Lake Ngami/Chapter 20

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Capture of young Ostriches.—Natural History of the Ostrich; where found; Description of; Size; Weight; Age; Voice; Strength; Speed; Food; Water; Breeding; Incubation; Cunning; Stones found in Eggs; Chicks; Flesh.—Brain in request among the Romans.—Eggs highly prized.—Uses of Egg-shells.—Feathers an article of Commerce.—Ostrich Parasols.—The Bird's destructive Propensities.—Habits.—Resembles Quadrupeds.—Domestication.—The Chase.—Snares.—Ingenious Device.—Enemies of the Ostrich.

Ostriches are at all times more or less numerous on the Naarip Plain, but more particularly so at this season, on account of the naras (of which mention was made in the second chapter) being now ripe.

While waiting for the missionary vessel, previously to the departure of Mr. Galton, I made several trips between the Bay and Scheppmansdorf, in order to arrange matters for my intended journey to the Ngami. On one of these occasions I was accompanied by my friend. 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. This was a sight we had long been looking for, as Galton had been requested by Professor Owen to procure a few craniums of the young of this bird, in order to settle certain anatomical questions. Accordingly, 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, the young following in her wake, 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 old 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 till 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 toward him. But this was only a ruse on his part; for, on my nearer approach, he slowly rose and began to run in an opposite direction to that of the female, who by this time was considerably ahead with her charge.

After about an hour's severe chase, we secured nine of the brood; and, though it consisted of about double that number,
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we found it necessary to be contented with what we had bagged.[1]

On returning to the Bay, however, the next morning in a mule-cart, Mr. Galton again encountered the same birds with the remainder of the family, and, after a short race, captured six more of the chicks.

The ostrich (which, from possessing the rudiments of a gall-bladder, and the absence of wings fit for flight, seems to form a kind of connecting link between the two great families of mammalia and aves) is an inhabitant of a large portion of Africa, but rarely extends farther east than the deserts of Arabia. Throughout the Indian Archipelago, the family of birds (of which the ostrich is the leading type) is represented by the cassowary; in Australia by the emeu; in the southern extremity of the western hemisphere by the rhea; and even in Europe, though somewhat departing from the type, it has its representative in the stately bustard.

Any thing like a scientific description of the ostrich would here be out of place; but it may be proper to mention that the lower part of the neck and the body of the mature male bird are of a deep glossy black, intermingled with a few whitish feathers, only visible when the plumage is ruffled. "In the female the general color of the feathers is of a grayish or ashy brown, slightly fringed with white. In both sexes the large plumes of the wings and tail are beautifully white."

The ostrich, when full grown, stands no less than from seven to eight feet, and instances are recorded where individual birds have attained as much as nine. Its weight is proportionate. Judging from what I have experienced in carrying the dead body, it is not less, perhaps, than two or three hundred pounds. Indeed, there are persons who believe that the mature bird, when in prime condition, as a butcher would say, will attain a weight of thirty stone.

I could never obtain any data that would enable me to form a correct estimate of the age of the ostrich, but it may fairly be concluded that he lives between twenty and thirty years.

The cry of the ostrich so greatly resembles that of a lion as occasionally to deceive even the natives. It is usually heard early in the morning, and at times also at night.

The strength of the ostrich is enormous. A single blow from its gigantic foot (it always strikes forward) is sufficient to prostrate, nay, to kill many beasts of prey, such as the hyæna, the panther, the wild dog, the jackal, and others.

The ostrich is exceedingly swift of foot, under ordinary circumstances outrunning a fleet horse: "What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and its rider." On special occasions and for a short distance, its speed is truly marvelous, perhaps not much less than a mile in half a minute. Its feet appear hardly to touch the ground, and the length between each stride is not unfrequently twelve to fourteen feet. Indeed, if we are to credit the testimony of Mr. Adanson, who says he witnessed the fact in Senegal, such is the rapidity and muscular power of the ostrich, that, even with two men mounted on his back, he will outstrip an English horse in speed! The ostrich, moreover, is long-winded, if I may use the expression, so that it is a work of time to exhaust the bird.

