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Volume 33, Number 2March/April 1982

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The Camel Bird of Arabia

Written by Caroline Stone
Illustrated by Brian Smith

In February 1966, flood waters north of Ma'an, in Jordan, brought down into the Hasa Valley near Petra a single dying specimen of the species called Struthio Camelus Syriacus -the ostrich or, as the Chinese call it, the Camel Bird of Arabia. Since no ostriches had been seen on the Arabian Peninsula since 1941, the unexpected appearance of even one specimen gave hope to some optimists that these ostriches - which once roamed freely through Arabia—were not extinct but in hiding.

Ostriches were well known in the ancient world. The Egyptians, for example, took their feathers as the symbol of justice - because the vanes are exactly equal in width on either side of the shaft -and the Pharaohs were cooled with ostrich-feather fans; one fari with a handle made of gold was found in the tomb of an Egyptian queen of about 1700 B.C. And in Mesopotamia, ostriches, usually being sacrificed to the gods, were carved on seals. Mesopotamia also made ostrich eggs into cups, and eggs found in Etruscan graves, and in those at Mycenae, suggest that they were articles of trade in early times.

Many of the classical writers provided good descriptions of ostriches and their habits - indeed, it was Pliny, some 1,900 years ago, who first called them "camel birds" - and they seem to have cropped up in all sorts of ways. Apicius gives recipes in his cookery book for preparing ostriches and one emperor had himself drawn by an ostrich team in the hope it would look as if he were flying. Ostriches also made their appearance in the ampitheater, taking part in the games -not as odd as it sounds, since ostriches, kicking backwards, can bend an iron rail into a right angle.

Ostriches also appear frequently in Islamic verse and especially in the poetry from Arabia itself, where the birds were common. The pleasures of ostrich hunting, for example, were extolled, and large numbers of ostriches and eggs were considered an indication of prosperity

In one of the great Arabic romances, "the Deeds of the Bani Hilal" - a story of the conquest of North Africa - one image describes Tripoli as a "city of merchants, proud and wary as the she-ostrich guarding her eggs."

Arab naturalists also focused on the ostrich - and often described it quite accurately. The following passage, for example, comes from Qazwini, whose Cosmography, written in the mid-13th century, includes a long section on birds:

When the ostrich has laid her eggs, 20 in number or more, she buries them under the sand, leaving one third in one place, exposing another third to the sun, and hatching another third. When the chicks have come out, she breaks the hidden eggs and feeds her young with them. And when the chicks have grown strong, she breaks the last third on which vermin will collect, and this serves as food for the young until they are able to graze.

Not all writings on the ostrich were accurate. The belief that ostriches are bad parents, for example, probably goes back to Lamentations:"... the daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches of the wilderness.. ."and to Job, where the ostrich "leaveth her eggs in the earth and warmeth them in dust and forgetteth that the foot may crush them or that the wild beast may break them. She is hardened against her young as though they were not hers..." And this is quite unfair. Ostriches, at least in the wild, are excellent parents, the female incubating the nest by day, the male by night.

A case recorded in the Nairobi National Park in 1960 illustrates this. A male ostrich was sitting on a clutch of 40 eggs, when he was driven off by a pride of lions. The cubs played with the eggs as if they were balls, dribbling them all over the surrounding area. When they had gone, the he-ostrich came back and laboriously succeeded in rolling the eggs back into the nest. Amazingly enough, they hatched.

Ostriches are the largest living bird and have existed in their present form for at least a million years, and though their origins have been much disputed, there is an Arab myth to explain why they cannot fly. Once upon a time, the falcon and the ostrich had a wager as to which could fly the best. The falcon said, "In the name of God!" and flew straight up towards heaven while the ostrich, who forgot to invoke his Creator's blessing, was scorched by the sun and fell to earth, never to fly again.

The present-day ostrich is two to three meters tall (seven to nine feet), weighs about 136 kilos (300 pounds), lives up to 70 years and has a number of physical peculiarities which set it apart from all other birds. The ostrich, for example, is the only bird that yawns, and, having an extraordinarily efficient heart, can run at 30 miles an hour for an hour at a time without showing distress, and can manage 40 miles an hour for 15 minutes.

Many of the popular stories about ostriches have an element of truth. They do swallow metal and stones - although not to the extent described by writers in the past- and the idea that they hide their heads in the sand to avoid being noticed isn't quite as silly as it sounds. Originating with the Arabs and passed on by the Romans, this legend is based on the fact that ostriches stretch their necks straight out on the ground to sleep and, when pursued, will suddenly throw themselves down flat, preferably with their head in a bush - to apparently vanish before reaching the horizon.

In the Arab world, the ostrich was hunted for pleasure. As a by-product of the sport, the feathers were used as decoration and the skins for cuirasses and the handles of knives. The skins are beautifully marked and very tough, although heavy, and now serve to make extremely elegant luggage. The eggs were sometimes blown and hung in churches, as ornaments where all kinds of legends came to be attached to them.

In early Islamic times, there was a lively trade in live ostriches. The Arabs, for example, sent them to China from Aden and Hormuz, and Tang sources record that "the camel bird who inhabits Arabia is four feet and more in height, its feet resembling those of a camel; its neck is very strong, and men are able to ride on its back; the birds thus walk for five or six miles. Its eggs have the capacity of two pints'

The ostrich had a much more serious role in Africa, since it was hunted not for sport but for food. The Kalahari bushmen were particularly adept at this - disguising themselves in ostrich skins in order to lure the birds into traps - and buried the eggs in the sand full or water, providing small reservoirs that permitted them to hunt far out in the desert. Women also used them as containers and would carry great grass nets full of them to and from the pools or springs. In the Kalahari and by the Orange River, rock carvings and paintings of unknown age have been found showing ostriches and the hunt. In other areas of Africa, such as the Sudan, ostriches were kept semi-domesticated as food and for their feathers, which in many regions were simply pulled out in handfuls at a time and sold as the owner of the bird needed cash.

Towards the end of the 19th century, ostriches became rare. This was partly because of changing patterns of agriculture and urbanization, and partly because of changing fashions. The demand by European women for feathers for hats and boas - exports from South Africa rose from about 9072 kilos (20,000 lbs) to nearly 453,590 kilos (one million lbs) in 50 years - might well have led to the ostrich becoming extinct. Fortunately, ostrich farming was introduced and proved successful all the way from Australia to Florida.

In Arabia, the introduction of firearms caused a great decline in the number of ostriches. On April 14,1914, a British explorer, Captain William Shakespear, bought an ostrich chick when he was encamped near Jawf in today's Saudi Arabia, and about the same time a customs officer at the Allenby Bridge in the Jordan Valley reported that he had an ostrich that used to follow him about. But these were rare examples, and when, in the early 1920's, a hunter in Jordan discovered a clutch of ostrich eggs, they were rushed to England and incubated in the London Zoo. In 1941, though, the ostrich was declared extinct. Now, with the discovery of the ostrich near Ma'an, hope has revived that the Arabian ostrich may still be strutting about somewhere in the Middle East.

Caroline Stone writes regularly for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 10-11 of the March/April 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1982 images.