The ostrich; the bird that forgot to fly.
Ostriches are the largest living bird, the fastest living bird and one of the weirdest. At 7-9 foot tall, these watchtowers are well placed to scan the horizon, vital because there is danger coming at them from all sides. They have been living in Africa for 12 million years and are a favourite food for lions. But don’t feel too sorry for them, one well placed kick can be enough to kill a lion. At the end of their powerful legs are huge feet with 7 inch toes and 4 inch claws. Don’t make assumptions about this odd looking bird!
The males have striking black and white feathers whilst females blend into the land more easily with greyish brown plumage. Their feathers are very useful; they fluff them up and fold them as a way of regulating body heat and moisture so they can tolerate high temperatures and don’t need to find shade. The ostriches use their feathers for communication and remind me of semaphore and fan dancing. And of course, we use them for hats and boas.
Ostriches walk dozens of miles a day for food – they don’t need to search out water so frequently as they get most of what they need from their food. When frightened or shocked, they will run in a zig zag way which can confuse the predator. This can seem a bit like the ostrich is confused and is trying to run in a million directions at once and this might be the case for you, you may be trying to do too many different things at once. Conversely, doing a couple of different types of things can be positive for our brain, switching between them gives the brain a break and that can be where we find our best ideas.
There is a myth that ostriches were capable of digesting anything including iron, with one medieval scholar claiming they could eat keys and horse shoes. This rumour probably arose because they do eat stones. They don’t have teeth and don’t have a ruminating stomach – no chewing the cud here – so have to tear at grass with their beak and swallow the fibres whole. The rocks then grind the food down so it can be digested. This habit, along with the false idea that they bury their head in the sand when facing danger, left people believing the ostrich was stupid.
The ostrich mating process is fascinating. It begins with the male posturing, showing off his wings and showing the female he is interested. His neck turns bright red and after a prolonged flirtation period, she lets him know she is ready. The elaborate ritual can take a few days but the actual procreation takes a few minutes. As an aside, unlike many birds, the male ostrich has a penis.
“The breeding system of the ostrich has been shown to be both varied and complex. It is highly unusual amongst birds.”
– Brian C R Bertram
A dominant couple will establish a nest and the dominant female will be the first to lay eggs in the nest. They lay the largest eggs in the world but compared to their size, it’s actually comparatively small. Secondary females, who’ve had sex with the dominant male, will then lay their eggs in the nest. This means that in one nest there are eggs from a variety of mothers. Interestingly, the dominant female’s eggs will generally be in the centre of the clutch. The secondary females leave their eggs for the dominant couple to incubate and raise.
The male will incubate the eggs at night when their dark plumage doesn’t stand out in the landscape and the more camouflaged females will take the day shift. When they change shifts, the ostrich who is taking over incubation will do a dance as part of a recognition ritual. This just confirms to the sitter that this bird really is their partner.
Even before birth, ostrich chicks are vulnerable. Eggs are laid on the ground and are exposed to a number of threats. Of a large clutch, 90% of the eggs won’t hatch because of predation. Of those that do hatch, 15% of them will make it to their first birthday. If you are one of the lucky babies that makes it through incubation safely, then you have to break out of a really tough shell, making for an exhausting start to life. If you have pulled the ostrich card then ask yourself what shell are you breaking out of? Are you going through a bit of a metamorphosis? If it’s challenging, then this might the encouragement you need.
And of course, unlike other birds, ostrich chicks don’t need to know how to fly to leave the nest which is interesting to ponder metaphorically.
Ostriches have historically been hunted and maximum use was made of the bird once killed. The skin is tough but flexible and has been used to make protective jackets. The feathers have been used for decoration including the headdresses of African warriors and in fans used to fan the King. In ancient Egypt, the ostrich plume was used as a symbol of justice and truth. As a large bird, and a visible creature in Africa, they have of course made their way into the culture and the myths of the land.
Ostriches feature in folklore and carvings of the Kalahari Bushmen and were considered holy by the Assyrians. Their eggs were prized by both bushmen and European sailors as a valuable food source, and the empty shell was used as a water vessel. Holy properties of the shells were used to help and protect Ethiopian Coptic churches and buried Phoenicians. Shell fragments have been heavily used to make beads for necklaces.
In The Ten Little Ostriches, a story from Kenya, a mother ostrich has ten little chicks that she’s very proud of, and one day she has to leave them to get food. On her return, she can’t find the chicks but sees lion paw prints and challenges the Lion. She demands Lion give her back the ten little chicks that are nestled in Lion’s arms but Lion says that she has no ostrich chicks, just her own lion cubs. Ostrich asks Mongoose for help and in return Mongoose asks for Ostrich to build a hole under an anthill. Later that day, all the animals arrive to help Ostrich get her chicks back. But Zebra and Antelope, Baboon, Giraffe and Wildebeest all declare they see nothing but lion cubs. Mongoose however jumps up and declares that mothers with hair don’t have babies with feathers. Lion snarled angrily at Mongoose but this didn’t scare Mongoose. Instead Mongoose stepped closer and shouted that Lion was a thief and immediately spun around and ran into the hole under the anthill where Lion couldn’t follow. Whilst this was happening, Ostrich was able to rush into the Lion’s den and get her chicks back. Mongoose meanwhile had run away via a back exit.
The bestiary notes, obviously that the ostrich has wings but does not fly, and goes on to discuss the mating ritual:
“now when the time comes for it to lay some eggs, the ostrich raises its eyes to heaven and looks to see whether those stars which are called the Pleiades appear. When, however it perceives that constellation, round about the month of June, it digs a hole in the earth, and there it deposits the eggs and covers them with sand. Then it gets up, instantly forgets all about them, and never comes back any more…. Now if the Ostrich knows its times and seasons, and, disregarding earthly things, cleaves to the heavenly ones – even unto the forgetting of its own offspring – how much the more should you, O Man, strive after the reward of the starry calling, on account of which God was made man that he might enlighten you from the powers of darkness and place you with the chiefs of his people in the glorious kingdom of heaven.”
– The Book of Beasts
As the knight of wands, the animal totem card focuses on the idea of confidence, of energy and that things aren’t always as they seem. This bird is probably best known for something it doesn’t even do – burying it’s head in the sand – and so is asking us to look at how we define ourselves and how others define us.
“Don’t let someone else create a set of myths, stories, and beliefs about who you are.”
– Animal Totem Tarot
Instead of being cowardly or delusional, the ostrich is actually brave and grounded in reality. Do not underestimate yourself. Stand your ground. Protect yourself.
Move forcefully. Move quickly. Be decisive.
This is not a time for pondering, for chewing the cud, for taking your time. This is the time for action.