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Osra, the Ostrich by Ellen Velvin

There is an old Eastern legend to the effect that, once upon a time, ostriches, in addition to being the largest and strongest birds on the face of the earth, were also the proudest, the most contemptuous, and the most egregiously conceited birds in creation.

So inflated with pride were they at their superior size and strength, that they looked down upon all their feathered companions, taunted and twitted them, and were forever exhibiting their wonderful powers of flight and beauty of form.

On one occasion they intimated to the smaller birds that they were going to fly to the sun, and winged creatures from far and wide, of all sizes and species, and of all colors, came to witness this wonderful feat.

Phoebus, the sun god, furiously angry at such unheard of presumption, waited until they were a little way up, and then punished them by suddenly singeing off their wings.

Deprived of their power of flying, the ostriches fell so heavily to the earth, and struck the ground so violently, that it made a deep mark on their breasts. This has been reproduced in all succeeding generations from that time to this.

This is the reason that ostriches have such tiny wings, and that one and all have this peculiar mark on their breasts. Never, from that time to this, has any ostrich been able to fly. But even this has not entirely subdued their pride and arrogance, and their insufferable conceit.

Osra, who was an African ostrich, had his full share of pride and conceit. He certainly was a very fine, full-grown male bird, and the beautiful, white, flowing feathers of his tail and wings were exceedingly handsome.

He stood eight feet high, and measured over six feet from the tip of his beak to the end of his tail, while his weight must have been fully two hundred pounds.

Handsome as he was, he looked a little out of proportion—like all of his kin. He seemed to be too large in some places and too small in others; while some parts of his body were thickly covered with beautiful, flaky feathers, and other parts had no feathers at all, only a few, little bristles: in some places the skin was quite bare.

His small, flat head and long neck were almost destitute of feathers or hair, and yet his quick, bright eyes were surrounded by long, thick eyelashes, that many a fashionable beauty might have envied.

His long legs, with only a few bristles on the thighs, had a curious effect under the rich feathers of his tiny wings, while the lower parts, covered with large, thick scales and ending in big feet, with only two toes each, were other details which added to his curious appearance.

Osra, at this time, was a very important bird indeed, for he possessed six wives, and, as all these wives had been laying eggs lately, he had had a very busy time.

For the wife of an ostrich considers if she lays the eggs that is all she can be expected to do. The males do all the hatching, even making the nest in preparation for the eggs.

Osra, strong as he was, had a very busy time hollowing out that nest in the sand, and scraping up a small wall all round it so that his wives could, if they liked, place the eggs on end, and so not take up so much space. For all his wives laid in the same nest, and as there were already over twenty eggs, and each egg was a large one, it needed a good big nest.

Not that Osra's wives were over particular about the eggs being actually in the nest, as long as they laid them near it. Ostriches don't believe in being too fastidious; any eggs that happened to be outside the nest would be there for the young ostriches to eat when they were hatched. For, as the wife of the ostrich considers she has done her duty when she has laid the eggs, so the father considers he has done his duty when he has hatched them with the help of the sun. Once they are hatched he is practically done with them, for no ostrich ever made a good parent yet, although in time of danger they will do their very best to guard their young.

There had been a time when Osra had some very exciting fights, but this had been when he was selecting his wives. He did not believe in allowing any other ostrich to get a wife that he wanted, and he had never yet been beaten. More than one fully grown, male ostrich had he killed while having an argument on this point, and he always found that the wives which cost him the most fights and the greatest amount of trouble were the ones he liked the best. This is something like the seal, who does not think any wife worth having unless he has to fight for her.

He had no time for fights now, and, moreover, having got as many wives as he wanted and the ones he wanted, there was no occasion for fighting. And so he led a quiet, domestic life at this time; walked about with his wives by day and helped to get them food, and then, when the sun was no longer strong enough to help in the hatching, Osra went and sat on the eggs, where he stayed until the sun got up again. And so it went on until the young ostriches came out.

Osra felt very proud of them, for they were fine, healthy young birds, and although they had rather a quaint air—being covered with a curious, bristly-looking growth, which made them look like young hedgehogs—from the very day they kicked off the thick, glossy, yellowish-white shell which had covered them, they could run about and even pick up their food from the ground.

They soon ate up the odd eggs that were lying about, cracked them easily with their strong little beaks, and scraped out the inside as though they had been practicing it for years. By the end of a fortnight they were about the size of barn-door fowls, and quite independent.

Neither Osra nor his wives had taken much notice of them during this eventful fortnight, except to glance at them occasionally and acknowledge to themselves that they were exceedingly fine young birds; but, when they were able to trot about in this manner, and were no longer troublesome, the parents occasionally took them for walks, and a very fine family they were, too.

They had many adventures during these walks, some of them very exciting ones.

Once, as they were striding across the plain, they saw a stranger approaching, and although Osra was somewhat suspicious, he yet had sufficient curiosity to let him come quite close, and even among them.

The stranger was a somewhat curious ostrich, and did not walk in quite so dignified or stately a manner as an ostrich usually does. His head and neck moved somewhat stiffly, in curious little jerks, and his legs, although they were very white, were rather a curious shape.

Still there could be no doubt that he was an ostrich, because his back was covered with ostrich feathers, and no one can imitate an ostrich's head and neck.

