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ORDER VI. CURSORES.
(Running-birds.) In the Poultry we have seen the power of flying, so characteristic of a bird, reduced to a feeble and imperfect condition ; we come now to species in which it is totally lost, the wings themselves in some being reduced to mere rudiments. On the other hand, as the reduction and gradual extinction of one set of organs are frequently connected with the increased development of another series, in some respects correspondent, so here we find the posterior limbs increasing in size and muscularity with the decrease of the anterior. The pectoral muscles are small and slender, and the breast-bone (sternum) presents an uniform convex surface, like that of a shield, utterly destitute of even the rudiment of the keel, which is so large and prominent in the Swallows, Humming-birds, and other powerful fliers.
The Runners are all large birds, most of them equalling, if not exceeding, the average height and bulk of the Mammalia, to which indeed they exhibit a closer approximation than any other of the feathered tribes. The single Family in which they are all included (for the Bustards seem to be more allied to the Waders, and the place of the extinct Dodos is yet doubtful) is almost confined to the Southern Hemisphere, one species alone reaching to the north of Africa and Arabia. They chiefly inhabit immense plains.
Most, if not all of these birds are remarkable for the peculiarity of their incubation. Many females unite in the occupation of a single nest, in which a great number of eggs are laid, which are sat upon chiefly by the male; who, when disturbed, feigns lameness, an artifice common to birds which nestle on the ground. The hind toe is wanting in all the genera, except the singular Apteryx of New Zealand, where it exists in the form of a small rudiment.
FAMILY I. STRUTHIONIDÆ.
(Ostriches.) The Ostriches are birds of gigantic size, wi the neck and legs greatly developed in length. Their plumage is peculiarly lax and flexible, the barbs being decomposed, very fine, weak, and permanently separate, instead of hooking into one another in that manner which gives so much firmness to an ordinary feather. The elegance of the soft, broad, and gracefully curved plumes of an Ostrich's wing and tail is well known and universally admired. In some genera, the barbs of the feathers are so slight, that the plumage resembles coarse hair.
The wings are small, or rudimentary; the thighs remarkably stout and muscular; the leg and tarsus are very long; the toes are three, or in one genus only two, and in the latter case, but one is furnished with a nail somewhat resembling a hoof. The beak is rather short, and horizontally flattened, the tip rounded; the tongue is short and of a crescent form; the eye is large and full, and the lids are furnished with long lashes.
The various species, which are not numerous, inhabit the vast plains of Africa, South America, Australia, and the great islands of the Oriental Archipelago. One singular form is confined to New Zealand. They mostly associate in flocks, and subsist on grain, fruits, and herbage, to which worms, insects, and other animal substances, are sometimes added. Some of them are able to swim with facility, though the toes are not webbed. They are birds of imposing appearance, but though watchful and suspicious, possess but little intelligence.
Genus DROMAIUS. (Vieill.) In this Australian form of the Struthionidæ, the beak is straight, with the edges very much depressed, rounded at the tip, and slightly keeled along the ridge. The nostrils are large, protected by a membrane, opening about the middle of the upper part of the beak. The head is feathered; the throat nearly naked. The feet have three toes armed with blunt, hoof-like claws.
The Emu of New South Wales and Southern Australia (Dromaius Novæ-Hollandiæ, Lath.) is now well known to us by the numerous specimens which have been sent to this country, some of which have bred in our menageries. In size and height it nearly equals the African Ostrich, for the males are said to attain a stature of above seven feet, and some of the specimens in captivity are but little inferior to this. The hair-like plumage divides along the line of the back, and falls gracefully over on each side; it is generally of a dusky brown, mottled on the under parts with
grey. The feathers are all double, two springing from the same shaft. The wings are invisible when closed, being covered with feathers differing in no respect from those of the body.
The chase of the Emu is a favourite amusement with the colonists of New South Wales. It is, however, not unattended with danger. We learn from Mr. Cunningham, that few dogs, except such as are specially trained, can be brought to attack it, both on account of some peculiar odour in the flesh which they dislike, and because, when driven to extremity, it defends itself with great vigour, striking out with its feet, and inflicting terrible wounds; the settlers assert that it will break the small bone of a man's leg by this sort of kick. To avoid being struck, the dogs, if properly trained, will run up abreast, and make a sudden spring at the neck; and if successful they then soon dispatch the game. The eggs are highly esteemed for the table, and the flesh of the young is extremely delicate; that of the old bird is coarse, but is eaten both by the natives and Europeans, who prefer it even to that of the Kangaroo. “ The rump part,” says Mr. George Bennett, “ is considered as delicate as fowl : the legs are coarse like beef, but still tender." The skin yields several quarts of clear oil, which is valued for many purposes.
The nest of the Emu consists of a few sticks and leaves, scraped together among the brushwood: here it lays from six to eleven eggs, of a beautiful sea-green hue, and nearly as large as those of the Ostrich. During the season they form a large means of subsistence to the natives.
Emus go in large flocks upon the extensive downs, where they feed upon leaves, fruits, and herbage. They swim well, crossing rivers with ease : on land they are very fleet. The voice of these birds is a hollow, inward, drumming sound, produced by a peculiar structure of the windpipe. There is no doubt that they might readily become naturalized in England.