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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature


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Fig. 283—Ostrich

The ostrich is frequently mentioned in the Bible in terms of great beauty and precision; which commentators, perhaps more conversant with the exploded misstatements of the ancients than with the true physiological history of the bird in question, have not been happy in explaining, sometimes referring it to wrong species, such as the peacock, or mistaking it for the stork, the eagle, or the bustard (;;;;;;;;; ). In several of these passages 'owls' has been used in our version for ostriches, which the original word there employed really means.

There are two varieties, if not two species, of the ostrich; one never attaining seven feet in height, and covered chiefly with gray and dingy feathers; the other sometimes growing to more than ten feet, and of a glossy black plumage; the males in both having the great feathers of the wings and tail white, but the females the tail only of that color. Their dimensions render them both the largest animals of the feathered creation now existing. They appear promiscuously in Asia and Africa, but the troops or coveys of each are always separate; the gray is more common in the south, while the black, which grows largest in Caffraria, predominates to the north of the equator. The common-sized ostrich weighs about eighty pounds.

Ostriches are gregarious—from families consisting of a male with one or several female birds, and perhaps a brood or two of young, up to troops of near a hundred. They keep aloof from the presence of water in the wild and arid desert, mixing without hesitation among herds of gnu, wild asses, quaggas, and other striped Equidæ, and the larger species of Antilopidæ. From the nature of their food, which consists of seeds and vegetables, although seldom or never in want of drink, it is evident that they must often approach more productive regions, which, by means of the great rapidity of motion they possess, is easily accomplished; and they are consequently known to be very destructive to cultivated fields. As the organ of taste is very obtuse in these birds, they swallow with little or no discrimination all kinds of substances, and among others stones; it is also probable that, like poultry, they devour lizards, snakes, and the young of birds that fall in their way. It is not yet finally decided whether the two species are polygamous, though concurrent testimony seems to leave no doubt of the fact: there is, however, no uncertainty respecting the nest, which is merely a circular basin scraped out of the soil, with a slight elevation at the border, and sufficiently large to contain a great number of eggs; for from twelve to about sixty have been found in them, exclusive of a certain number, always observed to be outlying, or placed beyond the raised border of the nest, and amounting apparently to nearly one-third of the whole. These are supposed to feed the young brood when first hatched, either in their fresh state, or in a corrupted form, when the substance in them has produced worms. These eggs are of different periods of laying, like those within, and the birds hatched form only a part of the contents of a nest, until the breeding season closes. The eggs are of different sizes, some attaining to seven inches in their longer diameter, and others less, having a dirty white shell, finely speckled with rust color; and their weight borders on three pounds. Within the tropics they are kept sufficiently warm in the daytime not to require incubation, but beyond these one or more females sit constantly, and the male bird takes that duty himself after the sun is set. It is then that the short roar maybe heard during darkness; and at other times different sounds are uttered, likened to the cooing of pigeons, the cry of a hoarse child, and the hissing of a goose; no doubt expressive of different emotions.

Although possessed of strength sufficient to carry with velocity two adult human beings, and although readily tamed, even when taken in a state of maturity, nay easily rendered familiar and docile, and although they are by no means the stupid creatures they have been believed, still their voracity, leading to the destruction of young poultry, and the impracticability of guiding their powers, will ever render them unsafe and unprofitable domestics. Though at first sight useless, we may be assured that Providence has not appointed their abode in the desert in vain; and they still continue to exist, not only in Africa, but in the region of Arabia, east and south of Palestine beyond the Euphrates; but it may be a question whether they extend so far to the eastward as Goa, although that limit is assigned them by late French ornithologists.

The flesh of a young ostrich is said to be not unpalatable; but its being declared unclean in the Mosaic legislation may be ascribed to a twofold cause. The first is sufficiently obvious from its indiscriminate voracity already mentioned, and the other may have been an intention to lay a restriction upon the Israelites in order to wean them from the love of a nomade life, which hunting in the desert would have fostered; for ostriches must be sought on the barren plains, where they are not accessible on foot, except by stratagem. When pursued, they cast stones and gravel behind them with great force; and though it requires long endurance and skill, their natural mode of fleeing in a circular form enables well-mounted Arabs to overtake and slay them.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Ostrich'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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