.

"The moment the parent birds became aware of our intention, they set off at full speed—the female leading the way, and the cock, though at some little distance, bringing up the rear of the family party. It was very touching to observe the anxiety the birds evinced for the safety of their progeny. Finding that we were quickly gaining upon them, the male at once slackened his pace and diverged somewhat from his course; but, seeing that we were not to be diverted from our purpose, he again increased his speed, and, with wings drooping so as almost to touch the ground, he hovered round us, now in wide circles, and then decreasing the circumference until he came almost within pistol-shot, when he abruptly threw himself on the ground, and struggled desperately to regain his legs, as it appeared, like a bird that has been badly wounded.

"Having previously fired at him, I really thought he was disabled, and made quickly towards him. But this was only a ruse on his part, for, on my nearer approach, he slowly rose, and began to run in a different direction to that of the female, who by this time was considerably ahead with her charge." Nor is this a solitary instance of the care which the Ostrich will take of her young. Thunberg mentions that on one occasion, when he happened to ride near a place where an Ostrich was sitting on the eggs, the bird jumped up and pursued him, evidently with the object of distracting his attention from the eggs. When he faced her, she retreated; but as soon as he turned his horse, she pursued him afresh.

The care of the mother for the young is perhaps less needed with the Ostrich than with most birds. The young are able to run with such speed that ordinary animals are not able to overtake them, and, besides, they are protected by their colour as long as they are comparatively helpless. Their downy plumage harmonizes completely with the sandy and stony ground, even when they run, and when they crouch to the earth, as is their manner when alarmed, even the most practised eye can scarcely see them. Mr. Andersson, an experienced hunter, states that when the Ostrich chicks were crouching almost under his feet, he had the greatest difficulty in distinguishing their forms.

Owing to the great number of the eggs that are laid, the young are often very numerous, between thirty and forty chicks some­times belonging to one brood. In the Ostrich chase which has already been described, the brood were eighteen in number, and so great was their speed that, in spite of their youth and diminutive size, Mr. Andersson only succeeded in capturing nine of them after an hour's severe chase.

We find, therefore, that we must acquit the Ostrich of neglecting its young, much more of cruelty towards them; and we will now turn to the next charge against the bird, that of stupidity.

In one sense, the bird certainly may be considered stupid. Like nearly all wild creatures which live on large plains, it always runs against the wind, so as to perceive by scent if any enemies are approaching. Its nostrils are very sensitive, and can detect a human being at a very great distance. So fastidious is it in this respect, that no hunter who knows his business ever attempts to approach the Ostrich except from leeward. If a nest is found, and the discoverer wishes the birds to continue laying in it, he approaches on the leeward side, and rakes out the eggs with a long stick.

The little Bosjesman, who kills so many of these birds with his tiny bow and arrow, makes use of this instinct when he goes to shoot the Ostrich, disguised in a skin of one of the birds. Should an Ostrich attack him, as is sometimes the case, be only shifts his position to windward, so as to allow the birds to catch the scent of a human being, when they instantly make off in terror.

When, therefore, the Ostriches are alarmed, they always run to windward, instinctively knowing that, if an enemy should approach in that direction, their powers of scent will inform them of the danger. Being aware of this habit, the hunters manage so that while one of them goes round by a long detour to frighten the game, the others are in waiting at a considerable distance to windward, but well on one side, so that no indication of their presence may reach the sensitive nostrils of the birds. As soon as the concealed hunters see the Ostriches fairly settled down to their course, they dash off at right angles to the line which the birds are taking, and in this way come near enough to use their weapons. The antelopes of the same country have a similar instinct, and are hunted in precisely the same manner.

Thus, then, in one sense the Ostrich may be considered as open to the charge of stupidity, inasmuch as it pursues a course which can be anticipated by enemies who would otherwise be unable to overtake it. But it must be remembered that instinct cannot be expected to prove a match for reason, and that, although its human enemies are able to overreach it, no others can do so, the instinct of running against the wind serving to guard it from any foe which it is likely to meet in the desert.

When captured alive and tamed, it certainly displays no par­ticular amount of intellect. The Arabs often keep tame Ostriches about their tents, the birds being as much accustomed to their quarters as the horses. In all probability they did so in ancient times, and the author of the Book of Job was likely to be familiar with tame Ostriches, as well as with the wild bird.

Stupidity is probably attributed to the tame bird in consequence of the habit possessed by the Ostrich of picking up and eating substances which cannot be used as food. For example, it will eat knives, bits of bone or metal, and has even been known to swallow bullets hot from the mould. On dissecting the digestive organs of an Ostrich, I have found a large quantity of stories, pieces of brick, and scraps of wood. These articles are, however, not intended to serve as food, but simply to aid digestion, and the bird eats them just as domestic fowls pick up gavel, and smaller birds grains of sand. In swallowing them, therefore, the Ostrich does not display any stupidity, but merely obeys a natural instinct.

Lastly, we come to the speed of the Ostrich: "What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider."

