Ornithological note

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I personally resolved never to buy a car — until I could afford a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, & a uniformed chauffeur. This resolution did not last. In the end I bought several cars, always second-hand & a bit rusted, at the insistence of a certain estranged wife. But in my defence, I never learnt to drive, & never piloted even one of them.

Well, that is only approximately true. My papa taught me how to drive his Volkswagen bug when I was ten or eleven (on an abandoned airfield, at first, & then right through Georgetown, Ontario). But at least let me claim, I have never had a driver’s licence, nor ever applied for one. My reasoning was entirely moral. It seemed cruel to me, to deprive servants of employment, & if one cannot at least hire a chauffeur, what business can one have owning a car? It is to prefer machinery to people.

Our views change over time, & with experience, & just last week my view finally changed on that Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. I don’t want it any more. Someone else can have it. Let me explain.


During moments of (arguably) divinely enforced leisure, last week, I found myself dipped in an old favourite Alexandrian poet. It was Callimachus: his Iambi, & Aetia. He is the kind of poet one might expect to appeal to me: royalist, traditionalist, elitist, Aristotelian. Bit of a religious nutjob, in moments. Too, he was the writer of wickedly cutting epigrams. His thirty-year feud with Apollonius of Rhodes — beloved topic of old Classics masters — once added another attraction, for I never much liked the Argonautica. (From what has since been discovered, in the way of papyri, I infer the two were in fact good buddies, who carried on their theatrical rivalry in public as a private joke. Since guessing this I have found the Argonautica much improved.)

Callimachus is master of the elegy, but more. Most remarkably, he turned the form away from lament, & its rhythmic reinforcement, by insinuating a certain sauciness of tone, & a new rather urbane range of interests; yet without sacrificing that beautiful background thrum of sadness & melancholy, that conveys the transience of all human life. He became Greek model to such Latin imitators as Catullus, Propertius, Ovid. …

In his dayjob at the Library of Alexandria, Callimachus also made himself useful by constructing the Pinakes: the very first library catalogue, & perhaps to this day the most entertaining & informative. Aheu, it only survives in fragments; & a tremendous quantity of his other prose writings — “notes & queries” material on authors & works the Library was preserving against the ravages of time — are themselves no longer extant. We get poignant glimpses of such enterprise, through stray quotes in later authors — themselves patiently copied & collated by the monks of Byzantium, & so on.

But that is not why I wanted to mention Callimachus; or then, Pausanias, to whom I referred for light on the statuary of Helicon; via the excellent modern British classical scholar, Alan Cameron (Callimachus & His Critics, 1995); & then Strabo, naturally (working the ancient tour guides, backwards); then Judith McKenzie’s fabulous new reconstructive work on The Architecture of Alexandria & Egypt (Yale, 2005); finally to land slap dab in the middle of the Deipnosophistae (Book V, around folio 200: the description of the famous Dionysian procession through Alexandria, which Athenaeus apparently cribs from a lost work of Callixeinus).

Why, you may ask, this Ariadnean thread? To what purpose?

A very discerning question, gentle reader. You see, it started with a reference to Arsinoë, the Macedonian princess who became first wife to Ptolemy II Philadelphus, & is obscurely flattered by Callimachus as a kind of “tenth muse.” Her association with a bronze ostrich emerged from the commentary. And my reader will follow the spool perfectly if he realizes that my “search term” must have been “ostrich” throughout. And that the chase would lead back to Alexandria, inevitably.

(Be patient, gentle reader, I’m making this as short as I can.)


I have always loved ostriches, as much for their feistiness as for their delicious meat. (Some good recipes in Apicius.) Ostriches have been slandered by this “head in the sand” myth, for which we may blame Pliny the Elder. They are not so stupid as that; though from what I have heard, anecdotally, not all that smart, either. I am thinking of one notorious individual on an ostrich farm in Kenya who, having taken an irrational dislike to a certain tree, would not leave off charging at it, & then colliding with it, till substantially more damage had been done to the bird than to the tree.

But the standard, one might almost say instinctive ostrich response to a large enemy in an open desert setting, is more clever. It runs away fast (& an ostrich is the world’s fastest biped) till it has made some distance, then suddenly falls down flat against the ground — exploiting the distance, the heat haze, & its natural colouration to become utterly invisible. For it is now perfectly camouflaged as one among innumerable heaps of dirt. (The head goes onto the sand, in this instance, not into; in other circumstances it may go into the sand, but only because the creature is rooting for something.)

