Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/October 1891/Life on an Ostrich Farm


THERE is an air of delightful unrestraint about Mrs. Martin's story of her Home Life on an Ostrich Farm.[1] She addresses her reader from her book as she would gossip to a confidential friend about her adventures, and describes them all with photographic vividness. We receive, as if to the very life, her first impressions of Cape Town, the Veldt, the Karroo district m which her home was situated; the farm itself, with its peculiar vegetation, birds, beasts, and reptiles; her own and her husband's trouble at not being able to realize the house of Algerian architecture which they had dreamed of; the long drought and the flood, indoors as well as out, by which it was so rudely broken; and the incidents, the humors and pleasures, mishaps and sorrows, of ostrich-raising.

Mr. and Mrs. Martin having removed to South Africa to go into the ostrich-raising business, settled on a tract of twelve thousand acres in a long valley so hedged in by steep mountains that little inclosure was necessary. It was in the part of the Karroo called the Zwart Ruggens, or black, rugged country, from the appearance it presents in the long droughts, when the vegetation turns to a forbidding black and is seemingly all dried up. But the sticks, when broken, are found all green and succulent inside, and full of a nourishing saline juice; and thus, even in long droughts, which sometimes last more than a year, this country is able to support stock in a most marvelous manner.

The little karroo plant, from which the district takes its name, is one of the best kinds of bush for ostriches as well as for sheep and goats. It grows in small compact, round tufts not more than seven or eight inches high, and, though very valuable to farmers, is unpretending in appearance, having tiny, narrow leaves, and a little, round, bright-yellow flower, "exactly resembling the center of an English daisy after its oracle has been consulted and its last petal pulled by some inquiring Marguerite." The fei-bosch, another common and useful plant, has a pinkish-lilac flower, very like that of the portulaca, and little flat, succulent leaves, looking like miniature prickly-pear leaves without the prickles. A third ostrich-bush plant is the brack-bosch, a taller and more graceful

Some of the Best Kinds of Ostrich-bush.—1. Brack-bosch. 2. Ghanna. 3. Fei-bosch.

plant than the others, with blue-green leaves, and blossoms consisting of a spike of little greenish tufts. There are an endless variety of other plants, among which there is hardly one that is not good, nourishing food for the birds. "All are alike succulent and full of salt, giving out a crisp, crackling sound as you walk over them; all have the same strange way of growing, each plant an isolated patch by itself, just as the tufts of wool grow on the Hottentots' heads; and the flowers of nearly all are of the portulaca type, some large, some small, some growing singly, others in clusters; they are of different colors—white, yellow, orange, red, pink, lilac," etc. They are very delicate and fragile, and fade as soon as they are gathered. The prickly pear is an introduced plant, but has become a nuisance, and brings great trouble upon the ostriches, which acquire a morbid taste for them, and ultimately succumb to the effect of the prickles that lodge in their throats and can not be got rid of.

The feathered and four-footed creatures of the country were all delightful, having the quaintest and most amusing ways, and were easily tamed; so that our settlers soon had a considerable menagerie around them. Their first acquisition was a secretary bird—Jacob—which, on first coming to live with them, reminded them "of a little old-fashioned man in a gray coat and tight black knee-breeches, with pale flesh-colored stockings clothing the thinnest and most angular of legs," the joints of which worked rather stiffly. "Not by any means a nice old man did Jacob resemble, but an old reprobate, with evil-looking eye, yellow-parchment complexion, bald head, hooked nose,


and fiendish grin; with his shoulders shrugged up, his hands tucked away under his coat-tails, and several pens stuck behind his ear." He was nevertheless very friendly and affectionate, and soon grew too tame and noisy. He would intrude into the house and persist in staying there, till, when all other efforts to drive him away had failed, a dried puff-adder's skin, of which he stood in mortal terror, was thrown at him, when he would run off and be gone for the day. The Cape Government protects these birds for their usefulness in destroying snakes. This one had a voracious appetite, and an enormous capacity for swallowing lizards, rats, toads, frogs, locusts, young chickens, and kittens.

