IT is perhaps needless to say that the Ostriches are the largest of existing birds, a fully matured individual standing some eight feet in height and weighing quite three hundred pounds. But aside from preponderating size and weight they are readily separable from all other birds by the possession of a number of marked characters, the most important of which is the fact that they alone have but two toes, the third and fourth. They have a short, broad, and somewhat flattened bill opening to under the eyes, with the tip strong, rounded, and over topping the lower mandible, while the oval nostrils are placed in a membranous groove near the middle. The whole head is relatively very small and the neck relatively very long, while the wings are short, imperfectly developed, and provided with long, soft plumes, and the tail is also short and composed of curved, drooping plumes; all feathers are without an after shaft. The legs are very strong and covered in front near the toes with transverse scales.
The toes are short but very thick and strong, and provided with short, stunted nails, though that of the outer toe is commonly absent. Another character of importance is that in the adult the head, neck, and legs are destitute of feathers.
Species. The question as to whether the Ostriches shall be regarded as constituting a single species, or some three or four, is apparently still somewhat an open one, some ornithologists recognizing but one, which, however, is divided into several geographic races, while others would consider the differences sufficient to rank them as separate species. Be this as it may, the differences are but slight and the habits of the birds practically the same. Thus the Ostrich (Struthio camelus), found in the Soudan, Arabia, and southern Palestine, has the naked skin of the neck, head, and legs bright flesh-colored, and the eggs produced by this bird are smooth. In the birds inhabiting Somaliland (S. molybdophanes), the skin of the naked portions is bluish gray in color, while the Ostrich of South Africa (S. australis) has this skin lead-gray or even white-gray. In both of these last-mentioned forms the egg-shells are provided with large, deep pits of a dark purplish color. More recently the form inhabiting Masailand (S. massaicus) has been separated.
As might be presumed from their arge size and imposing presence, the Ostrich, or Camel-bird, as it was often called, has attracted attention and interest from very ancient times, a fact attested not only by monuments and inscriptions, but by the abundant mention in the works of Aristotle, Pliny, Xenophon, and others, as well as in the Bible. It would perhaps be of interest, did space permit, to quote from some of these ancient sources, but we may only mention that Pliny, following Aristotle, fell into the error of supposing that the Ostrich was part bird and part quadruped. He says : ” This bird exceeds in height a man sitting on horseback, and can surpass him in swiftness, as wings have been given it to aid it in running; in other respects Ostriches cannot be considered as birds, and do not raise themselves from the ground. They have cloven talons, very similar to the hoof of the stag; with these they fight, and they also employ them for seizing stones for the purpose of throwing at those who pursue them.”
Distribution. At the present time the Ostrich appears to be confined to certain of the’ desert portions of Africa as well as similar areas in Arabia and southern Palestine, but there is abundant evidence to show that within historic times it enjoyed a far more extensive range which included portions of Syria, Mesopotamia, eastern Persia, and perhaps Baluchistan, and in recent geologic time (Pliocene) it enjoyed a still wider distribution, since fossil remains of Ostriches, or at least of certain large two-toed birds very near of kin to them, or their eggs, have been found in the Sivalik Hills in India, the Province of Cherson in southeastern Russia, northern China, the island of Samos, etc. The presence of a large Ostrich-like bird in western North America has also been reported by Cope, but this determination rests on a single fragmentary bone, and is thought by later paleontologists to be open to grave question. There can be no doubt, however, that the range of the Ostrich has been undergoing a contraction for a very long period of time, and unfortunately this process seems to be going on at the present day, for countries where it was once reasonably abundant now know it no more or but rarely. The main stronghold is of course the Dark Continent, and there it will undoubtedly linger for a long time, but as this vast area comes gradually under the dominion of at least semi-civilization, the Ostrich must of necessity give way. However, there is probably no danger of its disappearing utterly, at least so long as the votaries of fashion call for its plumes, for, as will be recounted later, it is now extensively “farmed.”
Habits. It is of course well known that the Ostrich is mainly an inhabitant of the desert, preferring the dry, sandy wastes, but not altogether shunning the valleys and plains that are studded with scattered low bushes, its commanding stature and long neck permitting it uninterrupted vision in all directions. It is an extremely wary bird, distrustful of all suspicious objects and especially of the presence of man, though it may often be seen in close proximity to herds of zebras, quaggas, giraffes, antelopes, and other quadrupeds. It is a very nervous, restless bird, continually on the move, especially during the daytime, and fleeing at the slightest approach of danger, its proverbial foolishness in hiding its head in the sand and thereby supposing that it was effectually concealed being now relegated to the limbo of myths along with dozens of others that have been illumined by the cold facts of science and truth. The Ostrich is gregarious, going about in small parties of from three or four up to a dozen or twenty, and exceptionally as many as fifty have been noted in company. During the breeding season the male is polygamous, consorting with some three, four, or five females which are acquired by blandishment or by fierce battles with rivals. The nest is very simple, being merely a slight hollow scratched in the sand, and all the females of a party lay in the same nest. There appears to be some uncertainty as to the usual number of eggs laid, but as many as thirty have not infrequently been recorded, and ordinarily there are a number scattered about the vicinity of the nest which are not incubated, but are said to be used as food for the young chicks. The male performs almost the entire duty of incubation, being occasionally relieved by the females for short periods during the day, and occasionally when the sun is very hot the eggs are simply covered with warm sand, though this latter is perhaps as much for the purpose of keeping marauders away as for its warmth. The eggs hatch in some six or seven weeks, the chicks running about freely at birth and accompanying their parents, who are very solicitous for their safety, the male often trying to draw away pursuers by counterfeiting lameness or wounds. Thus Mr. Andersson describes graphically a family party that he once saw near Lake Ngami, which consisted of a male, female, and about twenty chicks the size of common barn-yard fowls. Finding it impossible to escape, the male “at once slackened his pace and diverged some-what from his course; he again increased his speed, and with wings drooping so as to almost 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, like a bird that had 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 an opposite direction from that of the female, who, by this time was considerably ahead with her charge.” The young Ostriches are said to be remarkably silent, but the old birds and especially the males have a hoarse, mournful cry, which is likened by some to the roar of the lion, and by others to the lowing of an ox.
The omnivorous diet of the Ostrich is proverbial, though in a state of nature they are perhaps not more diversified in their choice of food than many other birds. They feed on herbage, seeds, fruits, berries, etc., varied with occasional insects, small mammals, birds, lizards, and snakes, but in captivity they will eat almost anything that can be swallowed, not infrequently taking substances that may cause their death. While they are capable of existing for long periods without water, they drink regularly whenever opportunity offers, and by some observers they are said to be fond of bathing, especially in very hot weather, when they may wade into a lake or even into the sea until only the head protrudes. They are very fond of salt, a certain amount of which seems to be essential to them.
The fleetness of the Ostrich is also proverbial, it being perhaps the most rapid terrestrial animal in the world. A single stride is said to approximate twenty-five feet or more, and it often attains when it first sets out a speed of sixty miles an hour, and can thus easily outrun the swiftest of its four-footed companions; indeed nothing would be able to overtake it were it not for its silly habit of running in a circle. The latter peculiarity is often taken advantage of to effect their capture, the hunter on a swift horse simply riding the arc of the circle and thus approaching them. Other methods of capture consist of following them with fresh relays of horses or camels until they fall exhausted, in drawing a continually narrowing cordon about them, or in urging them into skilfully concealed pitfalls, while the Bushmen, “concealed in the sand or disguised in skins, shoot them with poisoned arrows.”