The food of the ostrich, in its wild state, consists of the seeds, tops, and buds of various shrubs and other plants.[2] But it is often difficult to conceive how it can manage to live at all, for one not unfrequently meets with it in regions apparently destitute of vegetation of any kind:

"A region of emptiness, howling and drear,
Which man hath abandoned from famine and fear;
Which the ostrich and lizard inhabit alone,
With the twilight bat from the old hollow stone;
Where grass, nor herb, nor shrub take root,
Save poisonous thorns that pierce the foot;
And the bitter-melon for food and drink,
Is the pilgrim's fare by the salt lake's brink!"

Although the ostrich is undoubtedly capable of undergoing thirst for a considerable period, yet water appears to be indispensable to its existence. In the dry and hot season I have often observed the same flock drinking almost daily. They swallow the water by a succession of gulps. On such occasions, that is, when approaching a spring, they seem quite stupefied. While staying at Elephant Fountain, where in a short time I killed eight of these magnificent birds, they made their appearance regularly every day about noon; and although the locality afforded but indifferent shelter, they invariably allowed me to get within range, only retreating step by step.

Like the capercali of Europe, the ostrich has a plurality of wives—from two to six, it is said. The breeding season would seem to be somewhat undefined, for I have met with nests in every month from June till October. Each female is represented as laying from twelve to sixteen eggs, and all in one and the same nest, which is simply a cavity scooped out in the sand.

Both male and female assist in hatching the eggs, which are placed upright, in order, it would seem, "that the greatest possible number may be stowed within the space." When about a dozen eggs are laid, the bird, which squats astride over them, with its legs pointed forward, begins to sit. I have observed that on perceiving a man, instead of running away from the nest, it not unfrequently lowers its conspicuous neck till it becomes in a line with the ground, evidently in the hope that it may be passed unnoticed.

During the period of incubation, the ostrich, if an intruder approaches its nest, resorts to various artifices to induce him to withdraw far off.

"One morning," says Professor Thunberg, "as I rode past a place where a hen-ostrich sat on her nest, the bird sprang up and pursued me, with a view to prevent my noticing her young ones or her eggs. Every time I turned my horse toward her she retreated ten or twelve paces, but as soon as I rode on she pursued me again."

The period of incubation seems to vary; but, on the average, it may be about thirty-eight days. One or more of the females are said to lay meanwhile; but the supernumerary eggs are placed outside the nest, and are supposed to serve as nourishment for the callow brood. If such really be the case, we in this again see a wonderful provision of nature, inasmuch as the chicken would be unable to digest the indurated matter furnished by their too-often sterile haunts.

The notion so generally entertained of the ostrich merely depositing her eggs in the sand, and leaving them to be vivified by the sun, arises probably from its habit of occasionally quitting the nest in search of food, more especially as it generally does so during the hottest part of the day.

Some travelers affirm that the ostrich not only never sits on her eggs after having once been handled, or even if a man should have passed near the nest, but that she actually destroys them! I, for my part, can not speak to this point, having, whenever I found an ostrich's nest, usually plundered it at once, thus leaving the bird no opportunity of obeying so strange an instinct.

It seems pretty certain, however, that the ostrich, as with many other birds, is in the habit of deserting her eggs if they be handled. "The slaves," says Professor Thunberg, "always use the precaution not to take away the eggs with their hands (in which case the birds, who perceive it by scent, are apt to quit the spot), but by means of a long stick they rake them out of the nest as fast as the birds lay them."

A peculiarity in regard to the eggs of the ostrich, and, so far as I am aware, confined to the eggs of this bird alone, is mentioned by several African travelers. For example: "The farmer here likewise informed me," says the author just quoted, "that a stone or two is sometimes found in the ostrich's eggs, which is hard, white, rather flat and smooth, and about the size of a bean. These stones are cut and made into buttons, but I never had the good fortune to see any of them."

