The Ostrich: Not Just a Big Dumb Bird

“Gavest thou . . . wings and feathers unto the ostrich? Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in dust, And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them. She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers: her labour is in vain without fear; Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding. What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider.” (Job 39:13—18)

In the final chapters of Job, God seeks to increase Job’s spiritual understanding by using an extended object lesson. The Lord points to the physical world and asks Job if he has the power to create like that or if he even understands how it works. Generally, God asks Job to consider demonstrations of His vast power. But according to some Bible scholars, in Job 39 the Lord singles out one creature that seems to contradict His pattern.

It would seem that God chose a “stupid” bird with poor parenting skills when He points to the ostrich. Then, as if to compensate for its weak points, the Lord adds that the bird can outrun a horse. Some have suggested that God made the bird so stupid that He had to give it speed in order to survive—an apparently weak point in an otherwise convincing line of arguments. Those who reach such conclusions need to re-examine the ostrich. Only then will they appreciate that its parenting, speed, and even apparent lack of “wisdom and understanding” are a significant demonstration of God’s infinite power.

Ostrich feathers and speed

The male ostrich stands over five feet tall at the shoulder and holds its head up to eight feet high. At 300 pounds, it is the largest known living bird. It has a black body with white wing and tail feathers. Females are smaller and drab in color. An ostrich head is about the size of an orange, its brain the size of a walnut. It has two-inch eyeballs, the largest of any living land dwelling animal. Its keen sight and height are useful in spotting predators on its native African plains.

The stubby wings and tail sport fluffy feathers which have gotten the bird in trouble. Egyptian Pharaohs in chariots used to chase ostriches, shoot them with arrows and use their feathers in decorative fans. Ostrich feathers have adorned everything from kings’ crowns to soldiers’ helmets. Hunting has led to the extinction of several ostrich species. Today, most ostriches live in nature reserves, zoos, or ostrich farms where they are grown for feathers and meat.

While ostrich feathers are beautiful, they are useless for flying. People assume they are just for decoration; others suggest they provide a fan to cool the bird. Some evolutionists consider them vestigial: evolutionary leftovers that should be evolving away. But recently, scientists have determined that the ostrich feathers actually help the bird to run. Holding its wings and tail at the proper angle, the ostrich allows the wind to pass over its feathers, helping to lift it so that its strong legs can propel it with fifteen-foot strides. With the aid of its feathers, ostriches can reach forty miles per hour. Compared to the fifteen mph of a sprinting human and the thirty-five mph of a galloping horse, the Biblical description is exact when it says that “what time she lifteth herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider.”

Ostrich Parenting

The male ostrich mates with one or two females and the eggs are laid in one large scooped-out place in the sand. The male stands guard during the day and takes on incubation duties at night. In the morning and early afternoon, the camouflaged females stay on the eggs. It appears there is only a single male in the area. In the warm afternoons, the eggs do not need incubation and the parents wander around in search of food.

During incubation, a bird’s eggs must be turned or the chick will attach to the shell and emerge deformed. When turning its eggs, the ostrich appears to be kicking them around, but they do not break. A chicken egg cracks under eleven pounds of pressure, but an ostrich egg is five times thicker and requires over 120 pounds of pressure to crack. Lion cubs have played with ostrich eggs without breaking them.

When the chicks hatch, the male assumes most parental responsibilities. If a predator approaches, the parent emits a loud call getting the predator’s attention and the chicks freeze. Their coloring camouflages them. Then the parents meander away, often making a wing-flapping ruckus with occasional stops to peck at things. It appears like they did not notice the predator. “She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers.” The predator stalks, but the ostrich keeps ahead of it. When the predator finally dashes, the ostrich “lifts herself on high” and leads the predator farther away. When the predator gives up, the ostrich circles back to its nest.

Deprived of wisdom and understanding

Do older ostriches tell young parents about the need to rotate eggs and that kicking will not break them? Do the chicks freeze because the parents properly instruct them during “predator protection drills?” Does the ostrich plan diversionary tactics to lead the predator away from the family? No. Scientists question if an ostrich-sized brain has enough mental capacity to do that level of thinking or communicating.

These actions are instincts: part of the mental package the ostrich is “hatched” with. Different birds have different instinct packages. For example, different birds build different kinds of nests. But how does a bird figure out how to build its nest? Does it carefully study the nest it hatches in? Does it take lessons from experienced nest builders? No. Even when raised in isolation, never having seen any nest and being offered various building materials, a bird will build the nest of its species, no matter how complicated it is, on the first try. That is the way instinctual programming works.

In a predator-filled environment, it is doubtful if ostriches would have survived long enough to have worked out the needed instincts. The evolutionist’s idea of instincts evolving over many generations does not make sense. A means of transferring the knowledge of what worked to the next generation as an instinct has never been explained or demonstrated.

At first glance, humans may judge ostrich instincts as “stupid.” Kicking its eggs and leaving the family rather than attacking a predator seems irresponsible. But when we do not understand an animal’s instinctual behavior and judge it unwise, or when we apply human standards to an animal’s behavior and judge it inappropriate, the problem is with our judgment—not with the animal nor its instincts.

Scripture tells us “God hath deprived [the ostrich] of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding.” The ostrich does not know why or what it is doing. “Her labour is in vain without fear.” Neither fear of the predator nor concern for the chicks causes its actions. If an ostrich understood its predicament and had to decide what to do, there would probably be a dead chick or two and a wounded ostrich before it was over.

Without wisdom or understanding ostriches respond with a wise plan. But it is not ostrich wisdom. It is God’s wisdom. God knew what He was doing when He designed and created the ostrich. He knew where it would live and what it would face and He gave it a complex set of instincts that permit the species to thrive. Only human intervention has caused ostrich populations to decrease.

All that “knowledge” is passed down for generations in a tiny portion of a walnut-sized brain. Job’s object lesson in ostrich behavior does not demonstrate a weak example of God’s power. Rather, it is an example of God’s incomprehensible knowledge and immense power displayed in the complex minutia of life as well as in the vast greatness of His creation.

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By William Pinkston

Mr. William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.