And so the stranger was allowed to come into their very midst, and just as Osra was thinking of inspecting him more minutely, for he did not approve of strangers, there was a fearful noise, a blaze of fire and smoke, and one of his wives and two or three of his children fell dead.

Osra waited no longer; with a peculiar sort of guttural chuckle he stretched out his long legs, and with tremendous strides—which covered from twenty to twenty-two feet at a time—flew like the wind, followed by his remaining wives and little ones.

Away they went, taking no thought or heed of the young ones so that they got away, and when they had been racing for some time at the rate of twenty miles an hour, Osra was surprised to find himself and his wives back at the very same spot!

There were the bodies of his wife and children, and there also was the stranger ostrich.

Osra was taken by surprise, for although he was not particularly good at hearing, he prided himself on his sight, and he was a little puzzled to know how he could have got to the very same spot again without seeing where he was going.

But, startled as he was, and puzzled as he had felt at this stranger ostrich, he suddenly did what, had he only done before, might have saved the lives of his wife and children.

Kicking out sideways with one of his powerful legs, he knocked that stranger ostrich over, and over, and over, with such a blow that his head and neck flew in one direction, a curious thing, from which came out more fire and smoke, in another, and a straight body with the head and face of a man, or what was left of it, went in a third, and lay perfectly still.

Osra hesitated a little, and then went up and examined each part of the ostrich. It had only been an imitation ostrich after all; for the head and neck were mounted on a stick, the feathers were only sewn on to a skin stuffed with straw, and the curious, little white legs belonged to a man who was now quite dead.

Osra and his wives paced slowly about for some time, and after a while were joined by their little ones, who were worn out and exhausted by the long run.

This was one adventure, and one that frightened the young ones very much. But they had a good time afterwards, for Osra led them, with slow and stately steps, to a farm close by, where there were some nice, young broods of soft, fluffy chickens, and tiny, little yellow ducklings running about with their mothers.

With a cool and indifferent air Osra and his wives took up the little fluffy chickens one by one, and swallowed them whole; the poor bewildered mothers clucking and screaming, and spreading out their wings, wondering where on earth their families had gone.

Having picked up all the fluffy little chickens, they went on and picked up the little yellow ducklings, and the poor mothers hissed and scolded, and did everything in their power to defend their darlings from these huge, horrible, creatures which demolished them so quickly.

While they were doing this the young ostriches set to work and ate up all the stray eggs they could find, one or two small animals, and some young wild birds who were so unsophisticated as to believe them to be mother hens, and so injudicious as to hop quite close to them in order to pick up the corn.

Having eaten all they could find, the family prepared to depart, the old birds, followed by the mother hens and the mother ducks, in terrible distress and furious anger.

In vain they pecked, hissed and scolded at the huge legs and two-toed feet of the ostriches. The legs and feet went solemnly and haughtily on, occasionally stepping on the poor, distracted mothers, who cared not what they did or what happened to them now that they were bereaved of their little ones.

Away they went through the farm with their peculiar, swinging walk, followed by their young ones, who ate up all that came in their way, and felt that this delightful feast more than made up for their terrible fright in the earlier part of the day.

But just as they were going out of the gate of the farm Osra suddenly saw, in a sort of paddock, another ostrich, and stayed behind to say something to her.

[Illustration: "OSRA AND HIS WIVES TOOK UP THE CHICKENS, ONE BY ONE,
AND SWALLOWED THEM WHOLE."]

In some curious way the gate of the paddock opened, and Osra—proving, with all his high opinion of himself, how extremely stupid he could be on occasion—walked gravely in. As soon as he was in, the gate of the paddock closed in the same mysterious way, and it was not until he had been talking to the strange ostrich for some little time that he realized, with an awful shock, that his wives and children had gone, and that he was a prisoner.

Now, he had liked the strange ostrich very much, and, although she had told him that she was not an African ostrich, he thought her very beautiful; at the same time, he did not wish to stay with her altogether, away from his wives and children, and, as soon as he found that he was a prisoner and that they had gone, he did his very best to make his escape.

But the paddock was strong, and, although Osra could run round and round it in a few minutes, he could neither jump nor fly over the fence.

And so, in spite of his great strength, in spite of his huge body and wonderfully muscular legs, he could do nothing, for he could not fly. And so he had to suffer the punishment for the wrong-doing of his predecessors.

He was as savage and dangerous as he could be for a long time, and his captors were extremely careful to keep out of the reach of his hard, straight bill and strong, powerful legs.

For a little while he would not even eat, but this did not last long, and it was by the persuasion of his new friend that he began to take his food again.

Once having done this, he grew more reconciled, and, as he found that his new companion was very beautiful, he began to forget his wives and children, and in time—although not without many struggles to get out and many savage onslaughts at the fences—he settled down into an ordinary African farm ostrich, and was perhaps just as contented as any of his companions.

He never saw his wives and children again; for the matter of that, he did not want to. In time he had six wives of his own at the farm, and strutted about in his grave, dignified and conceited way, proving himself a fairly good husband, but always ready for and somewhat greedy about meals. And, although he was never allowed out on the farm, as some of the American ostriches were, he grew in time to be quite contented, and even fairly happy.