Again: "In these eggs," writes Barrow, "are frequently discovered a number of small oval-shaped pebbles, about the size of a marrowfat pea, of a pale yellow color, and exceedingly hard. In one egg we found nine, and in another twelve of such stones."

Notwithstanding the number of eggs laid, seldom more than thirty to thirty-five are hatched. Almost as soon as the chicks (which are about the size of pullets) have escaped from the shell, they are able to walk about and to follow the mother, on whom they are dependent for a considerable period. And Nature, with her usual care, has provided the young with a color and a covering admirably suited to the localities they frequent. The color is a kind of pepper-and-salt, harmonizing wonderfully with the variegated sand and gravel of the plains which they are in the habit of traversing. Indeed, when crouching under my very eyes, I have had the greatest difficulty in discerning the chicks. The covering is neither down nor feathers, but a kind of "prickly external," which, no doubt, is an excellent protection against injury from the coarse gravel and the stunted vegetation among which they dwell.

The flesh of the young ostrich is not unpalatable, but that of the old bird is any thing but good. To my notion, it tastes very much like that of the zebra. According to the Mosaic law, the ostrich was denounced as an unclean animal, and the Jews were, consequently, forbidden to eat it. The Arabs of the present day still adhere to this prohibition. Some of the native tribes of Southern Africa, however, are less fastidious, and partake of the flesh with great relish, more especially when fat.

Though people at the present day place little or no value on the ostrich as an article of food, the ancient Romans, who were great epicures, seem to have been of a different opinion. We are told by Vobiscus that the pseudo-Emperor Firmus, "equally celebrated for his feats at the anvil and at the trencher, devoured, in his own imperial person, an entire ostrich at one sitting."[3] The brain of this bird was considered a superlative delicacy; and, like every thing else with that luxurious nation, it was provided on the most magnificent scale. Thus, according to an ancient testimony, the Emperor Heliogabalus was served at a single feast with the brains of six hundred of these birds.[4]

If the flesh of the ostrich be not much esteemed, its eggs, at all events, are prized in the highest degree by natives and travelers. To say nothing of their flavor, each contains as much as twenty-four of the eggs of the barn-door fowl, and weighs about three pounds.

From the great size of the ostrich egg it might be supposed that one would be a sufficient meal for any man; but I have known instances where two eggs have been dispatched by a single individual, even when mixed with a quantity of flour and fat. Indeed, Hans and his companion once finished five ostrich eggs in the course of an afternoon!

Even the egg-shell is of considerable value, and is an excellent vessel for holding liquids of any kind. The Bushmen have hardly any other. By covering it with a light net-work, it may be carried slung across the saddle. Grass, wood, &c., serve as substitutes for corks.

By the monks of Dayr Antonios, we are informed that the Copts (by whom the eggs are looked upon as the emblem of watchfulness, and who suspend them in their churches) pass the cords of their lamps through the shell in order to prevent the rats from coming down and drinking the oil.

The shell of the egg is used medicinally. The Boers, after reducing it to powder and mixing it with vinegar, give it to cattle afflicted with strangury, for which disease it is considered a sovereign remedy. The powder itself is said to be an excellent preservative against blindness.

The white wing-feathers[5] of the ostrich (the black ones are used chiefly for mourning) are a considerable article of commerce. The market, however, is very fluctuating. At the Cape the price varies from one or two guineas sterling to as much as twelve for the pound, the latter sum, however, being only paid for very prime feathers. The thinner the quill, and the longer and more wavy the plume, the more it is prized.[6] Seventy to ninety feathers go to the pound. But, although half this number may be obtained from a single bird, only a small portion are of any value. In the pairing season, and it may be at other times, the ostrich, like the turkey-cock, the capercali, and many other birds, is in the habit of drooping its wings, so that the outer feathers trail on the ground, which soon destroys their beauty. The proper time to kill the ostrich for its plumes is shortly after the moulting season, or in the months of March and April.

