OSTRICH (O. Eng. estridge; Fr. autruche; Span. avestruz; Lat. avis struthio; Gr. στρουθίων or ὁ μέγας στρουθός); the Struthio camelus of Linnaeus, and the largest of living birds, an adult male standing nearly 8 ft. high and weighing 300 ℔.
The genus Struthio forms the type of the group of Ratite birds, characterized chiefly by large size, breast-bone without a keel, strong running legs, rudimentary wings and simple feathers (see Bird). The most obvious distinctive character presented by the ostrich is the presence of two toes only, the third and fourth, on each foot—a character absolutely peculiar to the genus Struthio. In South America another large Ratite bird, the rhea, is called ostrich; it can be distinguished at once from the true ostrich by its possession of three toes.
The wild ostrich is disappearing before the persecution of man, and there are many districts, some of wide extent, frequented by the ostrich in the 19th century—especially towards the extremities of its African range—in which it no longer occurs, while in Asia there is evidence, more or less trustworthy, of its former existence in most parts of the south-western desert-tracts, in few of which it is now to be found. Xenophon's notice of its abundance in Assyria (Anabasis, i. 5) is well known. It is probable that it still lingers in the wastes of Kirwan in eastern Persia, whence examples may occasionally stray northward to those of Turkestan, even near the Lower Oxus; but the assertion, often repeated, as to its former occurrence in Baluchistan or Sind seems to rest on testimony too slender for acceptance. Apparently the most northerly limit of the ostrich's ordinary range at the present day is that portion of the Syrian Desert lying directly eastward of Damascus; and, within the limits of what may be called Palestine, H. B. Tristram (Fauna and Flora of Palestine, p. 139) regards it as but a straggler from central Arabia, though we have little information as to its distribution in that country.
Africa is still, as in ancient days, the continent in which the ostrich chiefly flourishes. There it appears to inhabit every waste sufficiently extensive to afford it the solitude it loves. Yet even there it has to contend with the many species of carnivore which prey upon its eggs and young—the latter especially, and H. Lichtenstein long ago remarked that if it were not for its numerous enemies “the multiplication of ostriches would be quite unexampled.”
Though sometimes assembling in troops of from thirty to fifty, and then generally associating with zebras or with some of the larger antelopes, ostriches commonly, and especially in the breeding season, live in companies of not more than four or five, one of which is a cock and the rest are hens. The latter lay their eggs in one and the same nest, a shallow pit scraped out by their feet, with the earth heaped around to form a kind of wall against which the outermost circle of eggs rest. As soon as ten or a dozen eggs are laid, the cock begins to brood, always taking his place on them at nightfall surrounded by the hens, while by day they relieve one another, more it would seem to guard their common treasure from jackals and small beasts of prey than directly to forward the process of hatching, for that is often left wholly to the sun. Some thirty eggs are laid in the nest, and round it are scattered perhaps as many more. These last are said to be broken by the old birds to serve as nourishment for the newly-hatched chicks, whose stomachs cannot bear the hard food on which their parents thrive. The greatest care is taken to place the nest where it may not be discovered, and the birds avoid being seen when going to or from it, while they display great solicitude for their young. C. J. Andersson in his Lake N'gami (pp. 253–269) has given a lively account of the pursuit by himself and Francis Galton of a brood of ostriches, in the course of which the male bird feigned being wounded to distract their attention from his offspring. Though the ostrich ordinarily inhabits the most arid districts, it requires water to drink; more than that, it will frequently bathe, and sometimes even, according to Von Heuglin, in the sea.
The question whether to recognize more than one species of ostrich has been continually discussed without leading to a satisfactory solution. While eggs from North Africa present a perfectly smooth surface, those from South Africa are pitted. Moreover northern birds have the skin of the parts not covered with feathers flesh-coloured, while this skin is bluish in southern birds, and hence the latter have been thought to need specific designation as S. australis. Examples from the Somali country have been described as forming a distinct species under the name of S. molybdophanes from the leaden colour of their naked parts.
The great mercantile value of ostrich-feathers, and the increasing difficulty, due to the causes already mentioned, of procuring them from wild birds, has led to the formation in Cape Colony, Egypt, the French Riviera and elsewhere of numerous “ostrich-farms,” on which these birds are kept in confinement, and at regular intervals deprived of their plumes. In favourable localities and with judicious management these establishments yield very considerable profit (see Feather).
See, besides the works mentioned, E. D'Alton, Die Skelete der Straussartigen Vögel abgebildet und beschrieben (Bonn, 1827): P. L. Sclater, “On the Struthious Birds living in the Zoological Society's Menagerie,” Transactions, iv. p. 353, containing a fine representation (pl. 67), by J. Wolf, of the male Struthio camelus; J. Forest, L'Autruche (Paris, 1894); A. Douglass, Ostrich Farming in South Africa (London, 1881); modern anatomical work on the group is referred to in the article Birds. (A. N.)
- A good summary of the present distribution is contained in the Ostriches and Ostrich Farming of De Mosenthal and Harting, from which the accompanying figure is, with permission, taken. Von Heuglin, in his Ornithologie Nordost-Afrikas (pp. 925–935), and A. Reichenow in Die Vogel Afrikaans, have given more particular details of the ostrich's distribution in Africa.
- Drs Finsch and Hartlaub quote a passage from Remusat's Remarques sur l'extension de l'empire chinoise, stating that in about the 7th century of our era a live “camel-bird” was sent as a present with an embassy from Turkestan to China.
- H. Lichtenstein, Reise im südlichen Africa, ii. 42–45 (Berlin, 1812).
- By those whose experience is derived from the observation of captive ostriches this fact has been often disputed. But, the difference of circumstances under which they find themselves, and in particular their removal from the heat-retaining sands of the desert and its burning sunshine, is quite enough to account for the change of habit. Von Heuglin also (p. 933) is explicit on this point.