This statement is literally true. When the Ostrich puts forth its full speed, there is no horse that can catch it in a fair chase. It may be killed by the ruse which has already been described, but an adult Ostrich can run away from the swiftest horse. When it runs at full speed, it moves its long legs with astonishing rapidity, covering at each stride an average of twenty-four feet, a fact from which its rate of speed may be deduced. In consequence of this width of stride, and the small impression made in the sand by the two-toed foot, the track of a running Ostrich is very obscure. Perhaps no better proof of the swiftness of the bird can be given than the extreme value set upon it by the Arabs. Although they are bred to the desert as much as the Ostrich itself, and are mounted on horses whose swiftness and endurance are proverbial, they set a very high value on the Ostrich, and to have captured one of these birds establishes an Arab's fame as a hunter.

Sometimes the Arabs employ the plan of cutting across the course of the bird, but at others they pursue it in fair chase, training their horses and themselves specially for the occasion. They furnish themselves with a supply of water, and then start in pursuit of the first flock of Ostriches they find. They take care not to alarm the birds, lest they should put out their full speed and run away out of sight, but just keep sufficiently near to force the birds to be continually on the move. They will sometimes continue this chase for several days, not allowing their game time to eat or rest, until at last it is so tired that it yields itself an easy prey.

In Southern Africa, snares are used for taking the Ostrich. They are in fact ordinary springes, but of strength suitable to the size of the bird. The cord is made fast to a sapling, which is bent down by main strength, and the other end is then formed into a noose and fastened down with a trigger. Sometimes the bird is enticed towards the snare by means of a bait, and sometimes it is driven over it by the huntsmen. In either case, as soon as the Ostrich puts its foot within the fatal noose, the trigger is loosed, the sapling is released, and, with a violent jerk, the Ostrich is caught by the leg and suspended in the air.

Why the flesh of the Ostrich should have been prohibited to the Jews is rather a mystery. It is much valued by most natives, though some of the Arab tribes still adhere to the Jewish prohibition, and those Europeans who have tried it pronounce it to be excellent when the bird is young and tender, but to be unpleasantly tough when it is old. Mr. Andersson says that its flesh resembles that of the zebra, and mentions that the fat and blood are in great request, being mixed together by cutting the throat of the bird, passing a ligature round the neck just below the incision, and then shaking and dragging the bird about for some time. Nearly twenty pounds of this substance are obtained from a single Ostrich.

The ancient Romans valued exceedingly the flesh of this bird. We are told that Heliogabalus once had a dish served at his table containing six hundred Ostrich brains, and that another emperor ate a whole Ostrich at a meal. As an adult Ostrich weighs some twenty-five stone, we may presume that the bird in question was a young one.

The eggs are most valuable articles of food, both on account of their excellent flavour and their enormous size. It is calculated that one Ostrich egg contains as much as twenty-five ordinary hen's eggs. Cooking the Ostrich egg is easily performed. A hole is made in the upper part of the egg, and the lower end is set on the fire. A forked stick is then introduced into the egg, and twirled between the hands, so as to beat up the whole of the interior. Europeans usually add pepper and salt, and say that this simple mode of cooking produces an excellent omelette.

The ordinary food of the Ostrich consists of the seeds, buds, and tops of various plants. It seems strange, however, that in the deserts, where there is so little vegetation, the bird should be able to procure sufficient food to maintain its enormous body. Each of the specimens which are kept at the Zoological Gardens eats on an average a pint of barley, the same quantity of oats, four pounds' weight of cabbage, and half a gallon of chaff, beside the buns, bread, and other articles of food which are given to them by visitors.

Although the Ostrich, like many other inhabitants of the desert, can live for a long time without water, yet it is forced to drink, and like the camel, which it resembles in so many of its ways, drinks enormously, taking in the water by a succession of gulps. When the weather has been exceptionally hot, the Ostrich visits the water-springs daily, and is so occupied in quenching its thirst that it will allow the hunter to come within a very short distance. It appears, indeed, to be almost intoxicated with its draught, and, even when it does take the alarm, it only retreats step by step, instead of scudding off with its usually rapid strides.

The camel-like appearance of the Ostrich has already been mentioned. In the Arabic language the Ostrich is called by a name which signifies camel-bird, and many of the people have an idea that it was originally a cross between a bird and a camel.

The cry of the Ostrich is a deep bellow, which, according to travellers in Southern Africa, so resembles the roar of the lion that even the practised ears of the natives can scarcely distinguish the roar of the animal from the cry of the bird. The resemblance is increased by the fact that both the lion and Ostrich utter their cry by night. It is evidently to this cry that the prophet Micah alludes: "Therefore I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked: I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls" (Ostriches in marginal reading). The cry of the variety of Ostrich which inhabits Northern Africa is said to bear more resemblance to the lowing of an ox than the roar of the lion; but as the bird is smaller than its southern relative, the difference is probably accounted for.

It has been mentioned that the Ostrich has no weapons wherewith to fight for its young; still, though it be destitute of actual weapons, such as the spur of the gamecock or the beak and talons of the eagle, it is not entirely defenceless. Its long and powerful legs can be employed as weapons, and it can kick with such force that a man would go down before the blow, and probably, if struck on the leg or arm, have the limb broken. The blow is never delivered backward, as is the kick of the horse, but forward, like that of the kangaroo. The natives of the countries where it resides say that it is able to kill by its kick the jackal that comes to steal its eggs, and that even the hyena and the leopard are repelled by the gigantic bird.