The Damaras and the Bechuanas manufacture handsome parasols from the black feathers of the ostrich, which serve as signs of mourning, or are useful for the preservation of the complexion. "It is a beautiful sight," says Harris, "to behold a savage whose skin, somewhat coarser than the hide of a rhinoceros, might vie in point of color with a boot, protecting his complexion by the interposition of such an umbrella."

Some of the tribes of Southern Africa are said to employ ostrich parasols while hunting wild animals, with a similar purpose to that of a Spanish bull-fighter who uses a red cloth. Thus, in case of a wounded beast charging a man, the latter, just at the moment he is about to be seized, suddenly thrusts the supports of the nodding plumes into the ground, and, while the infuriated animal is venting its rage on its supposed victim, the native slips unperceived on one side and transfixes his antagonist.

The skin of the ostrich is also said to be held in great request, and forms no inconsiderable article of commerce. "The whole defensive armor of the Nasamones, inhabitants of Libya, was manufactured of the birds' thick skin, which, even at the present day, is used as a cuirass by some of the Arab troops."

The ostrich, though usually dwelling far from the haunts of men, occasionally approaches the homestead, and at such

times causes the Boer considerable damage by trampling down and eating the grain.

The opinions of authors and sportsmen with regard to the ostrich vary considerably. Some ascribe to it great stupidity, while others consider it as possessed of vivacity and much intelligence. Without passing a judgment, I will only mention that I have seen it exhibit these opposite qualities in no small degree.

In a domesticated state, it is true, the ostrich appears to be a quiet, dull, and heavy-looking bird; but when seen in its native haunts, it is restless, wary, and difficult of approach. From its great stature, and the prominent position of its eyes, its range of vision is naturally considerable, which enables it to discover danger at a considerable distance. This, together with the exposed localities frequented by it, probably accounts for the comparatively few that even the mightiest Nimrods of South Africa can boast of having killed.

What may be the case with the ostrich in a wild state is hard to say; but when in confinement, no bird or other animal demonstrates so little discrimination in the choice of its food, for it then swallows with avidity stones, pieces of wood and iron, spoons, knives, and a variety of other indigestible matters. This strange propensity and apparent obtuseness of taste obtained for the bird at an early period the epithet of "the iron-eating ostrich;"

"The estridge that will eate
An horshowe so great
In the steade of meat;
Such fervent heat
His stomach doth freat."[7]

Many amusing anecdotes are told of the strange habits of this bird. Once—so runs the story—when the ostrich was still a rare sight in Europe, a woman, on hearing of the arrival of a batch of these birds, and being anxious to obtain a sight of them, hastily shut up her house, taking the key of the door in her hand. No sooner, however, had she arrived on the spot where the birds were kept, when one of them stalked gravely up to the lady, and, snatching the iron instrument out of her hand, deliberately, and to her great horror, swallowed it, actually shutting her out of her own house!

"Nothing," says Methuen, in his "Life in the Wilderness," when speaking of a female ostrich that came under his immediate notice, "disturbed the ostrich's digestion: dyspepsia was a thing 'undreamt of in its philosophy.' One day, a Muscovy duck brought a promising brood of ducklings into the world, and with maternal pride conducted them forth into the yard. Up, with solemn and measured stride, walked the ostrich, and, wearing the most mild, benignant cast of face, swallowed them all, one after the other, like so many oysters, regarding the indignant hissings and bristling plumage of the hapless mother with stoical indifference."

The ostrich is gregarious, and is met with in troops varying from a few individuals to as many as fifty. Singularly enough, it is never known to associate with other birds, but, preferring quadrupeds, is often found in company with the zebra, the springbok, the gnoo, &c. Indeed, in many respects it bears a striking resemblance to four-footed animals, such as in its strong, jointed legs and cloven hoofs, its long, muscular neck, its gruff voice, the absence of the elevated central ridge of the breast bone, so generally characteristic of birds, besides other similarities already mentioned. But, perhaps, when compared with the camel, the affinity becomes still more striking. Both are "furnished with callous protuberances on the chest and on the abdomen, on which they support themselves when at rest, and they both lie down in the same manner." In both, the feet and stomach are somewhat similarly constructed; and if we add to this their capabilities of subsisting on a scanty and stunted vegetation, their endurance of thirst, and their formation in general, which enables ostrich and camel to inhabit and traverse arid and desert regions, the resemblance is by no means so imaginary as one might at first suppose. Indeed, to many of the nations of the East,[8] as well as to the Romans and the Greeks, the ostrich was known by the name of the camel-bird.