The most serious drawback to the Cape Colony as a place for settlement lies in the long droughts, which "are certainly very trying; indeed, they could not possibly be endured by any country less wonderfully fertile than South Africa, where it is calculated that three good days' rain in the year, could we but have this regularly, would be sufficient to meet all the needs of the land. But often, for more than a year, there will be no rain worth mentioning; the dams, or large artificial reservoirs, of which each farm usually possesses several, gradually become dry; and the Veldt daily loses more of its verdure, till at last all is one dull, ugly brown, and the whole plain lies parched and burned up under a sky from which every atom of moisture seems to have departed.... The stock, with the pathetic tenderness of thirst,

Ostriches in a Hot Wind.

comes from all parts of the farm to congregate close round the house; the inquiring ostriches tapping with their bills on the windows as they look in at you, and the cattle lowing in piteous appeals for water; and you realize very vividly the force of such scriptural expressions as 'the heaven was shut up' or 'a dry and thirsty land where no water is.' Then the hot winds sweep across the country, making everybody tired, languid, headachy, and cross.... Even our pets were sulky on a hot-wind day; and as for the ostriches, they were deplorable objects indeed, as they stood gasping for breath, with pendent wings, open bills, and inflated throats, the pictures of imbecile dejection." For water-supply during these terrible seasons the farmers build dams where the waters of the thunderstorms are collected and stored. But even the most capacious lakes thus formed must dry up in a long drought; "and that land-owner is wise who does not depend solely on this form of water-supply, but who takes the precaution of sinking one or more good wells. This is expensive work, . . . but


the advantage is seen during the protracted droughts. Then, on farms which only possess dams, the ostriches and other stock are seen lying dead in all directions, a most melancholy sight. Where there is a well, however, the animals can always be kept alive. The water may go down rather low, and the supply doled out to the thirsty creatures may not be very plentiful; but with careful management no stock need be lost during the longest of droughts."

In the early days of ostrich farming splendid fortunes were made. Feathers were worth $500 a pound, and $2,000 or $2,500 was no uncommon price for a good pair of breeding birds, while little chicks were worth $50 each. Indeed, the unhatched eggs have sometimes been valued at the same amount. But with the larger supply, $60 may be regarded as a fair price for the best pair of ostriches, and 30 shillings, as against £25 in the old times, for the feathers of the handsomest bird at one plucking.

There are not many young animals, says Mrs. Martin, "prettier than a young ostrich chick during the first few weeks of life. It has such a sweet, innocent baby-face, such large eyes, and such a plump, round little body. All its movements are comical, and there is an air of conceit and independence about the tiny creature which is most amusing. Instead of feathers, it has a little rough coat which seems all made up of narrow strips of material of as many different shades of brown and gray as there are in a tailor's pattern-book, mixed with shreds of black; while the head and neck are apparently covered with the softest plush, striped Ostrich-chick. and colored just like a tiger's skin on a small scale." As they grow they lose all their prettiness and roundness, their bodies become angular and ill-proportioned, and a crop of coarse wing-feathers sprouts from the stripes.

The "chicken feathers" are plucked for the first time when the bird is nine months old. They are stiff and narrow > with pointed tips, and do not look as if they could be used for anything but making feather brooms. The quality is improved in the second year; but it is not till their wearer is plucked for the third time that the feathers have attained their full width and softness. During the first two years, when their plumage is all of a dingy drab mixed with black, the sexes can not be distinguished. Then they begin to differentiate; and at five years, when the birds have attained maturity, the plumage of the male is of a beautiful glossy black and that of the female of a soft gray, while both nave white wings and tails. In each wing there are twenty-four long white feathers, which, when the wing is spread out, hang gracefully round the bird like a deep fringe The thighs are bare and the flat head is bald, except for a few stiff bristles and scanty tufts of down. During the breeding season the bill of the male bird and the large scales on the fore part of his legs assume a beautiful deep rose-color, looking as if they were made of fine pink coral; and in some cases the skin of the head and neck becomes red too. The North African or Bethany ostriches have bright red thighs, head, and neck, are much handsomer than the Cape birds; and their feathers, being larger and softer and having longer filaments, command higher prices.

