Huge Birds, in all parts of the World

by Unknown

Travellers in all parts of the world hear strange and surprising tales about the huge or wonderful creatures which the natives have seen, so they say, and which, perhaps, they also declare they have hunted years ago. People believed all these stories formerly, and put them in books for the benefit of others; but matters have altered now. Travellers' tales are not so plentiful, because they are not deceived as they used to be, and when they are told, their truth is searched out. The sea-serpent, for instance, has been 'seen' many times, and once at least—in 1906—by properly trained scientific observers. But people are still unwilling to believe entirely in its existence.

Some of the commonest stories brought home from far countries have been about the existence of gigantic birds, and, when we look into these, we find they are not all fables. In many countries, birds quite unlike any now seen, and of huge bulk, existed before man's time; and it is evident that a few of these bird-monsters—shall we call them?—did not vanish till a recent date, so that human beings had the chance of making acquaintance with them.

Australia, New Zealand, and other countries that are on the opposite side of the world to Britain, are the home of many curious forms of life, animal or vegetable. New Zealand has, in time past, been the habitation of a family of immense birds, which have not died out very long. In fact, some suppose there are retreats there where the birds still live, which are seldom or never visited by men of any race. We have no English name for them, so we must give them the Latin one of Dinornis. A search during 1870, amongst the old cooking-pits, or ovens, in the Province of Canterbury, brought to view sundry remains of the dinornis, being a sure sign that some of the huge birds had been caught and cooked.

Farther back, in 1842, there was an account of a strange bird the New Zealanders knew, and called a Moa, published by a Mr. Williams. They told him it had lived in places difficult to reach amongst the hills, and that their grandfathers had seen the bird alive, but they themselves had not, though they had discovered bones of the species in the mud of some rivers. According to observations, the height of the dinornis may have been from twelve to fourteen feet, or even more; it is supposed the birds were numerous at one time, and lived to a great age. What their food was is only to be guessed, probably vegetable, for the dinornis does not seem to have been a bird of prey. The natives described them as running or striding over the ground with tremendous speed, but nothing was said about their being able to fly.

While searching volcanic sand, Mr. Mantell came upon an immense egg-shell, for which he said that his hat would hardly have been large enough to serve as cup. But the size of a bird does not always indicate what that of the egg is, so this may not have been one laid by a dinornis. Thus, the Apteryx, or Kiwi, of New Zealand, a curious, almost wingless bird, lays an egg which is about a quarter of its own weight.

Madagascar, in the past centuries, had also its big bird, which has been named Œpyornis, but only fragments of its bones have been obtained, and a few eggs, mostly broken. It is reckoned, however, that, the average egg of the Œpyornis must have been a foot long, and about two feet round, six times as big as that of the ostrich. There was a fine bird, yet not equal to these giants, named the Great Auk, which used to be found at the North of Scotland, and elsewhere. It was a good swimmer and diver, but has vanished.