The text of today’s lesson is taken from Fingers by Oswell Blakeston, Chapter 4, Paragraph 16:
He glanced at Sir Richard Dickie, in fear that the bird might have changed into a charging ostrich of fire.
How common is it that, behind our backs, when we are not looking, a cage-bird, such as a budgerigar or a canary, turns into a charging ostrich of fire?
In all honesty, the answer must be “very rarely” or “I have never known such a thing to happen, in all my days”. For one thing, those who know their ornithology will know that the ostrich is a much larger bird than either the budgerigar or the canary, and would not fit into the average domestic birdcage. Thus, if by magic, some comparatively tiny cage-bird transformed itself into an ostrich, it would do itself a mischief, break some bones, and possibly even be suffocated as it became an ostrich, confined within a cage too small to hold it.
Against this, one could argue two things. If the cage was constructed from flimsy materials, it might be that the burgeoning ostrich would simply cause the birdcage to fall to bits around it as it expanded in size from budgerigar or canary to full ostrichdom. Or, bear in mind that Blakeston specifically describes an ostrich of fire. Would not the enflamed and blazing bird burn the cage to cinders as it underwent its transformation?
Thus, however unlikely the event, we must concede its possibility. But what would cause an ostrich to burst into flame? If anything, such a fate is more likely to visit a canary, for once upon a time canaries in their thousands perched in cages hung from the rafters of coal mines, to act as detectors of noxious fumes and gases. If the miners did not notice that a canary had choked on escaping gas and toppled from its perch, or indeed even if they did notice, an explosion might occur in the mine and the canary be consumed by fire.
Ostriches, being so much bigger than canaries, would prove an impediment to miners down a pit, so one cannot imagine them facing the same awful fiery death as the tinier birds. But then consider the ostrich’s notorious tendency to swallow the most unlikely of materials. One twentieth-century ostrich, for example, was found to have ingested a lace handkerchief, a buttoned glove, a length of rope, a plain handkerchief (probably a man’s), assorted copper coins, metal tacks, staples and hooks, and a four-inch nail. With that kind of diet, one can well imagine the addition of combustible items, and an agency of combustion.
So we see, too, that the idea of an ostrich of fire is not so far-fetched. As for its charging, that would be a perfectly instinctual reaction to a bird finding itself aflame. Whether it would find a pond or lake in which to douse and extinguish the flames in the kind of domestic parlour in which Oswell Blakeston’s cage-bird Sir Richard Dickie finds itself is another matter entirely. Though I suppose one can imagine it charging out of the parlour and into the kitchen, towards the kitchen sink, or up the staircase and into the bathroom, towards the bath. Then it would have to hope that the kitchen sink or the bath were full of standing water, for I am not sure ostriches, which are reportedly particularly stupid birds, would have the wherewithal to insert the plug in the plughole and turn on the taps, with their talons.
Thus we can see that having resolved some of the difficulties posed by the passage, we are not wholly in the clear. There remain insoluble problems. As, perhaps, in life, there ever will be. Let us now sing a hymn.