Albert the Great

On the Ostrich

Introduction by Ruth Meyer

Albertus says: "The ostrich is a bird of the deserts of Libya, but it has still been seen rather often in our parts. A young one is ash grey and totally well feathered, although its plume feathers are not strong.  In its second year and thereafter, its body is laid bare as it completely loses its feathers on its thighs, neck, and head. But it is probtected from the cold by a tough skin and the very black feathers of its back tur into a sort of wooly substance. It has very large thighs, fleshy legs, a white skin, and only two toes on its foot like a camel. It is therefore called the cameleon by some Greeks and asida by others."

Original Latin

The camel-foot bird? Albert's literary sources

The African ostrich still has the biological name, struthio camelus. This stems from the Greek and came into Latin through the Classical historian and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder's Naturalis historia. Albert the Great knew this name and thought that it came from something anyone can observe about the ostrich - that its foot has only two toes, like the foot of a camel.

...Et duos tantum digitos in pede sicut camelus: et ideo cameleon a quibusdam Graecis vocatur, ab aliis autem asida.

...And only two toes on its foot like a camel. It is therefore called the "cameleon" by some Greeks and the "asida" by others.

The other name for ostrich Albert mentions, asida, is actually not Greek, though it comes from a Greek book on animals, the Physiologus. Rather asida may be based on an Arabic word (aswad -- "black").

Pliny deals with the ostrich in the first chapter of book ten of his Naturalis historia. He reports on the bird's habit of hiding itself in bushes and its ability to eat and digest anything. Over the course of time, as often happens, this combines truth and legend. And the belief arose that the ostrich eats iron.

Another of Albert's sources was the medieval bestiary. You can read fantastic and odd trivia about the ostrich in the medieval bestiary, an expanded and improved version of the Physiologus, with allegories intended to give moral instruction. Since this impressive bird lives in Africa, no one in Europe had seen a live ostrich for a long time. The Aberdeen Bestiarium picture of an ostrich may not be accurate but it is exciting. And here is an asida in the Physiologus from a medieval manuscript.

Albert observes the live ostrich

You don't have to rely on a bestiary for your picture of an ostrich and neither did Albert. You can visit a live ostrich yourself at the zoo, or look up a video of one on the Internet. Albert had seen and observed living ostriches himself in person, as he says at the end of his chapter on the ostrich: Haec sunt quae vidi de strutione. Albert began to write his book, De animalibus, in 1260. His description of the appearance of the ostrich is very detailed and precise. He describes:

  • The gray, plump feathers of the young birds' so different from fuzzy black feathers of the grown birds
  • Size of the animal in feet
  • The small head on top of a remarkably long, unfeathered neck
  • The bare, powerful legs with two large toes, which give the ostrich the ability to run quickly.

In later centuries, ostriches were especially hunted for their feathers and nearly driven to extinction in order to make modern accessories like fans and jewelery. Certain medieval knights also wore ostrich feathers as decorations on their helmets, so that their armor could be recognized.

But where could Albert have seen a live ostrich? No zoo was accessible to anyone in medieval Europe and naturally there were also no ostrich farms. However, some specimens of the bird were given as gifts to European rulers by Arab sultans, because they were exotic and especially valuable.

Emperor Friedrick Barbarossa enjoyed the exotic and had good contacts with the Arabs. He had a menagerie with rare and exotic birds and animals, including a giraffe, which Albert also described very precisely. Since the emperor had no permanent place of residence like other rulers of Europe, but instead moved with his whole royal household from castle to castle, he naturally brought all of his exotic animals along with him. So Albert could certainly have seen living ostriches at a wealthy court.

Debunking Ostrich Myths

The ever-curious Albert did not just observe ostriches correctly. He even tested experimentally what people said about its eating habits. This methodology is typical of Albert. He writes:

De hac [strutio] dicitur quod ferrum comedat et digerat: sed ego non sum hoc expertus quia ferrum saepius a me pluribus strutionibus obiectum comedere noluerunt. Sed ossa magna ad breves partes truncata et arida et lapides avide comederunt.

It is said that this bird eats and digests iron. But I have not experienced this to be so, since I have often spread out iron for several ostriches and they have not wanted to eat it. They did greedily eat rocks and large, dry bones that were broken into smaller pieces.

"To stick your head in the sand," is a figure of speech we still use today. We mean by this that one doesn't want to face one's problems. This figure of speech originated in the 16th century and is based on the belief that the ostrich has a habit of sticking its head in the sand when danger is near. The bird's habit of eating stones and sand so that it can better digest its food is probably a reason why people think the ostrich sticks its head in the sand. But it is also well known that the bird actually puts its head on the ground when danger is near so that it will look smaller. Maybe the figure of speech comes from this habit.

Albert does not write about this behavior, however, perhaps because the figure of speech was not used in his lifetime. Instead he relates many of the ostrich's other behaviors, as he tries to find rational explanations for many of the stories about ostriches.

One such story was that the ostrich incubates its eggs in the sun, and as a rule does not return to its nest. Albert reasoned that the bird did not have feathers on some parts of its body and therefore could not warm its eggs:

...Et ideo ad ea [ova] non revertitur quia nudo corpore ea fovere non posset.

It does not return to them [the eggs] since it cannot keep them warm with its naked body.

Today we know that ostriches certainly do sit on and incubate their eggs. Still Albert does gives a quite plausible explanation for the bird leaving its nest, which he considered a fact.

Another story Albert debunks: a claim that the ostrich incubates its eggs with visual rays:

Aliquando autem custodit ea [ova] et respicit ad locum in quo iacent: et ideo rumor falsus exivit quod visu ea foveat.

Sometimes, though, it guards them and watches over the place where they are lying. Therefore, the false rumor has arisen that they warm the eggs by looking at them.

And so, even if Albert's description of the ostrich is not up to date, it is still worthwhile (and entertaining) to read up on Albert!