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South African Ostrich

( Originally Published 1851 )



The ostrich of South Africa is a prudent and wary animal, and displays little of that stupidity ascribed to this bird by some naturalists. On the borders of the Cape Colony, at least, where it is eagerly pursued for the sake of its valuable plumage, the ostrich displays no want of sagacity in providing for its own safety or the security of its offspring. It adopts every possible precaution to conceal the place of its nest; and uniformly abandons it, after destroying the eggs, if it perceives that the eggs have been disturbed or the footsteps of man are discovered near it. In relieving each other in hatching, the birds are said to be careful not to be seen together at the nest, and are never observed to approach it in a direct line.

The male ostrich of South Africa at the time of breeding usually associates to himself from two to six females. The hens lay all their eggs together in one nest; the nest being merely a shallow cavity scraped in the ground, of such dimensions as to be conveniently covered by one of these gigantic birds in incubation. A most ingenious device is employed to save space, and give at the same time to all the eggs their due share of warmth. The eggs are made to stand each with the narrow end on the bottom of the nest and the broad end upwards; and the earth which has been scraped out to form the cavity is employed to confine the outer circle, and keep the whole in the proper position. The hens relieve each other in the office of incubation during the day, and the male takes his turn at night, when his superior strength is required to protect the eggs or the new-fledged young from the jackalls, tiger-cats, and other enemies. Some of these animals, it is said, are not unfrequently found lying dead near the nest, destroyed by a stroke from the foot of this powerful bird.

As many as sixty eggs are sometimes found in and around an ostrich nest; but a smaller number is more common; and incubation is occasionally per-formed by a single pair of ostriches. Each female lays from twelve to sixteen eggs. They continue to lay during incubation, and even after the young brood are hatched; the supernumerary eggs are not placed in the nest, but around it, being designed to assist in the nourishment of the young birds, which, though as large as a pullet when first hatched, are probably unable at once to digest the hard and acrid food on which the old ones subsist. The period of incubation is from thirty-six to forty days. In the middle of the day the nest is occasionally left by all the birds, the heat of the sun being then sufficient to keep the eggs at the proper temperature.

An ostrich egg is considered as equal in its con-tents to twenty-four of the domestic hen. When taken fresh from the nest, they are very palatable. and are wholesome though somewhat heavy food. The best mode of cooking them is that practised by the Hottentots, namely, to place one end of the egg in the hot ashes, and making a small orifice in the other, keep stirring the contents with a bit of stick till they are sufficiently roasted; and then with a seasoning of salt and pepper you have a very nice omelade.

Some of the Cape colonists, on the skirts of the Great Karroo and other remote districts, make the pursuit of the ostrich one of their principal and most profitable amusements. The beautiful white feathers so much prized in Europe are found on the tail only of the male bird. It is extremely difficult to get within shot of them, owing to their constan vigilance, and the great distance to which they can see. The fleetest horse, too, will not overtake them unless stratagam be adopted to tire them out but by several horsemen taking different sides of a large plain, and pursuing them backwards and forwards till their strength is exhausted, they may be at length run down. If followed up too eagerly this chase is not destitute of danger, for the hunts-man has sometimes had his thigh-bone broken by a single stroke from the wing or the foot of a wounded ostrich. While jealous and vigilant against the hunter, these birds will often allow travellers in waggons to approach very close to them before they become alarmed. A Hottentot waggon-driver once carried the writer of this article almost within pistol-shot of a covey of ostriches, by driving round and round them in a circle and gradually narrowing the distance till they took flight.

The food of the ostrich consists of the tops of the various shrubby plants which even the most arid parts of South Africa produce in abundance. This bird is-so easily satisfied in regard to water that he is constantly to be found in the most parched and desolate tracts which even the antelopes and the beasts of prey have deserted. His cry at a distance so much resembles that of the lion, that even the Hottentots are said to be sometimes deceived by it.

When not hatching they are frequently seen in troops of thirty or forty together, or amicably associated with herds of zebras or quaggas, their fellow-tenants of the wilderness. If caught young the ostrich is easily tamed; but it does not appear that any attempt has been made to apply his great strength and swiftness to any purpose of practicautility.

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