The ostrich is easily domesticated, but is sometimes of a vicious disposition. The Rev. Mr. Hahn, if I remember rightly, told me that some of these birds, which he kept in confinement for a considerable period, became so mischievous that, lest they might injure any of the people on the station, he was obliged to kill them.

Several persons have tried to breed from the tame ostrich; but, to the best of my belief, all attempts have hitherto proved abortive. Eggs, however, have been frequently obtained, but the birds never showed any inclination to sit upon them. At the Regent's Park Gardens, moreover, repeated trials have been made to hatch the eggs by artificial means, but without success.

The expedients resorted to in South Africa to capture the ostrich are various. Not unfrequently it is ridden down by men on horseback. Several hunters take different sides of a large plain, thus hemming the bird in, and chasing it backward and forward until its strength is exhausted.

The ostrich is also at times ridden down by a single horseman. Under ordinary circumstances, fleet as the horse may be, this would be impossible. Toward the approach of the rainy season, however, when the days are intolerably hot and oppressive, the giant bird may be seen standing motionless on the plain, with wings spread and beak wide open; and at such times the capture may be accomplished. Indeed, cases have come under my notice where Namaquas, after a short but spirited chase, have brought the ostrich to a dead stand-still. A blow on the head with a stick or a "shambok" is then sufficient to dispatch it. On similar occasions, however, horses have been known to drop down dead from over-exertion.

When an ostrich finds himself observed, he will often make for some given point, more especially if he be hemmed in near a plain. He is so fully aware that safety is only to be found in the open country, that he always endeavors to gain it. Should the sportsman understand his business, he may easily cut him off; but it requires a keen eye and a practiced hand to bring the bird down; for on emergencies like these, its speed, as before said, is truly wonderful.

The Arabs of North Africa are also accustomed to pursue the ostrich on horseback; but, instead of trying to overtake the bird at once, it is steadily followed, even for days, without putting it to its speed, until it becomes gradually exhausted, when it falls an easy prey to the persevering hunter.[9]

In parts of Southern Africa the ostrich is run down even on foot. I myself have seen the Bushmen accomplish this exploit on the shores of Lake Ngami. They usually surround a whole troop, and with shouts and yells chase the terrified birds into the water, where they are, of course, speedily killed. "We more than once," says Harris, "fell in with a large party of Corannas engaged in an attempt to tire out an ostrich on foot, a feat which they are said sometimes to achieve, knocking him off his legs by squaling with a club of rhinoceros horn fashioned like a hockey stick."

The Bushman, however, frequently has recourse to a much simpler plan of circumventing the ostrich. Having found its nest, he removes the eggs to a place of safety, and, ensconcing himself in the empty cavity, awaits the return of the bird, which he generally manages to dispatch with a poisoned arrow.

At other times the natives lie in wait near pools frequented by ostriches, and shoot them when they come there to quench their thirst. If the gun be loaded with swan-shot instead of ball, and one aims at the necks, several may be killed at a single discharge; but this plan will, of course, never be adopted by the true sportsman.

Ostriches are also not unfrequently captured in snares (similar to those made use of for entangling smaller species of antelopes), but I have quite forgotten whether by the neck or the leg. A long cord, having at one end a noose, is tied to a sapling, which is bent down, and the noose pinned to the ground in such a manner that when a bird treads within it the sapling springs back by its own natural elasticity, suspending the bird or other animal in the air, and it is only released from its sufferings by death. Strabo and Oppian make mention of snares being employed by the ancients for the capture of ostriches, either alluring them by stratagem into the toils, or driving them en masse by a brisk pursuit with horses and dogs.

