Sir Thomas Browne and the Ostrich
Thomas Browne was born in London in 1605, and studied medicine in Montpelier, Padua and Leiden.
A later commentator stated that ‘he settled near Halifax to practise as a physician, and, no patients coming, he allowed his brain to brood over the problems which force themselves on the attention of every man who takes life’s journey seriously’.
He settled in Norwich and set up as a doctor. In 1643 he published a controversial text Religio Medici, The Faith of a Doctor; followed in 1646 by Pseudodoxia Epidemica, An Enquiry into Common False Beliefs.
Thomas Browne was knighted in 1671 and died in 1682.
A believer in both science and superstition, Browne stands at the junction of two cultures. His work is driven by empirical observation, but he believed in witchcraft.
As a scientific observer of birds he devised new terms: nidulation [the act of making a nest], incubation, oviparous [hatching eggs outside the body], aquiline, migrant, biped; in his work we find the first written record of the species merganser, shearwater, and mistle thrush.
He carried a lasting fear of what happens after death, not to the soul, but the body.
‘To be knav’d out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking bowls, and our bones turned into pipes, to delight and sport our enemies, are Tragical Abominations.’
From the diary of John Evelyn
17th October 1671
His house & garden being a paradise and cabinet of rarities, and that of the best collection, amongst other curiosities, Sir Thomas had a collection of the eggs of all the fowle and birds he could procure, that country (especially the promontory of Norfolk) being frequented, as he said, by severall kinds which seldom or never go farther into the land, as cranes, storkes, eagles, and a variety of water-fowle.
Nothing remains of Sir Thomas Browne’s collections but a work called Musaeum Clausum, The Sealed Museum, a list of imagined objects, which includes
Item No 8 in Section Three, Antiquities and Rarities of Severall Sorts:
‘A large Ostridges Egg, whereon is neatly and fully wrought that famous Battel of Alcazar, in which three Kings lost their lives’.
In January 1682 the Court of King Charles II received an embassy from the Sultan of Morocco, as part of the diplomacy surrounding British colonial ambitions in North Africa.
Memoirs of Sir John Reresby: 18th January 1682:
‘The Ambassador’s present consisted of 2 lions and 30 Ostriches; at which his Majesty laughed, and said he knew nothing more proper to send by way of return than a flock of geese’.
Actually 300 muskets were sent.
Sir Thomas Browne to his son Edward in London, 13th January 1682
‘I thank you for the account of the Ambassador of the King of Fez & Morocco.
There being so many ostriches brought over tis likely some of them will be brought about to show, & here as soon as any other parts out of London.
If any of them die, I believe it will be dissected. They have odd feet and strong thighs and legs. Perhaps the King will put 3 or 4 of these ostriches in St James Park, and give the rest away to some noblemen.’
From Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica:
THE common opinion of the Ostrich conceives that it digesteth Iron; and this is confirmed by the affirmations of many; the common picture also confirmeth it, which usually describeth this Animal with an Horshoe in its mouth.
Notwithstanding upon enquiry we find it very questionable.
Thomas Browne to Edward Browne, 3rd February 1682:
‘I believe you must be carefull of your ostrich this return of cold weather, lest it perish by it being bred in so hot a country and perhaps not having seen snow before or very seldom. …
You must have it observed how it sleepeth and whether not with the head under the wing, especially in cold weather; whether it be a watchful and quick hearing bird like a goose, for it seems to be like a goose in many circumstances.
To geese they give oats moistened with beer, but sometimes they are inebriated with it. If you give it any iron, it may be wrapped up in dough or paste; perhaps it will not take it up alone. You may try whether it will eat a worm or a very small eel. If it delights not in salt things you may try it with an olive.’
Edward Browne to Thomas Browne 4th February 1682:
‘The ostridge died in the night; these cold nights I think killed him’.
Thomas Browne to Edward Browne 10th February 1682:
‘I am glad you have done so much in your ostridge business. The brain is said to be but little. The guts were of a strange length and so were the intestina remarkable, and the numerous glandules in the coats of their stomack wonderful.’
It seems Sir Thomas Browne acquired an ostrich himself, and kept it in his garden in Norwich, making a drawing of it:
In his notes ‘On the Ostrich’ he writes:
'The Ostrich hath a compounded name in Greek and Latin – Struthio Camelus or sparrow-camel, borrowed from a bird and a beast, as being a feathered and a biped animal, yet in some ways like the camel.
Somewhat in the long neck, somewhat in the foot; and, as some imagine, from a camel-like position in the part of generation.
It is accounted the largest and tallest of any winged and feathered fowl; taller than the gruen (crane) or cassowary. This ostrich, though a female, was about seven feet high, and some of the males were higher.
The head is not large, but little in proportion to the whole body.
