A 1600 Work I
1600 Work II
1600 Work III
Bill Long 5/22/07
A Few Words on Flightless Birds
As is the case for many of the animals studied on this page, I decided to study the ratites (derived from Latin ratis, meaning "raft," because their breastbone is flat or raft-like instead of the keel shaped breastbone of flying birds) because I had to make sure I could spell the name of one of them: aepyornis (ee pee OR nis). My Collegiate dictionary only defined the aepyornis as the "elephant bird," and I knew I wouldn't be satisfied with that limited definition. So, I began to search and, as usual, discovered fascinating thing about animals and about life. I learned the names of the five living ratites: ostrich, emu, cassowary, kiwi and rhea, as well as the two extinct types: the elephant bird and the moa. Further, I learned that many evolutionary biologists consider these flightless birds to be among the oldest or most primitive forms of birds. Thus, I was plunged into time and space long ago, which is where I will begin today.
Beginning in Gondwanaland
Because the ratites supposedly had their origin hundreds of millions of years ago (thought I haven't yet learned, to my satisfaction, how to evaluate those claims), scholars studying them also are convinced that they originated in a primeval land called Gondwanaland. I hadn't run into this supercontinent before yesterday, but now I feel I know a lot about it. Gondwanaland is the name for the putative continent consisting of South America, Africa, Australia and India, which was posited by Austrian geologist Theodore Suess (1831-1914) in 1861. Why did he posit the existence of this primeval supercontinent? Not because of the theory of plate tectonics or even of continental drift had been articulated but because he discovered a fern, the Glossopteris, which is present in each of those continents. He postulated that such a discovery could most logically be explained by the ancient existence of this landmass. It was named after a district of India. We could get far afield on the scholarly hypotheses on the history of the earth, but I must restrain my enthusiam.
Well, ratites are all flightless birds which also have or had their existence in one of the Gondwanaland continents. The aepyornis was one of the flightless birds, now extinct, that lived in present-day Madagascar. It is the largest bird ever known, weighing over 1,000 pounds and standing 10' in height. Their eggs were up to 36 inches or more in circumference, and the egg volume was about 160 times that of a chicken egg. The OED defines it technically as "a genus of extinct gigantic struthious birds known from remains discovered in Madagascar." Aepyornis is taken from the two Greek words aipys, meaning "high" and ornis, meaning "bird." Much more could be said about it, but now I know how to spell it.
Some Living Ratites
Of all the ratites I studied for this essay, the cassowary is the most interesting to me. It too is from the Phylum Chordata, Class of Aves and Order of Struthioniformes (from the Greek meaning "form of the sparrow." The ostrich is known as the "big sparrow;" hence its name as Struthio or Struthiocamelus). It is a flightless bird from New Guinea, growing to a height of about 6' and 130 pounds. So powerful is its middle digit on its feet that it has been known to killl humans with it. One source calls it a "dagger-like middle claw" that is about 5 inches long. The most distinctive feature of the cassowary is the casque or "helmet." It is a "tough keratinous skin covering" atop the head which enables the cassowary to clear away twigs, brush and other obstacles as it lowers its head and runs, but it also may be a kind of "sex signal" for mating purposes. It can run up to speeds of 35 mph in the forest; thus it could catch the fastest sprinter. Yet, it is "slow" by comparison with its huge fellow-ratite, the ostrich.
But before we leave the cassowary, we should note two other things about it. First, one of its major functions is to scatter seeds of about 70 species of trees whose fruit it too large for other forest animals to eat and relocate. Thus, it allows these trees to "be fruitful and multiply" in a much more wide area than without them. One web site talks about how the cassowary can help species of plants in the same way. It says:
"These species have smaller seeds but many are toxic and only the cassowary can safely consume them. Such dangerous eating habits are possible because the cassowary has a short/rapid digestive system which appears to be supported by an overactive liver and an unusual combination of stomach enzymes. Other animals such as White-tailed Rats may help distribute these smaller seeds but more often than not, they damage the seed rather than dispersing it intact. So the cassowary is vital for the widespread continuance of over 150 species of plants. That is why the cassowary is referred to as a 'keystone species'."
But there is a sad dimension to the life of the cassowary. Humans tend to want to feed it, and the cassowary wants to eat food provided by humans. Once the cassowary is "tamed" to learn to approach people rather than avoiding them, its chances of killed dramatically rise. Why? Because it will begin to walk into neighborhoods looking for people to feed them, oblivious to the fact that their major predator, hunting dogs, also live in these neighborhoods. Thus, they either get run over by cars or attacked and killed by dogs. Such is life, even though it is a sad way to end one's days....
Finishing with the Ostrich
Lots could be said about this largest-living flightless bird, which can weigh up to 300 pounds and can attain a speed of 65 mph. And you thought it was tough for running backs when a 300 pound defensive lineman ran into them at full tilt. Their kick is enough to break a human leg. I doubt, however, whether they could catch a pass even when lobbed to them by a gentle quarterback.
The ostrich has the distinction of being mentioned in two classical sources: the Bible and Pliny the Elder. The latter, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE, wrote a Natural History, 37 books of which survive. One sentence from that work (Book X.1) is the only reference we have to a practice that has given us the actually untrue cliche that the ostrich, like some people, buries its head in the sand and then imagines that no one can see it. Here is what Pliny actually says about it:
"The bird exceeds in height a man sitting on horseback, and can surpass him in swiftness, as wings hav ebeen given to aid it in running....they have cloven talons, very similar to the hoof of the stag; with these they fight, and they also employ them in seizing stones for the purpose of throwing at those who pursue them (!..my exclamation point).. but their stupidity is no less remarkable; for though the rest of their body is so large, they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of the body is concealed."
Animal biologists tell us that this just isn't true. They don't "bury their head in the sand," so to speak. Yet, it is too late for us to give up this pleasant cliche, used to describe anyone we desire who we think is not paying attention to the "true issues" at stake in any situation.
I am out of space in this essay, but I think I still have some more to say about the ostriches (I want to quote the Book of Job on the ostrich), before turning to the kiwi, rhea, emu and moa. Who says that short words can't be difficult--and point to interesting things?