But the most ingenious plan of beguiling the ostrich to its destruction is that described by Mr. Moffat and others as practiced among the Bushmen. The reverend gentleman says:

"A kind of flat double cushion is stuffed with straw and formed something like a saddle. All except the under part of this is covered over with feathers attached to small pegs and made so as to resemble the bird. The head and neck of an ostrich are stuffed, and a small rod introduced. The Bushman intending to attack game whitens his legs with any substance he can procure. He places the feathered saddle on his shoulders, takes the bottom part of the neck in his right hand, and his bow and poisoned arrows in his left. Such as the writer has seen were most perfect mimics of the ostrich, and at a few hundred yards' distance it is not possible for the eye to detect the fraud. This human bird appears to pick away at the verdure, turning the head as if keeping a sharp look-out, shakes his feathers, now walks, and then trots till he gets within bow-shot; and when the flock runs from one receiving an arrow, he runs too. The male ostriches will, on some occasions, give chase to the strange bird, when he tries to elude them in a way to prevent them catching his scent; for when once they do, the spell is broken. Should one happen to get too near in pursuit, he has only to run to windward or throw off his saddle to avoid a stroke from a wing which would lay him prostrate."

But the ostrich has other enemies besides man. Beasts as well as birds are said to seek and devour their eggs with great avidity. According to Sir James Alexander (given on the authority of the natives about the Orange River), when the birds have left their nest in the middle of the day in search of food, "a white Egyptian vulture may be seen soaring in mid-air with a stone between his talons. Having carefully surveyed the ground below him, he suddenly lets fall the stone, and then follows it in rapid descent. Let the hunter run to the spot, and he will find a nest of probably a score of eggs, some of them broken by the vulture."

Again, "the jackal is said to roll the eggs together to break them, while the hyæna pushes them off with its nose to break them at a distance."

Nothing of this kind ever came under my notice, though, on the other hand, I have not unfrequently found the bird itself destroyed by lions, panthers, wild dogs, and other beasts.

  1. The wood-cut on the preceding page is a faithful representation of the chase described, which took place shortly before sunset.
  2. At the Zoological Gardens, Regent's Park, where at this moment several of these birds are alive, the ostrich is fed on a mixture of oats, barley, chaff, and cabbage, of which the respective quantities are as follows: oats, one pint; barley, one pint; chaff, half a gallon; and cabbage, four pounds.
  3. Apicius gives a recipe for the best sauce.
  4. The Romans, as is well known, also introduced large numbers of ostriches into the circus, where they were butchered by the people. We are told that no less than one thousand of these splendid creatures (together with an equal number of the stag, the fallow deer, and the boar tribe) were on one occasion brutally sacrificed to gratify the insatiable thirst for blood of the Roman populace.
  5. The plumes, together with the eggs, of the ostrich, are said to have been held in much request with the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, they formed part of the tribute imposed on those of the conquered nations in whose country the bird abounded, and appear to have been used for ornaments as well as for religious purposes. "The ostrich feather was a symbol of the Goddess of Truth or Justice. It belonged also to the head-dress of Ao, was adopted by Hermes Trismegistus, and worn by the soldiery and the priests on certain religious festivals." "In Turkey, the janizary who signalized himself in arms had the privilege of empluming his turban, and in the kingdom of Congo the feathers, mixed with those of the peacock, are employed as the ensigns of war and victory."
  6. Such feathers as have been plucked from the wings of the living bird are said to be preferable to those obtained from the dead ostrich, as being less liable to the attack of worms.
  7. "The Boke of Philip Sparrow."
  8. Among the people of Persia and Arabia the vulgar belief is said to exist "that the shutur-moorg (the camel-bird) is produced by the union of a camel with a bird!"
  9. " When slain, the throat is opened, and a ligature being passed below the incision, several of the hunters raise the bird by the head and feet, and shake and drag him about until they obtain from the aperture nearly twenty pounds of a substance of mingled blood and fat, of the consistence of coagulated oil, which, under the denomination of manteque, is employed in the preparation of dishes and the cure of various maladies."—Harris's Wild Sports.