The head is looked upon by discerning spectators to resemble that of a goose rather than any kind of passserine; and so may be more properly called cheno-camelus or anser-camelus.'
'If these had been brought over in June, it is perhaps likely we might have met with eggs in some of their bellies, whereof they lay very many; but they are the worst of eggs for food - yet serviceable for many other uses in their country; for being cut transversely they serve for drinking cups and skull-caps.
Painted and gilded, they hang up in Turkish mosques and also in Greek churches. They are preserved with us for rarities; and as they come to be common, some use will be found for them in physic.
When it first came into my garden it soon ate up all the gillyflowers, Tulip leaves, & fed greedily upon what was green, such as lettuce, endive, sorrel: it would feed upon oats, barley, peas, beans, swallow onions, eats sheeps lights and livers.
When it took down a large onion it stuck awhile in the Gulla & did not descend directly, but wound backward behind the neck whereby I might perceive that the Gullett turned much.
It made sometimes a very strange noise, had a very odd note especially in the morning, and perhaps when hungry.
Regarding the opinion that it digesteth iron - for my part, although I have had the sight of this animal, I have not had the opportunity of its experiment, but have received great occasion of doubt, from learned discourses thereon.
As for the possibility, we shall not at present dispute; nor will we affirm that Iron indigested, receiveth in the stomack of the Ostrich no alteration at all; but if any such there be, we suspect this effect rather from some way of corrosion, rather than any of digestion - some attrition from an acid in the stomack.
The ground of this conceit is its swallowing down fragments of Iron, which men observing, by a forward inference, have therefore conceived it digesteth them.
That an Ostrich will swallow and take down Iron, is easily to be granted: that oftentimes it pass entire away, if we admit of ocular testimony, is not to be denied.
And it may also be considered whether these fragments of iron and hard substances swallowed by the Ostrich have not also that use in their stomachs which they have in other birds, that is in some way to supply the use of teeth by grinding and compression.'
Experiments on feeding iron to ostriches were indeed carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries; the stomach of a specimen which died in Holland in 1659 was found to contain dozens of nails.
In the Tower of London menagerie an ostrich which died in 1781 after being fed nails, was dissected and found to have more than 80 of them in its gut.
Some other false beliefs:
Ostriches do not bury their head in the sand. This fallacy is attributed to Pliny.
The Italian renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardanus proposed the ostrich had naturally coloured feathers.
The bird’s aimless running when panicked has led to its being regarded as stupid.
Ostrich eggs are incubated by the females by day and the males by night.
This uses the coloration of the two sexes to hide the nest.
The light brown female blends in with the sand, while the black male is nearly undetectable at night.
Ostriches know what they look like, and actively use this knowledge for their own protection.
When lying down and hiding from predators, the birds lay their head and neck flat on the ground, making them appear like a mound of earth from a distance.
What does an ostrich mean?
The eggs have been used in places of worship since antiquity; in Coptic churches they are still used to symbolise steadfast vigilance.
It was believed that the egg hatched through the unceasing rigour of its parent’s gaze.
The ostrich egg was also used as a symbol for meditation on divine care; for God’s creation; and for resurrection.
Farmed ostriches often abandon their eggs, but in the wild have been known to kill human egg-thieves.
Yet the bird was also believed to abandon its eggs to hatch alone, warmed by the sun, for which it was castigated as an uncaring parent.
The abandoned egg symbolised earthly values, while the ostrich relied on God’s protection to oversee its young, while it fixed its own attention on heaven.
Ostriches appeared in mediaeval bestiaries symbolising hypocrisy; they open their wings to fly, but cannot.
The life span of an Ostrich is up to 70 years.
The bird has two toes on each foot (most birds have four); the nail of the larger, inner one resembles a hoof. The outer toe lacks a nail. This unique adaptation appears to help them run at speeds of up to 40 mph.
Lacking teeth, they swallow pebbles that help to grind the swallowed foodstuff in the gizzard. An adult ostrich typically carries about 1 kilo of stones in its stomach. An ostrich will eat almost anything it can swallow.
15 to 60 eggs are laid in a communal nest by mating groups, the nest being a pit scraped in the ground.
The eggs take 42 days to hatch.
It is easier to break out of an ostrich egg than to break into one.
The ostrich lays the largest egg produced by any bird; but considering the size ratio between egg and adult bird, the ostrich egg is proportionately the smallest egg laid by any bird.
65% of the cranial cavity of an ostrich is taken up with the eyes, each one occupying almost as much space as the brain. The brain of a fully grown ostrich weighs just 26 grammes, less than the weight of three £1 coins. A 2008 study proposed that the brain of the African ostrich is underdeveloped. But the size of the brain as an implication of relative intelligence poses some problems.
