Chap. XXII.

Of the Ostrich.

THE common opinion of the Ostrich, Struthiocamelus or Sparrow-Camel, conceives that it digesteth Iron; and this is confirmed by the affirmations of many; beside swarms of others, Rhodiginus in his prelections taketh it for granted, Johannes Langius in his Epistles pleadeth experiment for it; the common picture also confirmeth it, which usually describeth this Animal with an Horshoe in its mouth.[1] Notwithstanding upon enquiry we find it very questionable, and the negative seems most reasonably entertained; whose verity indeed we do the rather desire, because hereby we shall relieve our ignorance of one occult quality; for in the list thereof it is accounted, and in that notion imperiously obtruded upon us. For my part, although I have had the sight of this Animal, I have not had the opportunity of its experiment, but have received great occasion of doubt, from learned discourses thereon.

For Aristotle and Oppianus who have particularly treated hereof are silent in this singularity; either omitting it as dubious, or as the Comment saith, rejecting it as fabulous.[2] Pliny speaketh generally, affirming only, the digestion is wonderful in this Animal;[3] Ælian delivereth, that it digesteth stones without any mention of Iron;[4] Leo Africanus, who lived in those Countries wherein they most abound, speaketh diminutively, and but half way into this assertion; Surdum ac simplex animal est, quicquid invenit, absque delectu, usque ad ferum devorat:[5] Fernelius in his second De abditis rerum causis, extenuates it, and Riolanus in his Comment thereof positively denies it.[6] Some have experimentally refuted it, as Albertus Magnus;[7] and most plainly Ulysses Aldrovandus, whose words are these; Ego ferri frustra devorare, dum Tridenti essem, observavi, sed quæ incocta rursus excerneret, that is, at my being at Trent, I observed the Ostrich to swallow Iron, but yet to exclude it undigested again.[8]

Now beside experiment, it is in vain to attempt against it by Philosophical argument, it being an occult quality, which contemns the law of Reason, and defends it self by admitting no reason at all. As for its possibility we shall not at present dispute; nor will we affirm that Iron indigested, receiveth in the stomack of the Ostrich no alteration at all; but if any such there be, we suspect this effect rather from some way of corrosion, then any of digestion; nor any liquid reduction or tendance to chilification[9] by the power of natural heat, but rather some attrition from an acide and vitriolous humidity in the stomack, which may absterse and shave the scorious parts thereof. So rusty Iron crammed down the throat of a Cock, will become terse and clear again in its gizzard: So the Counter which according to the relation of Amatus remained a whole year in the body of a youth, and came out much consumed at last; might suffer this diminution, rather from sharp and acide humours, then the strength of natural heat, as he supposeth.[10] So silver swallowed and retained some time in the body, will turn black, as if it had been dipped in Aqua fortis, or some corrosive water, but Lead will remain unaltered; for that mettal containeth in it a sweet salt or sugar, whereby it resisteth ordinary corrosion, and will not easily dissolve even in Aqua fortis. So when for medical uses, we take down the filings of Iron or Steel, we must not conceive it passeth unaltered from us; for though the grosser parts be excluded again, yet are the dissoluble parts extracted, whereby it becomes effectual in deopilations;[11] and therefore for speedier operation we make extinctions, infusions, and the like, whereby we extract the salt and active parts of the Medicine; which being in solution, more easily enter the veins. And this is that the Chymists mainly drive at in the attempt of their Aurum Potabile, that is, to reduce that indigestible substance into such a form as may not be ejected by seidge,[12] but enter the cavities, and less accessible parts of the body, without corrosion.

