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THE LIFE OF THE AFRICAN OSTRICH
BY WILLIAM CHARLES SCULLY
ests and on the higher mountain ranges. I
Half a century ago the ostrich of THERE has been some desultory con- Southern Africa was in danger of extroversy as to whether Africa contains tinction; now, however, owing to doonly one species of ostrich or several mestication, its numbers have enorspecies. In Mr. W. L. Sclater's Fauna mously increased. In 1913 there were of South Africa, four are mentioned, 776,268 ostriches owned by farmers namely: Struthio camelus, which ranges within the South African Union. Saluover North Africa and Arabia, and in tary laws for the protection of wild ancient times was found in South- birds have also been enacted. Alwestern Asia; S. masaicus, S. molyb- though wild birds have disappeared dophanes, and S. australis. In view, from the more settled parts, they are however, of Professor Deurden's re- still to be found in considerable numcent researches, it is fairly clear that bers in the less accessible areas, such as this classification will have to be re- the Kalihari and Great Bushmanland vised. Possibly there exists only one deserts. species, which includes several varie- Very little is known of the habits ties. The ostrich is only semi-gregari- of the wild birds; nearly every extant ous and, like all animals not wholly account bristles with inaccuracies. gregarious, is subject to individual var- Some of the latter have their origin iation. It is, however, stated that the in the Bible, wherein, among other Somaliland ostrich has a horny shield errors, it is stated that the
eggs of the on the top of its head. If this be so, and ostrich are hatched out by the heat of especially if the horn be an excrescence the sun, and that the young are cruelly from the skull, not only will S. molyb- deserted by their parents. In Job and dophanes establish its claim to being a Jeremiah the ostrich, which is really separate species, but an interesting link an example to many other birds in the between the ostriches and the casso- matter of caring for its young, is held waries will be suggested.
up to the execration of mankind as a The genus Struthio belongs to the cruel and unfeeling parent. subclass Ratitae, all the genera of The male ostrich stands nearly eight which are flightless birds with no keel feet high; the female about eighteen to the sternum or breast-bone. Such inches less. The upper portion of the are the rheas, the cassowaries, the body of the male, as well as the lower emus, and the kiwis. Except the os- fourth of the neck, is covered with trich, none of the genera of this sub- short, glossy black feathers. The foamclass are found north of the equator. white plumes are the primary feathers Up to a comparatively recent period of the wings; plumes of an inferior the ostrich ranged over the whole Afri- quality form the tail. The hue of the can continent except in the denser for- female is a dove-tinted brown. Her plumes are not nearly so luxuriant as that it is not beaked. The anterior those of the male, and are dingy-white portion consists of a bony shield which in color. A full-grown male ostrich at is heavily strutted by the ribs, and is the beginning of the breeding-season but scantily covered with flesh. When is a truly magnificent creature. The the bird runs against any obstacle, or short, black feathers with which his falls to the ground in its flight, it is the back and sides are densely covered breast-bone which sustains the impact. ripple and glint in the sunshine; his When the cocks fight, as they often do, waving plumes gleam gallantly. So it is on this useful shield that the thuncharged is he with abounding vigor dering kicks are usually received. that the blood suffuses the scales of the The wings have lost almost every tarsi and the feet, the visible portion vestige suggestive of their original of the so-called thigh, the head and function. Contrary to general opinion, the beak, until they glow in clear crim- they are of no use toward accelerating son. His large, brilliant hazel eye flash- the speed of the bird when it runs; if es from beneath a fringe of black bris- anything they are a hindrance - espetles. Fierce, fearless, and majestic, he cially if the bird be hard pressed. But stalks toward an intruder, lashing and they are serviceable in covering the whisking his plumes, hissing loudly, eggs during the process of incubation, and snapping his beak. The strength of and also in enabling the bird to turn at the ostrich is prodigious; he can disem- a sharp angle in the course of a rapid bowel a horse or kick through a sheet run, or even to stop almost abruptly. of corrugated iron. To an unprotected in the process of 'waltzing' or gyrat
In ' man in the open an infuriated ostrich ing, which will presently be described, is as dangerous as the lion. Many have the wings enable the bird to retain or lost their lives through ignorance of his recover its balance. But the true use strength, his speed, and his implacable of the wings lies in the transcendent ferocity.