Ostriches are extremely nervous and subject to panics, under the influence of which they will run immoderately, often till they are lost. At plucking-time they are driven in from all the corners of the farm whither they have wandered, and collected first in a large inclosure, then in a small one, the plucking-kraal, in which they are crowded together so closely that the most savage bird has no room to make himself disagreeable. Besides the gate through which the ostriches are driven into the kraal, there is an outlet at the opposite end, through the "plucking-box." This is a firm wooden box, in which, though there is just room for an ostrich to stand, he can not turn round or kick. At each end is a stout door, one of which opens inside, the other outside, the kraal. Each bird in succession is dragged up to the first door, and, after more or less of a scuffle, is pushed in and the door slammed behind him. Then the two operators, standing one on each side of the box, have him completely in their power; and, with a few rapid snips of the shears, his wings are denuded of their long white plumes. These, to prevent their tips being spoiled, are always cut before the quills are ripe. The stumps of the latter are allowed to remain some two or three months longer, until they are so ripe that they can be pulled out—generally by the teeth of the Kaffirs—without hurting the bird. It is necessary to pull them; for the feathers which, by their weight would have caused the stumps to fall out naturally at the right time, are gone. Some farmers, anxious to hurry on the next crop of feathers, are cruel enough to draw the stumps before they are ripe: but Nature, as usual, resents the interference with her laws, and the feathers of the birds which have been thus treated soon deteriorate.

After a good rain, ostriches soon begin to make nests. The males become very savage, and their note of defiance—brooming as it is called by the Dutch—is heard in all directions. The bird inflates his neck in a cobra-like fashion, and gives utterance to three deep roars, the first two short and staccato, and the third very prolonged, the whole being described as identical in sound with the roar of the lion. When the birds are savage, or quei, as the Dutch call it, they become very aggressive, and it is impossible to walk about the camps unless armed with a weapon of defense called a tackey. This is a long and stout branch of mimosa, with the thorns all left on at the end. "It seems but a feeble protection against a foe who, with one stroke of his immensely powerful leg, can easily kill a man; the kick, no less violent than that of a horse, being rendered infinitely more dangerous by the formidable claw with which, the foot is armed." Those, however, who are well practiced in the use of the tackey have no difficulty in dealing with the most furious bird. They thrust the thorns in his face, and he shuts his eyes and is bewildered, and the man goes on. Fortunately, one is never assailed by more than one ostrich at a time; for, in the large camps, each one has his own domain, separated from those of the others by some imaginary boundary-line of his own, within which he defends his claims with vigor. Any other ostrich daring to invade his territory is at once attacked, and the human intruder is carefully looked out for till he is seen safely away. Immediately after thus speeding the parting guest, the most savage bird is quite harmless; he dismisses you from his thoughts, and walks quietly back, feeding as he goes. And in the distance you see the head and long neck of his neighbor, whose kingdom you have now entered, and whose sharp eyes spied you out the instant your foot crossed his frontier. He now advances toward you with jerky, spasmodic movements, as if he were bowing you a welcome; this, however, is far from his thoughts, and, after sitting down once or twice to give you his challenge—whereby he hopes you will be intimidated—he trots up defiantly, and the tackey's services are again required.