The ground of this conceit is its swallowing down fragments of Iron, which men observing, by a froward illation, have therefore conceived it digesteth them; which is an inference not to be admitted, as being a fallacy of the consequent, that is, concluding a position of the consequent, from the position of the antecedent. For many things are swallowed by animals, rather for condiment, gust or medicament, then any substantial nutriment. So Poultrey, and especially the Turkey, do of themselves take down stones; and we have found at one time in the gizzard of a Turkey no less then seven hundred. Now these rather concur unto digestion, then are themselves digested, for we have found them also in the guts and excrements, but their descent is very slow, for we have given them stones and small pieces of Iron, which eighteen days after we have found remaining in the giazard. And therefore the experiment of Langius and others might be fallible, whilst after the taking they expected it should come down within a day or two after. Thus also we swallow Cherry-stones, but void them unconcocted, and we usually say they preserve us from surfet; for being hard bodies they conceive a strong and durable heat in the stomack, and so prevent the crudities of their fruit: And upon the like reason do culinary operators observe, that flesh boiles best, when the bones are boiled with it. Thus dogs will eat grass, which they digest not: Thus Camels to make water sapid, do raise the mud with their feet: Thus horses will knable[13] at walls, Pigeons delight in salt stones. Rats will gnaw Iron, and Aristotle saith the Elephant swalloweth stones.[14] And thus may also the Ostrich swallow Iron; not as his proper aliment, but for the ends above expressed, and even as we observe the like in other Animals.

And whether these fragments of Iron and hard substances swallowed by the Ostrich, have not also that use in their stomacks, which they have in other birds; that is, in some way to supply the use of teeth, by commolition, grinding and compression of their proper aliment, upon the action of the strongly conformed muscles of the stomack; as the honor'd Dr. Harvey discourseth, may also be considered.[15]

What effect may therefore be expected from the stomack of an Ostrich by application alone to further digestion in ours, beside the experimental refute of Galen, we refer it unto considerations above alledged; Or whether there be any more credit to be given unto the Medicine of Ælian, who affirms the stones they swallow have a peculiar vertue for the eyes,[16] then that of Hermolaus and Pliny drawn from the urine of this Animal;[17] let them determine who can swallow so strange a transmission of qualities, or believe that any Bird or flying Animal doth separately and distinctly urine beside the Bat.

That therefore an Ostrich will swallow and take down Iron, is easily to be granted: that oftentimes it pass entire away, if we admit of ocular testimony not to be denied. And though some experiment may also plead, that sometimes they are so altered, as not to be found or excluded in any discernable parcels: yet whether this be not effected by some way of corrosion, from sharp and dissolving humidities, rather then any proper digestion, chilifactive mutation, or alimental conversion, is with good reason doubted.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross defends the ancient opinion, Arcana Microcosmi, Book II, Chap. 8, as noted by Wilkin below.

The Ostrich

1 []

2 [Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals, IV.14:

Much the same may be said also of the Libyan ostrich. For it has some of the characters of a bird, some of the characters of a quadruped. It differs from a quadruped in being feathered; and from a bird in being unable to soar aloft and in having feathers that resemble hair and are useless for flight. Again, it agrees with quadrupeds in having upper eyelashes, which are the more richly supplied with hairs because the parts about the head and the upper portion of the neck are bare; and it agrees with birds in being feathered in all the parts posterior to these. Further, it resembles a bird in being a biped, and a quadruped in having a cloven hoof; for it has hoofs and not toes. The explanation of these peculiarities is to be found in its bulk, which is that of a quadruped rather than that of a bird. For, speaking generally, a bird must necessarily be of very small size. For a body of heavy bulk can with difficulty be raised into the air.

Oppian, Cynegetica 3, 482 ff. (with comment by Rittershusius).]

3 [Pliny, HN x(2) (in Holland's ; he says that they digest and "concoct" anything that they eat and that they eat nearly everything, but not specifically that they eat iron.]

4 [Aelian, on ostriches and how to catch them (and incidentally on their diet), De natur. animal. XIV.vii.]

5 [Leo Africanus, or John Leo, Book IX; in the 1600 translation, p. 348, "The ostriche is a silly and deafe creature, feeding upon any thing which it findeth, be it as hard and undigestable as yron. The flesh especially of their legges, is of a slymie and strong tast: and yet the Numidians use it for foode, for they take yong ostriches and set them up a fatting. The ostriches wander up and downe the deserts in orderly troupes, so that a far off a man would take them to be so many horsemen, which illusion hath often dismaied whole carovans. Being in Numidia I my selfe ate of the ostriches flesh, which seemed to have not altogether an unsavory tast." But "feeding upon" is perhaps a wrong translation for devorat, as I may say "he ate a dime" without necessarily implying that he digested a dime. Hence Browne's "diminutively" and "half way into this assertion".]