There are quite a few Old Testament references to ostriches, & together they paint a picture more accurate than Pliny’s. It is true an ostrich may be slow on the uptake, & careless. But God uses him as a warning to us against being plain dumb, & then trying to compensate with a bad temper. On the plus side, let it be said that the average ostrich, in the state of nature prior to the introduction of firearms (Theodore Roosevelt was astute on this topic), could live a good long time: decades, & in many cases to the full three score & ten. Moreover, they stay, typically, vibrant & healthy to the end. On the minus side, the end almost invariably comes through some conspicuous act of stupidity.

But he is not a coward. An adult male North African Red-Necked [sic!] Ostrich stands eight or nine feet tall, weighs in over 300 pounds, & should never be messed with. He has excellent eyesight & hearing, & should you seriously annoy him, he can chase you at over 40 miles per hour — dropping perhaps to 30 after ten miles or so, should the race become a marathon. Sooner or later he will surely catch you up, for he has an excellent ticker, & stamina like you wouldn’t believe. Let it also be noted, that when push comes to shove, he has a kick that can take your head clean off. Ostriches in nature have been seen killing lions, when very, very annoyed.

And verily, I have sometimes thought that Nature made the ostrich a flightless bird out of her basic sense of fairness. His wings, though useless for aerobatics, have 101 other household uses. Please, no one call them “vestigial” — it is the moa that has no wings at all. An ostrich can box with his wings, like a prizefighter; they are essential to temperature management for both self & eggs; & likewise in maintaining high running speeds. It is thanks to his wings that an ostrich can turn sharp corners at very high speeds, & sprint with 15-foot strides. A masterpiece of intelligent design; until he forgets to use the wings as stabilizers, whenupon he tends to run in circles alas, adding to his reputation as a rather dim bird.

His eyeballs are of a size with billiard balls, but his brain no larger than a walnut, which makes him, I suppose, something of an artist. That eyeball is magnificently constructed for desert landscapes. He can see what is coming very sharply at great distances, through the shimmer. But in the reading range, he would probably need glasses. Thus I offer this word to the wise: you may confound him by swishing a stick before his face. He will be entirely at a loss how to focus on this distraction, or what to do about it, & will promptly abandon any previous intention to, say, reduce you to a mincemeat pulp with his giant razor toenails (one on each foot).

A powerful bird, & notwithstanding his head so ludicrously small, capable of affection for members of other species &, within his intellectual limitations, of being tamed. There were several accounts from old colonial Palestine & Mesopotamia of ostriches which had adopted humans — with a partiality to British officers in full dress. Having picked their officer, they would follow him around everywhere, possibly to the amusement of native Arab spectators. Loyal to a fault (a comparison with Her Majesty’s Arab subjects would be invidious), they would trail after him outdoors & in. When shut outside, such an ostrich will then tap persistently for attention, with his beak on windows & doors. Endlessly, till you shoot him.

There are many more things to be said about the ostrich kind. I must somehow contain my enthusiasm. But let us finally consider: he is the only bird on our planet that yawns. Which suggests to me, less boredom than a real eagerness for employment.


Well, I’m sure gentle reader sees where this going: back to ancient Alexandria, & to that Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who, in addition to libraries & museums, temples, mausoleums, lighthouses & ports, was also keen on zoos. He kept a considerable menage, in the royal quarter, including aviaries of exotic birds. Monarchical government is generally good for that sort of thing. And Philadelphus loved a parade. Let us imagine, … or rather, let us skip over it, & refer the curious reader to Judith McKenzie for a comprehensive account of the very impressive public buildings & sights past which that Dionysian pageant would have passed, & the further spectacles of which it might have consisted. For I did solemnly promise to be brief.

It is the chariots I wish to fix upon gentle reader’s attention. They were pulled by ostriches, in teams & yoked pairs. The chariots themselves were, we can believe, finely decorated; but lo, the ostriches in their gorgeous attire! … That is style!

And it is the reason I shall be trading in my (imaginary) Rolls. Yes, it is an admirable conveyance, in a mechanical sort of way. But I’m tired of settling for wheel rubber, chrome, & grey polished steel.

A chauffeur I will have, the moment I can afford one; & keepers for my ostrich stables, too. And an ostrich yard, of considerable dimensions, for these animals are nothing if not free range. Confine them in an acre or two, & they will sicken & die. They need miles. They need nesting room. Nor will the cock be happy without a few pretty hens — & my Church does not oppose polygamous customs, at least in that species. Granted, this will all require more money than I currently have; more even than I can run up on Visa.

But I do long to ride through the Greater Parkdale Area in a Ptolemaic chariot, pulled by my exquisite ostrich team.