beauty of the primary feathers. These Equally impressive is the demeanor were developed through sexual selecof the male when wooing his mate. tion, by that influence which ever Here is the description given by Mr. strives to lead the Caliban of passion Cronwright-Schreiner:
from the morass to the mountain peak. 'A cock, if courting the hen, will Incidentally, it is due to the beauty often run slowly and daintily on the of its plumes that the ostrich has not points of his toes, with neck slightly become practically extinct in Southern inflated, upright and rigid; the tail Africa. Among the many animals half-drooped and all his body-feathers which man has taken from their nat
fluffed up; the wings raised and ex- ural environment and adapted to his panded, the inside edges touching the needs, the ostrich is the only one in neck for nearly the whole of its length, respect of which sheer loveliness, as and the plumes showing separately, distinguished from utility, -in its usulike an open fan, flat to the front, on ally restricted sense, - formed the moeach side of the head. In no other atti- tive of domestication. It is also the tude is the splendid beauty of his plum- only one which has benefited by the age displayed to such advantage.' change. The ox, the horse, and the
The breast of the ostrich is oval, and sheep have been reduced to a servibare of feathers. So strong is the ster- tude of which many of the aspects are num that it might almost be compared cruel. They all subserve material to the ram of a battleship - except needs. But the ostrich furnishes plumes
which are probably the most perfect of flexion, again waiting to be unbent decorative items in Nature's store- by the muscles that open the angles house, and, fortunately for itself, is of the joints; and so on. As the aniotherwise of no use to man. It is kindly mal runs, it is thrown alternately from treated; even the removal of the feath- each foot in contact with the ground, ers is quite a painless process. All this as from a catapult, and advances by may be not without significance in the successive leaps or springs from foot to general scheme of things. As Emerson foot.' sang of the Rhodora, ‘Beauty is its The speed thus attained is very own excuse for being'; and in the es- great. For a comparatively short dis- • timation of a deeper civilization, a tance when the sun is hot, or for a humming-bird flashing through sunlit practically unlimited distance if the greenery may be of far more import day be cool, an adult ostrich can easiance than a fat bullock in the abattoir. ly outspeed a horse. In running the
In the leg of the ostrich occurs most bird holds its head somewhat low, with marvelous specialization. The bird has the neck flexed. Strangely enough, albut two toes, the third and the fourth, though the neck moves with slight unthe outer being somewhat short. The dulations, the head remains steady. toes have springy pads beneath and One peculiarity which does not appear are armed with strong nails. From the to have been noted by other observers foot the tarsus rises for about eighteen is this: if an ostrich be kept moving inches; it is covered with wide trans- continuously on a very hot day, it will verse scales. Above the tarsus is the suddenly fall, roll over on its back, and so-called thigh, which is really the die - apparently of heat-apoplexy. tibia, or shin. Here the bone is swath- Sight is the special sense of the osed in huge muscles which are covered trich; the sense of hearing being next with naked skin- usually dark blue in in importance. The sense of smell is, color in the adult bird.
I am convinced, of use only in connecDr. Haughton, in Volume IX of the tion with feeding and in the matter of Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, recognition of the young. I have sevgave an excellent description of the eral times had wild ostriches pass withostrich's mode of running: 'In the act in a few hundred yards to leeward of of running the leg of the ostrich is to where I lay concealed, without evincbe regarded as a jointed lever having ing the slightest alarm. The nostrils four joints, viz., the hip, the knee, the are narrow and lie in a membranous heel, and the metatarsal joints. As the groove rather forward on the bill. The animal springs from foot to foot, the brain is exceedingly small; its weight whole limb on reaching the ground is has been computed to be in the proporbent as far as possible at each of the tion of 1 to 1200 as compared with the articulations, and when the spring is whole body. The brain of the eagle made, the muscles proper to each joint is about 1 to 150; that of the parroquet increase the angle made by the bones as 1 to 45. If one deducts from the meeting at the joint, so that the effect ostrich's brain those portions specialof the whole is to unbend the limb, and ized for sight and hearing, the remaingive it a maximum of extension at the der is almost infinitesimal. It has been moment of leaving the ground. Dur- related that Heliogabalus caused the ing the spring the antagonist muscles brains of six hundred ostriches to be again bend the joints, so that on next used for a single dish. Yet the ostrich touching they are at their maximum is by no means a stupid creature.
whether heat or cold prevail. But the II
greatest danger arises from the jackal, Most of the older observers mention which is almost invariably to be found having seen ostriches herding with the in the vicinity of a nest, waiting for larger wild animals, such as the zebra an opportunity to maraud. The usual and the gnu. From my own observa- way in which a jackal does mischief tions, especially in connection with the is by rolling an egg out to the rim of hartebeest, I am convinced that it is sand surrounding the nest, and then the other animals which seek the soci- pushing it back hard with his nose. ety of the ostrich for the purpose of This cracks the egg — possibly also being insured against surprise. The the one it strikes against. Occasionally commanding height and matchless two, or even three jackals will attack eyesight of these birds give them a a nest at the same time, and fight vigorrange of vision probably unsurpassed ously over the contents of each egg as by any other flightless animal — ex- it is broken. The havoc then wrought cept, possibly, the giraffe. In this con- may easily be imagined; it usually renection it is interesting to note that in sults in the abandonment of the nest. the first book of the Anabasis, Xeno- Sometimes the white-necked raven phon mentions the circumstance of (Corvultur albicollis) coöperates with ostriches and wild asses associating the jackal. He will carry a small, together on the plains to westward of heavy stone up into the air and drop it the Euphrates.