6 [Fernelius, II. cap. ii: "Magntem ferrum allicere videmus, & Rhabarbarum bilem, agaricum pituitam, epithymium atram bilem: insuper struthiocamelum ferrum coquendo atterere, viperae aut scorpij veneno hominem necari: veratrum & cicutam esse homini pestifera, illo tamen coturnices, hac sturnos vesci. Horum tamen obscurae sunt causae, & adeo occultae ut percipi a nemine possint, nullaque certa ratione comprehendi"; II. cap. xvii: "Ut enim struthiocamelus non elementorum calore, non insito temperamento, sed totius essentiae natura ferrum exterit & concoquit: ita & quaecunque in nobis sunt partes totius substantiae vi concoctionem, nutritionem harumque administras functiones obeunt, quemadmodum motum atque sensum. Partis autem tota substantia est, quam & speciem & interdum facultatem appelamus." Jean Riolan rebuts Fernel in his Commentary on Abditis rerum causis.]

7 [Albertus Magnus de animalibus.]

8 [Wilkin: "But though Aldrovandus saw this once, 'one swallow makes not a summer,' says Master Ross [II.8], who 'fully believes the iron to be digested; he is satisfied that even in that one instance the stomach suckt something out of it.' The ostrich is naturally herbivorous; but though vegetable matter constitutes the basis of its food, and though it is often seen pasturing in the South of Africa, it is yet so voracious, and its senses of taste and smell are so obtuse, that it devours animal and mineral substances indiscriminately, until its enormous stomach is completely full. It swallows without any choice, and merely as it were for ballast, wood, stones, grass, iron, copper, gold, lime, or, in fact, any other substance equally hard, indigestible, and deleterious. The powers of digestion in this bird are certainly very great, but their operation is confined to matters of an alimentary character. But copper, far from being converted into nutriment, acts upon its stomach like poison, and nails very frequently pierce its coats and membranes. Vaillant mentions that one of these birds died in consequence of having devoured an immense quantity of quick lime. Cuvier. In Loudon's Magazine of Natural History No. 6, p. 62 is a relation of an ostrich having been killed by swallowing glass."]

9 [chylification, the production of chyle, chyme as prepared by the bile and pancreatic juices for absorption by the small intestine]

10 [Amatus Lusitanus Curationeum Medicinalium centuriae quat. ]

11 [Or deoppilations: removing of obstructions.]

12 [Or the 1672 siege, the fundament.]

13 ["Probably to be found no where else," says Johnson, "than in this passage." "A frequent Norfolk vulgarization of the word nibble," adds Wilkin. The Oxford English Dictionary (which finds several instances of the word, pace Johnson) informs us that it is a diminutive or frequentative of knab, "imitative" and meaning bite or nibble, and refers us to "knap", which leaves us interested but pretty much in the same place we started, as is often the way with etymology.]

14 [Aristotle, Hist. animal. VIII, 26:

Elephants suffer from flatulence, and when thus afflicted can void neither solid nor liquid residuum. If the elephant swallow earth-mould it suffers from relaxation; but if it go on taking it steadily, it will experience no harm. From time to time it takes to swallowing stones.

To which Aristotle adds that some elephants like olive oil and some don't, and that an elephant that has swallowed iron may faint if it eats olive oil.]

15 [William Harvey (1651) Exercitationes de generatione animalium, Exerc. 6, on chickens and their stomachs: "Cuius rei gratia, pennata fere omnia arenulas, calculos, aliaque quaedam duiora deglutiunt, & in ventriculo una cum cibariis servant; (dum interim in ingluvie nil tale reperitur) habentque hunc ventriculum ex duobus crassissimis & robustissimis musculis (in minoribus avibus carnosis, aut ligamentosis) compactum; ut hoc modo, ceu duobus lapidibus molaribus, binis invicem cardinibus colligatis, molere cibaria, & pinsere possint; vicemque dentium molarium, quibus carent, calculi suppleant."]

16 [Aelian XIV.7 as above, and reading with Gesner (and the Latin based on him) ὄφεως for the textual πέψεως.]

17 [Pliny HN xxviii(66).]

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