Thus, during a morning's walk through the camps, you may be escorted in succession by four or five vicious birds, all determined to have your life if possible, yet held completely in check by a few mimosa thorns. When an ostrich challenges, he sits down, and, flapping each broad wing alternately, inflates his neck and throws his head back, rolling it from side to side, and with each roll striking the back of his head against his bony body with so sharp and resounding a blow that a severe headache seems likely to be the result. A person on horseback is even more obnoxious to the ostriches than a pedestrian; and a ride through the camp enables one to realize how true to life is the description in the book of Job of a vicious bird: "What time she lifteth herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider." The creature, when preparing for an attack, draws itself up, stands on tiptoe, stretches its neck to the full extent, and really seems to gain several feet in height. The birds are very uncertain in their affections, and take sudden and unaccountable dislikes; and they are sometimes so vicious that the herdsmen have to kill them in self-defense—and as this usually happens with the finest ostriches, with considerable loss to the proprietor. Mrs. Martin had an opportunity of witnessing from her window the regularity with which a pair of birds, sitting alternately on the eggs, came on and off at their fixed times. "The cock always takes his place upon the nest at sundown, and sits through the night—his dark plumage making him much less conspicuous than the light-colored hen; with his superior strength and courage, too, lie is a better defender of the nest against midnight marauders. At nine in the morning, with unfailing punctuality, the hen comes to relieve him and take up her position for the day. At the end of the six weeks of sitting, both birds, faithfully as the task has been shared between them, are in a very enfeebled state, and miserably poor and thin." There was one hen which refused to sit, and compelled her mate to do all the work; but at the next nesting the cock gave her a sound drubbing and brought her to terms. Of another couple, the hen suffered an accident and had to be killed. Her mate mourned her long and refused to accept any other spouse; and when the period of mourning was over, and he took another mate, he allowed her to tyrannize over him and keep him in abject fear. The hen ostrich lays every other day; and if, for each egg laid, one is taken from the nest, she will continue laying till she has produced twenty or thirty. If no eggs are taken away, she leaves off laying as soon as she has from fifteen to twenty. Every morning and evening the nest, or shallow indentation in. the ground, is left uncovered for a quarter of an hour, to allow the eggs to cool. The sight of nests thus apparently deserted has probably given rise to the erroneous idea that the ostrich leaves her eggs to hatch in the sun. But, "stupid though she is, she has more sense than to believe in the possibility of the sun hatching her eggs; she is indeed quite aware of the fact that if allowed to blaze down on them with untempered heat, even during the short time she is off the nest, it would be injurious to them; and, therefore, on a hot morning, she does not leave them without first placing on the top of each a good pinch of sand." The charge made against the ostrich's intelligence that, hiding its head in the sand, it imagines itself to be invisible, is declared to be false; but it does other things as foolish, and is well described in Job's words, "Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding." Ostriches are long-lived creatures, and, however old they may become, they never show any signs of decrepitude, nor do their feathers deteriorate. Their career is usually ended by some accident; "and in about ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the disaster is, in one way or another, the result of the bird's stupidity. There surely does not exist a creature—past early infancy—more utterly incapable of taking care of itself than an ostrich; yet he is full of conceit, and resents the idea of being looked after by his human friends; and when, in spite of all their precautions for his safety, he has succeeded in coming to grief, he quietly opposes every attempt to cure his injuries, and at once makes up his mind to die." The worst and most frequent accidents by which they suffer are broken legs; and their legs are exceedingly brittle. This necessitates the crippled bird being killed, for it admits of no remedy.

At last, the family had to return to England; and, although there were not many human friends to take leave of, "there were plenty of good-byes to be said; for those who live on these out-of-the-way farms come to be on very intimate and familiar terms with their live stock; and all our creatures—even the fowls, and those tamer members of our large family of ostriches which for years had been daily looking inquiringly in at our windows, and picking and stealing round the kitchen door—were very old friends, from whom we were sorry to part." Strange to say, the animals the parting with which excited the least painful feeling were the horses. The independence and freedom of their lives make them indifferent to human society, and there grows up none of that fellowship with them that is universal between Europeans, Asiatics, and American Indians and their horses.

  1. Home Life on an Ostrich Farm. By Annie Martin. New York: D. Appleton & Co. Pp. 283.