Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ornicopia 6 (Big Bird Part 2)

Walton Ford, Elephant Bird (2002)

785.  Where did the elephant bird live?  On the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa.

Size comparison of the elephant bird with the human, the ostrich and some non-avian creatures.  Each grid segment = 1 square meter.

786.  When did the elephant bird become extinct?   It is believed that early navigators, stopping off for food supplies, caused the extinction of this species.  Probably this happened some time in the twelfth or thirteenth century.  It is generally believed that the elephant bird gave rise to the legendary tales of the roc.**

Subfossilized elephant bird eggs (Musee National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris)

**    For readers unfamiliar with the roc, or who have forgotten the Sinbad the Sailor stories of their childhood, the roc is an enormous, legendary bird of prey, often described as being white in color.
According to art historian Rudolph Wittkower, the roc originated in the fight between the Indian solar bird Garuda and the chthonic serpent Nāga, a word that A. de Gubernatis asserted signified 'elephant' as well as "snake". The mytheme of Garuda carrying off an elephant that was battling a tortoise appears in two Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata (I.1353) and the Ramayana (III.39). The roc appears in Arabic geographies and natural history, popularized in Arabian fairy tales and sailors' folklore. Ibn Battuta (iv. 305ff) tells of a mountain hovering in air over the China Seas, which was the roc.   

        In the 13th century, Marco Polo stated "It was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its quills were twelve paces long and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him, the bird swoops down on him and eats him at leisure". Marco Polo explicitly distinguishes the bird from a griffin.

Friedrich Justin Bertuch, Roc illustration from Arabian Nights,  Bilderbuch für Kinder, 1790-1830 (Eigenbesitz), Fabelwesen


        The scientific culture of the 19th century introduced some 'scientific' rationalizations for the myth's origins, by suggesting that the origin of the myth of the roc may lie in embellishments of the often-witnessed power of the eagle that could carry away a newborn lamb. In 1863, Bianconi suggested the roc was a raptor (Hawkins and Goodman, 2003: 1031). Recently a giant subfossil eagle in the genus Stephanoaetus identified from Madagascar was actually implicated as a top bird predator of the island, whose megafauna once included giant lemurs and pygmy hippopotami (Goodman, 1994).

Gustave Dore, The merchants break the roc's egg (from Fifth Voyage of Sinbad), From Le Magasin pitoresque, Paris, 1865

        One such rationalizing theory is that the existence of rocs was postulated from the sight of the African ostrich, which, because of its flightlessness and unusual appearance, was mistaken for the chick of a presumably much larger species. Ostriches, however, were already well-known in Biblical times. But on the other hand, a Medieval Northern European or Indian traveller, if confronted with tales about ostriches, might very well not have recognized them for what they were.

The Avenue or Alley of the Baobabs, Madagascar

Reader Notes:

1.  Elephant bird text excerpted from:  1001 Questions Answered About Birds by Allan D. Cruickshank and Helen G. Cruickshank (Toronto, General Publishing Company, 1958).
2:  Roc descriptive material adapted from Wikipedia.
3.  Please see prior related entry Ornicopia 5: What is the largest bird known to have lived?
4. All images except the eggs enlarge after clicking.


  1. The drawing of the Elephant Bird looks a lot like a Cassowary. Could the artist have mistaken the two or did the Elephant Bird also have colorful plumage on their heads?

    1. Apparently the cassowary and the elephant bird are related. From Wikipedia:

      "Like the ostrich, rhea, cassowary, emu, kiwi and extinct moa, Mullerornis and Aepyornis were ratites; they could not fly, and their breast bones had no keel. Because Madagascar and Africa separated too long ago for the ratite lineage,Aepyornis had been thought to have dispersed and become flightless and gigantic in situ. A land bridge from elsewhere in Gondwana to Madagascar for the elephant bird-ostrich lineage was probably available around 85 million years ago. However, subfossil Aepyornis fragments have not yet been successfully sequenced for mitochondrial DNA.Some DNA has been extracted."

      Because the elephant bird hailed from Madagascar and the cassowary from Australia, and the painter Walton Ford, who specializes in this sort of work, included a "Madagascar" legend on his painting, I'm assuming that he knew what he was doing, although to a degree, obviously, he was and needed to be guided by imagination.

      He's represented by the Paul Kasmin Gallery in NYC. Perhaps you should drop him a line.

      It's very nice of you to write to me. I hope you visit here again soon and send me a note.

      Curtis Roberts