From Africa to China ostrich eggshell fragments have been found at excavated sites dating from the Palaeolithic period. The shells were used as water flasks, in a period before Homo sapiens had started to move out of Africa.
In 2010 archaeologists in South Africa discovered 270 ostrich egg fragments, all about 1 inch square.
Resarch identified four different repeated patterns including cross hatching and parallel lines scratched on the side of the eggs.
This material has been suggested as showing "collective identities and individual expressions". Certainly information was being recorded and communicated. The fragments dated to 60,000 years ago.
from Ostrich Farming in a Nutshell for Beginners, Donald W Allen, 1911
To check for fertility, kneel down on one knee, pull your coat over your head, then take an egg and hold it well away in front of your face, placing half the egg inside the coat in an upright position.
Pull the material tightly round the egg, shutting out all light from the inside half; now hold the egg up to the sun with the air-space on top. If the egg is hatching it should show a dark spot on one side.
In 1840 the Zoological Society of London published Richard Owen’s paper on the extinct flightless bird found in New Zealand, the moa, which was considerably larger than the ostrich.
Larger still was the elephant bird of Madagascar, Aepyornis maximus, extinct by 1200, which stood 3 metres tall and weighed about half a ton.
Looking at the names given to these birds – ‘moa’ comes from a word that means ‘chicken’ - elephant bird, struthio camelus, we see a process of knowing one thing by comparing it to something previously known.
But Browne examines the scientific name given to the bird, which is named Struthiocamelus in the Historiæ Animalium by Conrad Gessner of 1561.
He suggests that the ostrich might be more properly called anser-camelus rather than struthio camelus, because it more resembles a goose than a sparrow.
In doing so he questions not only what we know, but how we know it.
A reasonable question, because in ancient Greek there was a word for an ostrich, but it was also used for a sparrow.
In ancient Greek 'strouthion' was a diminutive term for a sparrow and 'strouthos' was any small bird, especially a sparrow; but it developed to mean any bird at all, including an eagle, which gave rise to the term 'mega strouthos', for the ostrich, which was also called 'strouthos katagaios', a bird that moves by running rather than flying.
As the ostrich became more symbolic than real in medieval times, manuscripts documented the bird as variations on 'strutius', effectively meaning 'bird', but developing as a standard word for ostrich in many European languages.
In returning to the Ancient Greek and linking the word 'struthio' to a sparrow, Browne was ignoring the etymological developments of two thousand years, and applying the etymological fallacy that proposes that the earliest word used for something embodies its essence. Browne, who worked so hard to debunk fallacies, seems to have fallen prey to a fallacy himself.
In 1840, the same year as Richard Owen’s paper on the moa, the vault at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich was accidentally broken open, allowing the theft of the skull of Sir Thomas Browne. It was sold to a Dr Lubbock, who bequeathed it to the Norwich Hospital Museum in 1845. In 1922 it was examined by the renowned palaeontologist and phrenologist Sir Arthur Keith.
Keith observed that the skull’s frontal region was ‘low and receding’; perhaps a disappointment in a period which had recently introduced the words ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’. He proposed that Browne’s brain changed the shape of his skull as a result of ‘living forces which exerted their pressure from within’.
This dynamic caused ‘the brain to expand to an unusual extent in a backward direction and to give a receding aspect to his forehead. It also caused the sides of the skull to bulge. Thus the brain of Sir Thomas Browne was forced into a curious and unusual shape.’
Sir Thomas himself had said that he had ‘extravagant and irregular head’.
In 1893 the board of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital decided after ‘a prolonged and careful consideration of all the circumstances’ to deny the request of the vicar of St Peter Mancroft for the return of Sir Thomas’s skull.
‘As there is no legal title to, or property in, any such relic, so there can be no question that this and all other specimens in the Hospital Museum belong inalienably to the Governors.’
After complaints from the church and the local press it was finally agreed that the skull should be re-buried. On 4th July 1922 it was returned to the church and reburied, the head buried under the ground. Its age was entered in the church register as 317 years, without any evidence of irony.
Ostriches can be now found on all continents, pecking at the ground. Perhaps they are looking for iron, perhaps they are looking for their own real name, one that does not say they are like something else.
In 1758 the writer of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus confirmed the name Struthio camelus, part sparrow, part camel, and so it stands. Reason gave way to tradition in the scientific naming of the animal.
Sir Thomas Browne, looking at how we listen to reason but generally ignore it, proposed that we are part man and part beast. Ultimately, he said, ‘we are all monsters’. What he did not know was that the creature eating his garden was the descendent of dinosaurs.
'Sir Thomas Browne and the Ostrich'
was performed at 'Flightless' at Equivalent Behaviour, 21st Nov 2021.
The event also featured films, installations, live art, taxidermy, 2D artwork, and an ostrich egg on which are engraved Sir Thomas Browne's observations regarding the ostrich.