into the nest. Jackal and raven then Although it is usually the high, open share amicably the contents of the desert plains that the ostrich frequents, smashed egg. When only one, or perit is also to be found in broken, bushy haps two, eggs have been destroyed, tracts. I have personally seen them in the birds when they return may eat the wooded country on the East Coast, up the broken shells and go on sitting. in a tract lying between the sea and a In the desert one could not avoid practically (to them) impassable range constantly associating the jackal with of mountains. In view of the number the ostrich. The central area of the and variety of the carnivora there ex- Great Bushmanland waste is usually isting at the time, the survival of these completely arid. It is absolutely level, birds was very surprising indeed. But except where the barren sand-dunes it was only in the southwestern deserts intrude over its northern margin. Of that I had opportunities of observing the larger fauna one finds in it only the ostrich's habits. The observations the oryx and the ostrich But in the made are necessarily scanty and in- breeding-season of the latter, central complete. The shy and elusive nature Bushmanland literally abounded with of the bird is an almost insuperable jackals - especially in the vicinity of bar to any connected scrutiny. The the ostrich nests. It was clear that the mere approach to a nest may cause the marauders were there for the purpose loss of a whole brood, for if the birds of preying on the eggs or the newly be badly scared they may not return. hatched chicks. So far as could be Even an unobliterated spoor in the ascertained, there was literally nothing vicinity of a nest may cause them to else for them to eat. The recognizable abandon it.
contents of the stomachs of jackals Another danger lies in the possibility shot at this season were invariably of the eggs being scorched, or chilled, the spoil of ostrich nests. It was quite when the birds decamp-according to exceptional to locate a nest without at VOL. 121 - N0.3
least one fresh jackal-burrow in its yet their melodious hunting-cry, vicinity. More than once I have seen ' * Ho-ho-ho-ho,' — or their short, sharp the cock in fierce pursuit of an inter- bark, may be heard at night echoing rupted marauder who, twisting and through the scrub-filled gorges of the doubling, — yelping dolorously the Great Fish River valley, in the Cape while, made frantic efforts to reach Province. It may easily be imagined his burrow. The jackal usually escapes, what an ever-present terror the ostrich but not invariably. In the vicinity of was subjected to when packs of these recently abandoned nests, one occa- creatures, insatiably ravenous, roamed sionally found evidence indicating that over the country, as they undoubtedly some skulking brute had met a violent
did less than a century ago. and richly deserved end.
The making of the nest by the breedThe association of the jackal and the ing cock and his mate is a simple and ostrich appears in ancient myth and rudimentary process. From the nature literature. Flinders Petrie relates that of the case, the observation of wild in prehistoric Egypt, when the king ostriches in the act of nidification is a was slain, the door to the underworld practical impossibility. But one has was supposed to be opened by the ample opportunity of observing the jackal, and through it the soul was nest-building of domesticated birds. wafted on an ostrich feather. In Job, A cock and a hen select some sandy in Isaiah, in Micah, and in Lamenta- spot, usually slightly higher than the tions, ostriches and jackals are men- surrounding ground and as a rule in tioned in the same text.
the vicinity of some low bush. The The ostrich hates the jackal im- cock, lying on his breast, kicks the sand placably, but does not fear him. As a out backwards and sideways. A slight matter of fact the only creature the depression is thus formed, surrounded domesticated ostrich dreads is the dog. by a low, irregular ridge. In the forma
a So fearless is he that he will unhesitat- tion of the latter the hen assists in a ingly attack anything else which he futile way; she walks round, picking deems to be an enemy, no matter how up spoonfuls of sand in her beak and formidable; and as enemies he is apt dropping them on the ridge. During to class all intruders upon what he con- this operation she droops and flutters siders to be his domain. Mr. Cron- her wings, making a clicking noise wright-Schreiner mentions the case of with their joints. She soon afterwards an ostrich charging a moving locomo- begins laying, depositing an egg which tive. Several instances have occurred weighs about three pounds every secof men having been kicked out of the ond day. Some hens will sit almost saddle. But let a dog of any descrip- from the beginning of the laying petion appear, and the fiercest bird will riod; others will wait until almost the almost invariably flee with every indi- full number of eggs has been laid. This cation of terror. This is probably due number apparently varies among wild to race-memory. The wild dog (Lycaon birds, from ten to twenty. The eggs pictus) was formerly common all over are ivory-white in color and are miSouth Africa; it frequented both forest nutely pitted all over. One wonders and desert, ranging freely and hunting why the coloration is not protective, in packs which occasionally numbered as in the case of nearly all birds that over fifty individuals. The wild dog is nest in open spaces. Possibly the heat now rarely met with except in a few of of the sun may account for this. the densely bushed areas. But even The low ridge surrounding the nest