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The Voyage Of The Beagle (1839)

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Author Topic: The Voyage Of The Beagle (1839)  (Read 1916 times)
Deanna Witmer
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« Reply #30 on: February 08, 2009, 11:50:12 pm »

The inhabitants of the country readily distinguish, even at a distance, the **** bird from the hen. The former is larger and darker-coloured, [12] and has a bigger head. The ostrich, I believe the ****, emits a singular, deep-toned, hissing note: when first I heard it, standing in the midst of some sand-hillocks, I thought it was made by some wild beast, for it is a sound that one cannot tell whence it comes, or from how far distant. When we were at Bahia Blanca in the months of September and October, the eggs, in extraordinary numbers, were found all over the country. They lie either scattered and single, in which case they are never hatched, and are called by the Spaniards huachos; or they are collected together into a shallow excavation, which forms the nest. Out of the four nests which I saw, three contained twenty-two eggs each, and the fourth twenty-seven. In one day's hunting on horseback sixty-four eggs were found; forty-four of these were in two nests, and the remaining twenty, scattered huachos. The Gauchos unanimously affirm, and there is no reason to doubt their statement, that the male bird alone hatches the eggs, and for some time afterwards accompanies the young. The **** when on the nest lies very close; I have myself almost ridden over one. It is asserted that at such times they are occasionally fierce, and even dangerous, and that they have been known to attack a man on horseback, trying to kick and leap on him. My informer pointed out to me an old man, whom he had seen much terrified by one chasing him. I observe in Burchell's travels in South Africa, that he remarks, "Having killed a male ostrich, and the feathers being dirty, it was said by the Hottentots to be a nest bird." I understand that the male emu in the Zoological Gardens takes charge of the nest: this habit, therefore, is common to the family.

The Gauchos unanimously affirm that several females lay in one nest. I have been positively told that four or five hen birds have been watched to go in the middle of the day, one after the other, to the same nest. I may add, also, that it is believed in Africa, that two or more females lay in one nest. [13] Although this habit at first appears very strange, I think the cause may be explained in a simple manner. The number of eggs in the nest varies from twenty to forty, and even to fifty; and according to Azara, some times to seventy or eighty. Now, although it is most probable, from the number of eggs found in one district being so extraordinarily great in proportion to the parent birds, and likewise from the state of the ovarium of the hen, that she may in the course of the season lay a large number, yet the time required must be very long. Azara states, [14] that a female in a state of domestication laid seventeen eggs, each at the interval of three days one from another. If the hen was obliged to hatch her own eggs, before the last was laid the first probably would be addled; but if each laid a few eggs at successive periods, in different nests, and several hens, as is stated to be the case, combined together, then the eggs in one collection would be nearly of the same age. If the number of eggs in one of these nests is, as I believe, not greater on an average than the number laid by one female in the season, then there must be as many nests as females, and each **** bird will have its fair share of the labour of incubation; and that during a period when the females probably could not sit, from not having finished laying. [15] I have before mentioned the great numbers of huachos, or deserted eggs; so that in one day's hunting twenty were found in this state. It appears odd that so many should be wasted. Does it not arise from the difficulty of several females associating together, and finding a male ready to undertake the office of incubation? It is evident that there must at first be some degree of association between at least two females; otherwise the eggs would remain scattered over the wide plain, at distances far too great to allow of the male collecting them into one nest: some authors have believed that the scattered eggs were deposited for the young birds to feed on. This can hardly be the case in America, because the huachos, although often found addled and putrid, are generally whole.

When at the Rio Negro in Northern Patagonia, I repeatedly heard the Gauchos talking of a very rare bird which they called Avestruz Petise. They described it as being less than the common ostrich (which is there abundant), but with a very close general resemblance. They said its colour was dark and mottled, and that its legs were shorter, and feathered lower down than those of the common ostrich. It is more easily caught by the bolas than the other species. The few inhabitants who had seen both kinds, affirmed they could distinguish them apart from a long distance. The eggs of the small species appeared, however, more generally known; and it was remarked, with surprise, that they were very little less than those of the Rhea, but of a slightly different form, and with a tinge of pale blue. This species occurs most rarely on the plains bordering the Rio Negro; but about a degree and a half further south they are tolerably abundant. When at Port Desire, in Patagonia (lat. 48°), Mr. Martens shot an ostrich; and I looked at it, forgetting at the moment, in the most unaccountable manner, the whole subject of the Petises, and thought it was a not full-grown bird of the common sort. It was cooked and eaten before my memory returned. Fortunately the head, neck, legs, wings, many of the larger feathers, and a large part of the skin, had been preserved; and from these a very nearly perfect specimen has been put together, and is now exhibited in the museum of the Zoological Society. Mr. Gould, in describing this new species, has done me the honour of calling it after my name.

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