The Middle Eastern Ostrich or Arabian Ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) is an extinct subspecies of the ostrich which once lived on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Near East. Its range seems to have been continuous in prehistoric times, but with the drying-up of the Arabian Peninsula, it disappeared from the inhospitable areas of the Arabian Desert such as the Rub'al-Khali. In historic times, the bird seems to have occurred in two discrete relict populations: a smaller one in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula and a larger one in the area where today the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Syria meet. Towards the Sinai Peninsula, it probably intergraded with the North African subspecies camelus in earlier times. It looked exactly like that form; possibly, the females were of a slightly lighter coloration. The only certain way to distinguish camelus and syricaus was the smaller size of the latter, with only marginal overlap: the tarsus was 390–465 mm long in syriacus versus 450–530 mm in camelus.
The Arabian Ostrich has long had a significant place in the culture of the region. An adult with 11 offspring is featured on the famous prehistoric "Graffiti Rock I" near Riyadh. In Mesopotamia, it was used as a sacrificial animal and featured in artwork, painted on cups and other objects made from ostrich eggs, traded as far as Etruria during the Neo-Assyrian period. In Tang China, an ostrich was a welcome exotic gift fit for an emperor: ostriches figure in the decoration of the Qianling_Mausoleum, completed and closed in 706. The Jewish view of this bird was less favorable. The fact that the female ostrich may leave the nest unattended (because the eggs are too thick-shelled to be easily broken open by predators) is the reason why the bird is contrasted with the parental instinct of the stork in the Book of Job (Job 39:13-18.) This is also the reason why the Book of Lamentations (Lamentations 4:3) refers to the female ostrich as heartless. The Arabian Ostrich is possibly among the birds forbidden to Jews as unclean under the kashrut in Leviticus (Leviticus 11:16), though the Israelites would just as likely have known the birds from the North African subspecies which was extant in the Nile Valley of Egypt at that time.
In Roman times, there was a demand for ostriches to use in venatio games or cooking. These birds usually would have come from the North African subspecies rather than from the Arabian one, as the latter was only found in the unruly frontier regions of the Roman Empire, although it is to be noted that much later, the plumes of the Arabian Ostrich were considered superior material for millinery compared to those of the North African subspecies.
After the rise of Islam, the Arabian Ostrich came to represent wealth and elegance; ostrich hunting became a popular pastime for the rich and noble (if slaughtered properly, ostrich meat is halaal to Muslims) and eggs, feathers and leather were extensively used in handicraft. Arabian Ostrich products as well as live birds were exported as far as China. A Tang Dynasty source states that the "camel bird" inhabiting Arabia is
"four chi and more in height, its feet resembling those of a camel; its neck is very strong, and men are able to ride on its back...".
The Arabian Ostrich was also discussed in Mesopotamian scholarly writings from the time of the Baghdad Caliphate, such as Zakariya al-Qazwini's cosmography 'Aja'ib al-makhluqat wa-ghara'ib al-mawjudat, the Kitab al-Hayawan ("Book of Animals") of Al-Jahiz, or Ibn al-Manzur's dictionary Lisan al-Arab.
The widespread introduction of firearms and, later, motor vehicles marked the start of the decline towards extinction of this subspecies. Earlier, hunting with bow, arrows and dogs had allowed most animals of a group to escape, but rifles enabled the poachers to shoot down many individuals for the sheer fun of it. By the early 20th century, the Arabian Ostrich had become rare. Its main stronghold was the northern Nefud northwards to the Syrian Desert, between latitudes 34°N and 25°N and longitude 38°E eastwards to the Euphrates Valley, and it was most plentiful in Al Jawf Province, where it associated with herds of the Saudi Gazelle and the Arabian Oryx, both also extinct or very rare, respectively, nowadays. Some of the last sightings include an individual east of the Tall al-Rasatin at the Jordanian-Iraqi border in 1928, a bird shot and eaten by pipeline workers in the area of Jubail in the early 1940s (some sources specifically state 1941), two apocryphal records of birds suffering the same fate in 1948, and a dying individual found in the upper Wadi el-Hasa north of Petra in 1966. Remains of old eggs are still found in the former range of the southern subpopulation, which disappeared between the 1900s and the 1920s, probably mainly because of increasing aridity. Some eggshell fragments were collected by St. John Philby from Mahadir Summan, Arabia around 1931. Following analyses of mtDNA control region haplotypes that confirmed the close relationship of the Arabian and the North African subspecies (Robinson & Matthee 1999), a reintroduction project using S. c. camelus was set up in Saudi Arabia (Seddon & Soorae 1999). Today the Somali Ostrich is re-introduced from captivity to the open areas of the Negev in Israel where the Arabian Ostrich lived before.[verification needed]
- Aharoni, I. (1938): On Some Animals Mentioned in the Bible. Osiris 5: 461-478. First page image
- Rothschild, Walter (1919): Description of a new subspecies of Ostrich from Syria. Bull. Brit. Ornithol. Club 39: 81-83.
- Robinson, Terence J. & Matthee, Conrad A. (1999): Molecular genetic relationships of the extinct ostrich, Struthio camelus syriacus: consequences for ostrich introductions into Saudi Arabia. Animal Conservation 2(3): 165-171. doi:10.1111/j.1469-1795.1999.tb00062.x (HTML abstract)
- Seddon, Philip J. & Soorae, Pritpal S. (1999): Guidelines for Subspecific Substitutions in Wildlife Restoration Projects. Conserv. Biol. 13(1): 177-184. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.1999.97414.x (HTML abstract)
- ^ All the Birds of the Bible, by Alice Parmelee, 1959, p. 207
- ^ Although with a nod to the beauty of the bird's plumes: כְּנַף-רְנָנִים (chenaf r'naim), "the charming wing"
- ^ All the Birds of the Bible, by Alice Parmelee, 1959, p. 207
- ^ The correct identification of the בַּת הַיַּעֲנָה (ba't haYa'anah), "daughter of the desert", as ostrich is not certain; it may be the Pharaoh Eagle Owl (Aharoni 1938 and compare NIV Leviticus 11:16).
- ^ Philby, St. John (1933) The Empty Quarter. Constable and Co. scanned book