The sad story of the Arabian Ostrich

Us humans have a lot to answer for when it comes to the extinction of a species. The invention of the gun, amongst other things, has helped us to wipe out a large number of animals across Arabia.

The Arabian Ostrich is just one of the previous residents of the Middle East.

The Arabian Ostrich

Also known as the Camel Bird, Syrian Ostrich or Middle Eastern Ostrich – The Arabian Ostrich existed for several million years and once roamed freely across the Middle East. A significant part of the stories, culture and writings of the region, the Arabian Ostrich has featured in The Bible, Islamic verse, fables, art, love stories and old-wives tales.

An old Arab myth, from an unknown author, explains 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.

In the love story ‘The Deeds of the Bani Hilal’, a featured image describes Tripoli as “city of merchants, proud and wary as the she-ostrich guarding her eggs”.

Arabian Ostrich Hunting Saudi
Ostrich Rock Carvings in Saudi Arabia

Rock-art carvings and glyphs of ostriches can be seen at Grafitti Rock in Saudi Arabia, and date around 2000-1000 BC. More photos and information can be read here at Saudi Aramco World and The Odysseia.

A symbol of justice, the Ancient Egyptians made use of their feathers, and the people of Mesopotamia regularly sacrificed the Arabian Ostrich and used their eggs for cups and decoration. For their sins, Ostriches were also a regular, and no doubt unwilling, contender at the Roman Amphitheaters.

In the Arab world, the Arabian Ostrich was hunted for its feathers, skin, eggs and for amusement, as well as farmed or captured and traded into Asia. Historian Flavius Josephus records that King Herod was a keen Ostrich hunter (among other animals). In addition, the relative poverty in the region as well as the size of the bird made it a popular dinner choice along with smoked camel’s hump and zebra.

A popular Roman recipe for Ostrich stew comes from the ancient Roman book ‘Apicius: De Re Coquinaria’ or ‘Food Lovers: On The Subject of Cooking’. The book, written in Latin, was compiled around 4th or 5th century AD and also included suggestions for Flamingo, Peacock, Turtle Doves and Parrot – seemingly our feathered friends didn’t fare well in Ancient Rome.

Boiled Ostrich – “ALITER IN STRUTHIONE ELIXO” via Bill Thayer’s Website.

A stock in which to cook ostrich:

Option 1: pepper, mint, cumin, leeks, celery seed, dates, honey, vinegar, raisin wine, broth, a little oil.

Option 2: pepper, lovage, thyme, also satury, honey, mustard, vinegar, broth and oil.

Boil this in the stock kettle with the ostrich, remove the bird when done, strain the liquid thicken with roux. To this sauce add the ostrich meat cut in convenient pieces, sprinkle with pepper. If you wish it more seasoned or tasty, add garlic during coction.

Sahtain!

Alfred Dubucand's sculpture: Chasse à l'autruche dans le Sahara
Alfred Dubucand’s sculpture: Chasse à l’autruche dans le Sahara

The Arabian Ostrich differed from the African Ostrich we are familiar with today in a number of ways. For one, the bird was smaller with “superior” feathers (something which contributed to its downfall), it had a red neck and legs and its eggs were smooth and highly polished. Their bills while not much shorter, were notably pointier and their legs and tail a little stumpier, with a relatively bald head.

A failed bid to transport Arabic Ostrich eggs to London Zoo in 1920 might have meant the survival of the species, but sadly funds to transport them could not be raised.

This mighty bird was largely wiped out during the early 20th century, following the influx of firearms and automotives into the region after WWI, then WWII. The final bird met its maker in Bahrain in 1941, however the unconfirmed sighting of a dying Ostrich washed up in Petra in 1966, has given hope to some that the species secretly lives on.

At present, the Arabian Ostrich’s close cousin, the North African Ostrich has been slowly introduced into nature reserves and parks across the region over the last twenty years or so, specifically Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with future plans to the release the birds into the “real” wild.

Fingers crossed.

#ConcernedOfTheMarina

 

 

 

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